Morgan Freeman once quoted the nautical saying “long foretold, long last; short notice, soon past” to describe his acting career. He meant that it took him along time to achieve success in the acting profession but he hoped his long struggle would mean his career would last and not prove to be just a flash in the pan. His career has lasted and Freeman has had a nearly 30-year film career in major movies.
Freeman’s career started on the New York stage in the musical theater when he took over the role of Rudy the Maître d’ of the restaurant where the famous title number is performed. He was part of the groundbreaking moment when Pearl Bailey led an all-black cast into the production which had been running for years with white performers.
In the 1970s Freeman appeared for seven years and 680 episodes of the children’s television series “The Electric Company.” The show was conceived as a “Sesame Street” for older children and Freeman played a wide range of characters on it, most notably Easy Reader, who helped kids learn to read. Freeman continued to work as an actor after the show went off the air but the small roles in movies and television he secured didn’t seem to mark him as being destined for stardom.
That all changed in 1987, when at the age of 50, Freeman secured a role in a film entitled “Street Smart.” Made by Canon Films an organization that was mostly known for low quality action movies starring people like Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, “Street Smart” starred Christopher Reeve, who was in a career slump at the time. The movie came and went in theaters but Freeman received his first Academy Award nomintion. He then began a movie career that has included five Oscar nominations so far and a win for Best Supporting Actor (“Million Dollar Baby” directed by Clint Eastwood in 2004). The others were for “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989), “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994) and “Invictus” (2009).
Let’s take a tour of his 15 greatest film performances, ranked from worst to best.
15. DEEP IMPACT (1998)
Director: Mimi Leder. Writers: Bruce Joel Rubin, Michael Tolkin. Starring Robert Duvall, Tea Leoni, Elijah Wood.
Freeman is quite compassionate and authoritative as the President of the United States who must inform his people that an asteroid is about to destroy the country. He is quite sensitive as he informs the nation that there are a certain number of people who will be able to be protected in bunkers built into caves that have been prepared in case any event like this ever happened. (BTW government officials at the time said the caves were a nice fantasy and in real life there are no plans unfortunately to protect the US from asteroids.)
14. THE BUCKET LIST (2007)
Director: Rob Reiner. Writer: Justin Zackham. Starring Jack Nicholson, Sean Hayes, Rob Morrow.
This comedy features Freeman and Nicholson as two men diagnosed with terminal lung cancer who decide to spend the rest of their lives doing things they always wanted to do but never did. The film really popularized the phrase “bucket list” and made it a part of everyday vernacular.
13. RED (2010)
Director: Robert Schwentke. Writer: Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber. Starring Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, Helen Mirren.
This action thriller received praise for having a cast that was on average a bit older than the people you usually see in action films. Bruce Willis stars as a former CIA agent drawn back into the business. Freeman plays his mentor who is now in a nursing home with liver cancer.
12. GONE BABY GONE (2007)
Director: Ben Affleck. Writers: Ben Affleck, Aaron Stockard. Starring Casey Affleck, Ed Harris, Amy Ryan.
“Gone Baby Gone” marked the feature film directorial debut of Ben Affleck. The film tells the tale of kidnapping in Affleck’s native Boston. Freeman plays the chief of police investigating the disappearance.
11. UNFORGIVEN (1992)
Director: Clint Eastwood. Writer: David Webb Peoples. Starring Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Richard Harris.
Four Oscars including Best Picture, Director and Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman) went to this film that revived the western genre which had fallen out of favor for a while. Freeman plays the best friend of the lead character, a retired gun fighter.
10. AMISTAD (1997)
Director: Steven Spielberg. Writer: David Franzoni. Starring Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey, Anthony Hopkins.
Based on a true story this Spielberg film tells the story of the trial of a group of slaves who took over the ship transporting them to America. Freeman has a supporting role as the assistant to the lawyer defending the Africans.
9. GLORY (1989)
Director: Edward Zwick. Writer: Kevin Jarre. Starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes.
In another historical drama Freeman plays a Sergeant in the first all-black division of the Northern army during the civil war. Denzel Washington won his first Oscar (Best Supporting Actor) for this film.
8. THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY (2005, 2008, 2012)
Director: Christopher Nolan. Writers: Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer, Jonathan Nolan. Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neesen, Heath Ledger, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, Anne Hathaway.
Freeman had a key role in all three of the Christopher Nolan directed Batman films starring Christian Bale. Freeman plays Lucius Fox an executive in the Wayne Enterprises company who helps Batman with his suit and technical weapons.
7. NURSE BETTY (2000)
Director: Neil LaBute. Writers: John C. Richards, James Flamberg. Starring Renee Zellweger, Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock.
Freeman stars with Chris Rock as two hitmen who kill the husband of Renee Zellweger while looking for a drug stash the man has. In shock Zellweger begins to think she is a character on a soap opera and moves to Los Angeles to become a nurse since that is what the soap opera character does. Freeman has some charming moments with Zellweger as he has slowly fallen in love with her while pursuing her since she unknowingly has the drugs in her car.
6. SE7EN (1995)
Director: David Fincher. Writer: Andrew Kevin Walker. Starring Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow, R. Lee Ermey.
After the mega success of “The Silence of the Lambs” serial killer movies became quite popular. This entry features Freeman as a cop tracking a murderer who kills based on the theme of the seven deadly sins from the Bible. The film has one of the most disturbing endings ever put on film.
5. INVICTUS (2009)
Director: Clint Eastwood. Writer: Anthony Peckham. Starring Matt Damon, Leleti Khumalo, Julian Lewis Jones.
Freeman received his fifth Oscar nomination for playing South African President Nelson Mandela. The film is a sports drama depicting how a soccer game helped heal the wounds the country suffered after years of apartheid.
4. MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004)
Director: Clint Eastwood. Writer: Paul Haggis. Starring Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Jay Baruchel.
Freeman won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for this boxing movie about a young woman who desperately wants to succeed in the sport. Freeman plays one of the first people to believe in the woman. The movie also won Best Picture, Director and Actress for Hilary Swank.
3. STREET SMART (1987)
Director: Jerry Schatzberg. Writer: David Freeman. Starring Christopher Reeve, Kathy Baker, Mimi Rogers.
Freeman achieved something almost impossible when he received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for this film. The movie came from a company known for making somewhat schlocky films and was released early in the year to little box office success. The film would have been quickly forgotten but a number of critic’s groups remembered the movie at the end of the year and awarded Freeman their prizes for his role as a brutal pimp. That led to Freeman receiving his first Oscar nomination and igniting his film career.
2. DRIVING MISS DAISY (1989)
Director: Bruce Beresford. Writer: Alfred Uhry. Starring Jessica Tandy, Dan Ackroyd, Patti LuPone.
Freeman had originated this role in a small off-Broadway theater a few years prior to his film career taking off. He plays a chauffeur who is hired to drive an elderly woman who can no longer drive for herself. As the years go by the two become “best friends” as Miss Daisy famously tells Freeman in the film’s final scene. The film won four Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actress for Jessica Tandy in the title role.
1. THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994)
Director and writer: Frank Darabont. Starring Tim Robbins, James Whitmore, Bob Gunton.
Based on a Stephen King short story, “The Shawshank Redemption” famously was a major disappointment at the box office when it was first released. Word of mouth grew about the film and it eventually became a staple on cable television. The beloved movie tells the story of two prisoners who befriend each other in prison and the escape plan the one who is wrongly imprisoned hatches. Freeman’s gentle narration of the film helped him land a Best Actor nomination, which was among the films total of seven nominations including Best Picture.