NEW YORK - 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 said.
"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 theater 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 said during an interview before a performance at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. "Movies don't really call for as much as the stage does. You have to pump it out on stage."
In his new play, Freeman steps into a role previously played over the years by Jason Robards, Hal Holbrook and Bing Crosby. One thing the current production had to address was Freeman's race.
He's used to that. Freeman has stepped into several roles not specifically written for black actors, such as "The Shawshank Redemption," "Unforgiven" and "Deep Impact."
"When we first started rehearsing and talking about it, I said, 'You know we have to deal with the fact that there's an 800-pound gorilla on the stage,' " Freeman said.
The production deals with it in a subtle way: When Gallagher's character visits the Elgin home for the first time, he asks McDormand's character for Frank. When she says he isn't home, the visitor, looking confused, asks for Mrs. Elgin. "I'm Mrs. Elgin," she replies.
"So now we've dealt with the 800-pound gorilla," Freeman said. "From then on, you understand this play a different way. You get a whole different sense of it, I think."
Freeman's other New York theater 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" with Tracey Ullman in Central Park.
"It takes a minute," he said. "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, Tenn., Freeman grew up in Chicago and the Mississippi communities of Greenwood and Charleston. He joined the Air Force, but 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!" with Pearl Bailey and managed to reach a vast, hungry audience with the children's TV show "The Electric Company."
For five years, Freeman played Easy Reader, the smooth, singing Pied Piper of literacy. "Top to bottom, left to right, reading stuff is out of sight," he was prone to say.
But, like Mr. Gravitas, he had to shake it up.
"The first couple of years were magical. It was a whole new idea in presentation, this whole new educational concept. I embrace it, but it was still just a job and I didn't want to get stuck in it," he recalled. "I had nightmares of walking down the streets of New York in my 70s and people are going, 'Easy Reader!' "
The year 1987 became pivotal. 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. That led to Mr. Gravitas.
Maybe it's the languid Southern tinge to his baritone or the elegant knowingness that seems to emerge in every word, but Freeman can deliver a line like few others.
As forensic psychologist Alex Cross in "Kiss the Girls," he scans a crime scene and instantly understands the killer: "I think killing's not his ulterior motive," he intones. "This guy's a collector."
Behind bars in "The Shawshank Redemption," his character is a moral rock, despite being a confessed murderer. "Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane," he says in a voice-over.
And in "Million Dollar Baby," Freeman plays a former boxer with a no-nonsense dignity. "There's magic in fighting battles beyond endurance," he says at one point.
"He's a man of such incredible integrity that it shines through in everything that he does," observed Dana Ivey, who starred opposite Freeman in the off-Broadway production of "Driving Miss Daisy." "When they want someone with integrity, that's who they hire."
Freeman has an unfussy style of acting - no need to dredge up painful emotions, do 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 said.
"If you're going to play a brain surgeon, you just have to learn how to say the words," he added. "You don't have to go and learn how to cut open somebody's scalp. I think acting is acting. Being is something else." *
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St. (between Broadway and 8th Avenue), through July 20. Shows 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, $76.50-$100, 800-432-7250, www.thecountrygirlonbroadway.com.