His career has spanned over 50 years and still his presence on our film and television screens are never dull. Morgan Freeman’s gift for embodying a wide range of roles has ensured he’s stayed relevant and his unmistakable voice has commanded our attention every time. In celebration of his 80th Birthday, we take a look at 1o of his most memorable roles.

NOTE: Just like our 80th Birthday tribute to Jack Nicholson, do not consider this list exhaustive. Again see it as a glimpse into the wide-ranging and eclectic performances that Morgan Freeman has given and continues to give.

Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding- The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Michael: Now considered by many as one of the greatest films of all time, The Shawshank Redemption began its theatrical release very modestly. Subsequent critical evaluation has rightfully placed this film in the upper echelons of filmmaking. Morgan plays Ellis “Red” Redding, a convicted murderer in the notorious Shawshank prison. With his narration and his friendship with our main protagonist Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), Red helps to teach Andy and the audience the realities of ‘institutionalism’ and the maltreatment of inmates. He’s a wise counselor of sorts who knows the prison system well and the effects it can have even on good men. Interestingly the character was written as a white Irishman in the Stephen King novel, but director Frank Darabont knew that only Morgan Freeman could deliver the authority and humanity needed to play Red; it’s another testament to Freeman’s talent that he can transcend racial lines and play in this case a character even better than his literary counterpart’s depiction.

Eddie “Scrap Iron” Dupris-Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Michael: Million Dollar Baby is an inspirational yet deeply saddening film, not without its controversy. For his role as a half-blind elderly boxing trainer and former fighter, Morgan finally won his first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Again starring opposite Clint Eastwood, his portrayal of Eddie Dupris acts in many like Red from the Shawshank Redemption. He’s a narrator of sorts and a guide for the audience seeing the pivotal actions of the main characters through a unique lens. Behind the beaten and old exterior, lies a tough fighter trying to prove he still has worth. Morgan has mastered the art of playing the wise man, and here again, he plays the part to perfection. He even counsels Clint Eastwood character (a man older than he) showing his profound understanding, yet still with uncertainties and vulnerabilities.

“People say it’s a movie about boxing, but… I don’t agree at all. I don’t think it’s a movie about boxing. Boxing is like a platform. It’s just a stage where this is played out.”

Morgan Freeman on Million Dollar Baby

Fast Black – Street Smart (1987)

Nate: Morgan Freeman’s breakout role was in this Jerry Schatzberg drama on journalistic ethics. Where so much of the current political discourse is centered on the notion of “fake news”, Street Smart is literally about fake news when struggling journalist Jonathan Fisher (Christopher Reeve AKA Superman) fabricates a story to meet a deadline. When Fisher’s description matches up with street pimp Fast Black (played by Freeman), the savvy criminal uses the story as an alibi against his pending murder charges. The film itself is mediocre but Freeman is magnetic here, flipping from slapstick thug just looking for an easy out to menacing figure as the story progresses. Of his five Oscar-nominated roles, this would be Freeman’s first and the actor’s favorite among them.

Narrator (Various)

Nate: It’s impossible to talk about Morgan Freeman without mentioning his iconic voice. On narration and voice over work alone, we could establish a strong list that ranges from nature documentaries to Ken Burns’ war films. There is just something about his deep yet soothing tenor that fits perfectly with narration, it has the rare ability to amplify a scene without distracting from it, a skill that few possess and even fewer as notable for the talent than he is. When Morgan Freeman speaks, everyone listens, perhaps even more than his on-screen roles, it will be his voice that leaves the longest legacy in the sphere of pop culture. Truly one of a kind.

