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Man with a golden heart

Morgan Freeman has returned to Broadway with one goal in mind: to try to kill the Morgan Freeman you know and love. He’s sick of playing the all-knowing cop, the principal with a heart of gold, the voice-of-reason sidekick and the ultra-cool president. He’s tired of playing God — he’s done that twice.

Freeman has a nickname for that kind of role: Mr. Gravitas. And he wants him gone. “There’s a finite number of characters who are like that before you start repeating yourself ad nauseam. I think that’s the bigger danger than being Mr. Gravitas,” he says.

“You look at your last work and say, ‘That’s four characters in a row that said, did, thought, acted the same. They’re going to find me out any minute now.’”

That unsettling feeling has led Freeman back to the stage in a role that is the very opposite of Mr. Gravitas — an insecure man described as a “bleary bum”.

Academy Award-winner Freeman, 70, joins Frances McDormand and Peter Gallagher in a production of Clifford Odets’ 1950 drama, The Country Girl, directed by Mike Nichols. Freeman plays Frank Elgin, a stage actor long past his prime who is battling both insecurity and an alcohol problem.

When a juicy part in a Broadway-bound play comes along, a battle of sorts breaks out between his long-suffering wife (McDormand) and a producer (Gallagher) banking that Elgin will reclaim his acting chops.

Though Freeman is known primarily for movies such as Glory, Driving Miss Daisy, Million Dollar Baby and Evan Almighty, the theatre is where he got his start and it still represents a challenge.

“If you stop working on stage, you sort of stop working hard at acting,” he says. “Movies don’t really call for as much as the stage does. You have to pump it out on stage.”

Freeman’s other New York theatre appearances include The Mighty Gents, for which he received a Tony Award nomination in 1978, and The Gospel at Colonus in 1988. He was last on stage here in 1990 in The Taming of the Shrew.

“It takes a minute,” he says. “You have to wait until the instrument gets its muscle back. It’s riding a bicycle. You get back on it, the handlebars wiggle just a little bit and pretty soon you’re back to where you were.”

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Freeman grew up in Chicago and the Mississippi communities of Greenwood and Charleston. He joined the Air Force until dreams of being a fighter pilot fizzled. Then he dedicated himself to acting.

By the 1960s and ’70s, Freeman was in New York. He made his Broadway debut in Hello, Dolly! and managed to reach a vast audience with the children’s TV show The Electric Company. He earned raves as the chauffeur in an off-Broadway production of Driving Miss Daisy and had a breakthrough performance as a bad-guy pimp in the film Street Smart, which earned him an Oscar nomination. He also turned 50.

Hollywood finally called, and Freeman started pumping out several films a year. Freeman has an unfussy style of acting — never needing the dredging up of painful emotions, the endless research or anguish over deeper meaning. He says he relies on his experience. “I got arrested for hitchhiking on the Santa Ana Freeway in Los Angeles and I was taken to jail, so I don’t need to go and spend a night in jail to play someone in prison,” he says.

“If you’re going to play a brain surgeon, you just have to learn how to say the words,” he adds. “You don’t have to go and learn how to cut open somebody’s scalp. I think acting is acting. Being is something else.”

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