He may have only received his first major big-screen break at the age of 50 in 1987’s Street Smart, but Morgan Freeman has created such a distinguished body of work in the quarter of a century since then that Thursday night he was named the 39th recipient of the AFI Life Achievement Award for a career in film. Just after the honor was announced by the American Film Institute on October 11th, I ran into Freeman at an awards-season event and he was ebullient, telling me, “Now I am one of the big boys.” During Thursday’s warm ceremony on Sony’s Stage 15 and at the after-party nearby on the lot, Freeman still seemed just as happy about the honor.
In fact, after he accepted the award from his Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby co-star and director Clint Eastwood and made his speech, he became the first of the AFI’s 39 honorees to actually remain on stage and sing along to one of his theme songs, “Lean On Me,” from the 1989 film in which he starred as real-life school principal Joe Clark. Earlier in the evening, Garth Brooks and a large chorus sang the song — actually twice, as a snafu forced them to perform it again. The black-tie industry crowd didn’t seem to mind at all.
Among those in attendance who offered toasts or onstage tributes with personal anecdotes about Freeman were Sidney Poitier, AFI Board of Trustees chair Howard Stringer, AFI president and CEO Bob Gazzale, Betty White, Samuel L. Jackson, Rita Moreno, Don Cheadle, Matthew Broderick, Helen Mirren, Cuba Gooding Jr, Matthew McConaughey, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker and Tim Robbins. Filmed tributes were also shown from Chris Rock, Dan Ackroyd, Steven Spielberg, David Fincher and Ashley Judd.