““I went to school, To study how to be an actor and in that school, Los Angeles City College, I had a voice and diction instructor who was very good at his job and so you had to learn to speak and sound your final consonants, things like that,”

Morgan Freeman on the origins of his trademark voice

Hoke Colburn -Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

Michael: Based on the stage play of the same name by Alfred Uhry, in which Morgan also starred, he reprised his role for the film, nabbing himself a nomination for Best Actor at the Oscars. He plays the chauffeur to an elderly and wealthy white Jewish woman in Atlanta, whose headstrong attitude and occasionally pompous attitude make relations with others very difficult. It doesn’t help that our story takes place during the height of Jim Crow laws and rampant segregation and racism. As Hoke, Morgan is both defensive but understanding of the events around him and Miss Daisy’s behavior. They eventually form an unlikely friendship that lasts over 25 years. It’s a sweet, sentimental and very poignant film that highlights the disastrous effects of prejudice and how simple good humanity can overcome it all. It won Best Picture and Best Actress for Jessica Tandy, and although Morgan didn’t win it was clear that even then at 52 he was still a considerable leading man.

God – Bruce Almighty (2003)

Nate: Freeman plays God opposite Jim Carrey and Jennifer Aniston in this early 2000s comedy. The man known now for playing authority figures (Presidents, CEOs, dignitaries) now gets to play the ultimate authority figure. In a role where he largely plays straight man to the zany comedic stylings of Carrey, Freeman still gets in a couple good bits demonstrating a talent for deadpan comedy and the occasional zinger. It’s not the most prestigious role for Freeman in terms of quality or award nominations but it does reaffirm his status as a convincing figure of power, an image he has since capitalized on numerous times that if nothing else has afforded him extended job security in an industry that is constantly searching for the next big thing.

Ned Logan-Unforgiven (1992)

Michael: Unforgiven was a passion project for director/star Clint Eastwood and proof he could still deliver in the western genre in his 60s. Morgan plays a retired gunfighter/bounty hunter who joins Eastwood’s William Munny on one last mission. They are to avenge a group of prostitutes that have been attacked and confront the corrupt and morally righteous sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman) who has the town of Big Whiskey under his total control. Both Freeman and Eastwood play the part of now reluctant murderers very well, but when the time comes to act they revert to their original criminal ways naturally. The movie is an interesting character study and again Morgan holds his own very strongly against acting heavyweights like Eastwood, Hackman, and Richard Harris. Then again he is an acting heavyweight himself, so is it any surprise?

William Somerset – Se7en (1995)

Nate: Freeman plays detective William Somerset who on the verge of retirement is called in to tackle one last case involving a mysterious serial killer who ties his heinous acts to the seven deadly sins. Like many instances in his career, Freeman plays the supporting role to then fresh-faced Brad Pitt and our mysterious killer (who I won’t reveal for anyone who has yet to see the film) but his reserved nature in this role gives the movie its calming presence, a nice foil to the volatility that is displayed by Pitt and the se7en killer throughout. This allows director David Fincher to manufacture the film’s thrilling ending, where inferior films would choose to end guns blazing in a chase or shootout, Se7en goes for the cerebral effect, one I would argue is much more effective than the alternative and one that is possible thanks to Freeman’s veteran presence.

Nelson Mandela – Invictus (2009)

Nate: Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood have been frequent collaborators over the years yielding some of the high points in both these icons careers (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby). They reunite again for Invictus which sees Eastwood direct Freeman as he plays Nelson Mandela, the famed leader of South Africa as he rallies his divided country together with help from the national rugby team.  It’s not your traditional sports movie as Eastwood does manage to distance himself from making the film a political statement but he does utilize Freeman to tie together many of the film’s themes. Though he adopts an accent to mimic his real life counterpart, Freeman’s brevity for compelling speech remains. Given Freeman’s immense talent in this regard, I am fairly confident he could rally a crowd around anything if that was his desire.

Lucious Fox- The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012)

Michael: As the CEO of Wayne Enterprises, Lucius Fox is one of the very few people to know of Batman’s real identity. Though lesser in extent than Alfred is, Lucius too is a father figure of sorts to Bruce Wayne and a wise and older voice to guide him in his challenges as the Caped Crusader. While the role isn’t a large one, it is certainly very important. He provides Batman with all the sophisticated technology and armor he needs to fight against his formidable foes. He’s a visionary inventor experimenting with high-tech concepts and developing new forms of weaponry to be used in the Batmobile and Batman’s suit. It’s definitely a fun role and Morgan is able to play the wise sage and also have an excited and witty demeanor knowing he’s  behind all the great gadgets.

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