It was Tim Robbins’ Andy Dufresne who pulled off the big screen’s most famous prison break, the wrongly jailed innocent man who “crawled through a river of s*** and came out clean on the other side”.
But it was Morgan Freeman and that famous voice, deep and calming, instantly recognisable, who told his story.
Almost 30 years since its release, The Shawshank Redemption is still widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, pipping The Godfather to the number one position in movie database IMDB’s rankings.
In an era of reboots, remakes and revivals, prequels and sequels and spin-offs, the story of what happened to Dufresne and Freeman’s character Red after they – 27-year-old spoiler alert – were reunited on that beach in Zihuatanejo has long been pondered by Shawshank fans. Was the Pacific as blue as it had been in Red’s dreams?
But Freeman, 84, has told Sky News that while he has wondered himself what it would be like to revisit the characters, the “what happened next” is probably best left unwritten.
“I think it’s best to do it in the mind,” he says. “I really don’t think I’d be that interested in going back and trying to recapture that. Although Tim and I do remain very close friends still.”
Back behind bars to explore real-life prison breaks
The question of Shawshank comes up as Freeman is stepping behind bars once again, this time to narrate a new documentary series on some of history’s most daring jailbreaks, from the island of Alcatraz to Mexican drug lord El Chapo.
The series also features the Second World War jailbreak from the Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp – on which that other famous prison break film The Great Escape is based – and the UK’s biggest ever bust-out, in which IRA members escaped Belfast Prison.
Freeman’s company Revelations Entertainment has produced the series, and the veteran actor says it is a subject he has long been interested in.
“Just getting into the inner workings of how a prisoner, somebody in a maximum security institution, starts thinking about, ‘how am I going to get out of here, and then pull it off?’ The ingenuity gets to you, the very daring of it,” he says. “To dare to think that you could and to work at it, is just fascinating.
“If you think about how much effort and thought, dedication goes into making an escape from a maximum-security institution. The first thing you think is that no, it’s never going to happen, you can’t do that. It’s like digging a grave with a spoon… and the most fascinating thing about any of these is the fact that they pulled it off.
“Trouble is that getting out of prison is not getting away. It’s solving one problem. They’ll eventually get you and bring you back.”
From playing a prison convict to playing God
Throughout his career, Freeman has played a huge range of characters, that famous commanding voice lending itself to leaders from US presidents to Batman’s business manager, Nelson Mandela and even God. His Twitter and Instagram bio is simply: “That actor whose voice you recognise.”
Has he ever thought about insuring it, like Jennifer Lopez has reportedly insured her bottom?
“No, I’ve not though of it,” he laughs. “I didn’t think I ever needed to insure it. I don’t know what it means, to insure your voice… is it maybe if I got hoarse, I’d get money for it? I don’t think so.”
Freeman is also an Oscar winner; while he missed out for Shawshank (Forrest Gump cleaned up in 1995), 10 years later he went on to win the best supporting actor prize for his role as a former boxer in Million Dollar Baby.
However, he says awards ceremonies are not really his thing nowadays.
“I don’t watch them anymore, and I don’t know who’s there,” he says. “I haven’t seen all of the movies [nominated]. I’m kind of a recluse now, so… [there’s] not quite the same fascination that I remember having about the awards. All of them.”
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His work on screen is showing no signs of slowing down, though, with films including The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, Vanquish and Coming 2 America released in 2021 and several more planned for this year, as well as his documentary work with Great Escapes.
He says he wants people to know that this isn’t about giving “pointers” on how to escape from prison.
“It’s fascinating to learn that human ingenuity exists in prison,” he says. “But, you know, we still have courage, we still have dreams, we still have daring, we still have desire. And the desire to get out of a maximum security prison that drives you the way that these stories tell us they are driven, is just really fascinating.”
Great Escapes With Morgan Freeman premieres in the UK at 10pm on 23 February, on Sky HISTORY