Review: He's back, and this time he's drenching Miss Driver

He's peaked and troughed more than once in his career, but there are no diminishing returns for Morgan Freeman. He tells Ivan Waterman about his three latest films, one of which may earn him another Oscar nomination. He might just be a Wall Street banker in his tailored blue lounge suit, crisp blue shirt and yellow silk tie. The only clue is the out-of- place gold earrings. But even they kind of make a style statement for Morgan Freeman.

"Hi there!" he says sportily before settling down in a seat. He is greying in a most distinguished manner from his well-trimmed hair to his goatee beard. He is tall, slim and the epitome of composure and self-control, as you'd expect. At 60 he seems to be "peaking", which concerns him deeply. The last time he "peaked" he got in deep trouble - back in the Eighties when work simply dried up.

He recalls: "I had been working pretty solid since 1967 and I was busy until December 1980. Then nothing, for a year, nothing... over a year... nothing. I thought my career was over. I had enough to keep groceries on the table but that was it. I was considering driving a cab. For real." It was his old buddy Paul Newman who finally came to his rescue with the offer of a small role in his intensely personal family drama Harry & Son.

So, the veteran Hollywood star informs you that he doesn't trust too much to luck or chance. Wrapping his hands tightly together he insists: "There has been NO change, believe me. I always think my last job is really going to be my last job!" That's as maybe. His track record, it must be said, has few equals. One critic described him as "the greatest actor in America today". And while he was working on the thriller Seven with Brad Pitt, the teen idol's then girlfriend and co-star Gwyneth Paltrow reckoned he was "the sexiest man alive".

Mention that description and again he switches into funny man mode. "Oh really..." he says, slowly choosing his words. "Doesn't that title guarantee me celibacy for the foreseeable future?"

He's clever with words is Morgan Freeman, who was born in Memphis and raised in Charleston, Mississippi where he returned to live with his wife Myrna, a former costume designer he met on Broadway, some six years ago.

New York wore him down after three decades of social claustrophobia. "The whole area had become yuppified," he explains. "The ordinary people were living rough in the streets. Half the people in that city don't know who their next door neighbour is. I looked at my wife one morning and said ' What ARE we doing?"

"So we got out of there back to our roots and I couldn't be happier. After a year I was just another person on the block. I'm right at home. If any strangers turn up and start asking questions, my address is the last information they get!"

Here's the sailing fanatic on the crest of quite a wave easing nicely towards his 61st birthday in June. He has three Oscar nominations in the bag: the volatile pimp Fast Black in Street Smart, chauffeur Hoke Colburn in Driving Miss Daisy and Red Redding in The Shawshank Redemption. He was equally as faultless in the Civil War epic Glory.

And movie afficionados still chuckle over the way he and Alan Rickman stole Robin Hood's thunder every time they surfaced in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner. The producer - Mr.Costner - responded by snipping away at certain scenes.

In the coming weeks Freeman will be showing up wearing three different faces. He has been warned to be on stand-by to accept another Oscar nomination for his work in Steven Spielberg's controversial historic epic Amistad. Playing leading slavery abolitionist Theodore Joadson in mid-19th century America clearly came close to the heart of an actor who, as a child, attended an all-black High School in a segregationist state.

Despite being born into slavery, Joadson is something of a dandy scholar. Spielberg's haunting if overlong drama is a based on real-life study of a 40-strong group of kidnapped Africans who rose up and seized their slave ship off the Eastern seaboard, murdering most of the crew.

The casting of his colleagues is gold plated. Sir Anthony Hopkins is Founding Father and former President John Quincy Adams, and Matthew McConaughey plays a property lawyer keen to make a name for himself. The constitution itself is under stress as the Abolitionists beat a noble pathway to the Supreme Court in the defence of democracy.

In the opposition camp is Peter Postlethwaite as a prosecutor and Nigel Hawthorne, turning in yet another subtle cameo as the weak President Martin Van Buren.

Freeman troops back to the commercial cinema for the murder mystery Kiss the Girls. He plays a forensic psychologist on the trail of a serial killer who "collects" young women in North Carolina. It gets very personal when his niece (Ashley Judd) is abducted.

Finally, in the small-town storm drama Hard Rain he pops up as a villain with a kind streak, anxious to relieve security guard Christian Slater of the $3 million in his armoured van without hurting a soul. The natural elements come into play with torrents of rain lashing the area. Minnie Driver provides the glam interest and in her own words "took an almighty soaking".

Freeman occupies the same kind of space in many American hearts as Denzel Washington, Danny Glover, Wesley Snipes, Samuel Jackson and Will Smith as a glowing example of what can be achieved by a talented minority force in a commercially driven, cut-throat business. Yet the father of four, whose son Alfonso is himself a jobbing actor in Los Angeles, refuses to segregate himself into any ethnic quarter. "I don't want to be a role model to black people," he says. "I want to be a role model to everyone. I'd like everyone to look up to me... black and white."

In Hard Rain Freeman doesn't get as drenched as Slater or Driver, and even reckons he had a tougher time climbing a sandhill in Glory. However, he was required to pilot a jet-ski for a major action sequence in the film. He bellows with glee: "Another 15 years and maybe I'll think about downsizing. Until then, let's just say I'm ready... for anything. Hey, I've never played an astronaut!"

'Amistad' is released on Feb 20, 'Kiss the Girls' opens on 6 March and 'Hard Rain' on 3 April

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