People in Film: Laurence Fishburne

Posted by NicoleWoods | April 21, 2014
Laurence Fishburne | Unplumbed Depths of Talent

In William Eubank’s mind-bending sci-fi thriller, THE SIGNAL, Laurence Fishburne plays an enigmatic character both in form and function. After an attempt to trap the hacker Nomad in the Nevada desert goes horribly awry, Nic (Brenton Thwaites) awakes to find himself in a florescent-lit, windowless room being questioned by Dr. Wallace Damon (Fishburne), a strange man in an all-encompassing hazmat suit. Covered up by protective gear, swathed in government secrecy, officially discreet, Fishburne plays a character impossible to read, but one, in Fishburne’s masterful hands, that projects endless possibilities. While Slug Magazine says that he “plays the character you love to hate,” others have perceived Fishburne’s character in a very different light. In all, the role is a testament to Fishburne’s power of suggestion. With only part of his face and eyes visible, Fishburne creates a mysterious depth with a remarkable range. When casting Dr. Damon, Eubank knew he needed an actor with a lifetime of experience and a repertoire of characters to tap into in order to play a figure who speaks volumes without saying very much at all, a man who seems all powerful while appearing almost completely guarded. As such, Fishburne was a logical choice. “He knows how much weight his voice gives to scenes,” Eubank explains, “and knows how to use the slightest expression to the utmost extent.”

Laurence Fishburne | Growing up With Talent

Captions: Left to right, Laurence Fishburne in One Life To Live, Cornbread, Earl and Me and Apocalypse Now.


Born in Augusta, GA in 1961, Laurence Fishburne moved to Brooklyn’s Park Slope to be raised by his mother, Hattie, a math and science teacher. She quickly observed her young son’s talent for acting. “My mom was really astute in observing that I was very happy at home when I was performing,” remembers Fishburne. But his father, who remained in Georgia, helped his son realized his destiny in a more indirect way. After “he would visit once or twice a month and take me to the movies,” Fishburne recalled to Parade Magazine, “I'd go home and act out the parts.” At age 10, he was cast in the off-Broadway drama In My Many Names and Days. And at age 12, he landed a re-occurring role on the TV soap opera One Life To Live. Then the next year he was chosen as one of the central characters in Joseph Manduke’s urban drama Cornbread, Earl and Me. By 14, he’d already made a name for himself on stage, screen and TV. But a bigger break came that same year from a little white lie. Claiming to be 16, Fishburne was cast as the 18-year-old GI grunt Tyrone 'Clean' Miller in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Fishburne remembered how, while he looked old enough, there were many ways he wasn’t quite mature enough for the character. “There was this one scene in Apocalypse Now where my character had to talk about his love of Playboy magazine and I was really bad because I didn't know what I was talking about,” Fishburne told The Guardian. But working with more experienced actors during the film’s very long production period gave Fishburne the maturity and encouragement he needed as a young actor. When his co-star Martin Sheen told him, “Did anyone ever tell you that you're a really good actor?” Fishburne remembers, “He gave me something I needed at that moment as a human being."


Laurence Fishburne | An Actor’s Education

Caption: Above, Laurence Fishburne in Death Wish II; Below, King of New York.


Laurence Fishburne grew up on film and TV sets, a fact he realized came with a certain price. As he told Parade Magazine, “The hard part as a child actor is you don't get to be a child…When I was working, I was often away from school, from my friends. In other words, I was away from my childhood.” On the other hand, Fishburne gained an education that imbued him with a remarkable respect for his craft and work. “I came up around people who took acting seriously, who cared about acting, cared about the theater and, in the '70s, made movies that said something that mattered,” remembers Fishburne. “Their ethos and credo became mine.” Through the 80s, Fishburne worked consistently, mostly in character roles. While he often got traditional genre roles – from a gang member in Charles Bronson’s 1982 vigilante franchise Death Wish II to the hospital orderly in the 1987 A Nightmare In Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors –– he also made his mark in some of the most respected films of the period. In 1984, he reteamed with Francis Ford Coppola to play the Harlem gangster Bumpy Rhodes in The Cotton Club. The next year he showed up as Swain in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple. By the 1990, critics and audiences were starting to pay attention to him. The New York Times highlighted how his character Jimmy Jump in Abel Ferrara’s gritty crime drama King of New York was “played with energy and cunning.” And Washington Post added, “He holds nothing back here; he just straps on his rocket pack and soars.”

Laurence Fishburne | Getting His Due

Caption: Clockwise, top left: Boyz n the Hood; The Tuskegee Airmen; What’s Love Got To Do With It.


In the 90s, Fishburne took front and center in roles that defined his depth and range. In John Singleton’s seminal indie drama Boyz n the Hood, Fishburne, playing Furious Styles, a dad grappling with his son’s gang life, cut a memorable figure, one that handles what could’ve been a stock character, as the New York Times points out, “with enormous dignity and grace, and makes Furious a compelling role mode, someone on whom the whole film easily pivots.” In Bill Duke’s 1992 thriller Deep Cover, Laurence Fishburne got his first starring role. Playing an undercover cop thrust into the double-crossing world of designer drugs, Fishburne, Roger Ebert wrote, “is strong and complex in a role that marks him for more leading work.” The next year, his searing performance as the abusive Ike Turner in Brian Gibson’s What's Love Got to Do With It brought him a Oscar nomination and scores of critical praise. The New Yorker wrote, “Fishburne’s astonishing portrayal of Ike is what holds the movie together.” From playing an abusive conflicted husband and musician, Fishborne then soared as Hannibal Lee in the HBO film The Tuskegee Airmen, a role that got him both a Golden Globe and Screen Actor’s Guild nomination. For the next few years, Fishburne excelled in role after role. In Oliver Parker’s Othello, Fishburne played the title character – shockingly the first African American to play the Shakespearean hero in a Hollywood film – and was applauded for his “stirring and powerful interpretation” by Reelviews.

Laurence Fishburne | A Film Icon

Caption: Laurence Fishburne in The Matrix


In 1999, Laurence Fishburne appeared in a film that would not only take him to a new level, but to a whole different dimension. As the mystical figure Morpheus in the Wachowskis’ wildly successful sci-fi epic The Matrix (as well as its sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions), Fishburne became an international movie star, as well as an iconic figure of science fiction. For the directors, finding the character and casting him went hand in hand. Fishburne explained how Larry Wachowski wrote him, “I had a dream about a man who wore mirrored sunglasses and spoke in riddles and when I met you and heard your voice I knew that you were that guy.” It proved exactly the right choice as “the always magisterial Fishburne,” as the Los Angeles Times characterized him, became a figure recognized around the world. The actor joked to Los Angeles Magazine, "I'm so grateful for The Matrix…because Morpheus has been burned into the subconscious of 12-year-old kids. Which means that, if I play my cards right, I can be around for a very long time." His observation proved more than prophetic as Fishburne has gone on to have a career that includes both big-budget adventures (like Mission Impossible III, Mystic River, and Man of Steel) as well as smaller poignant films (Akeelah and the Bee and 21), in roles that speak to 12-years-olds around the world, as well as the adults they grow into.

Laurence Fishburne | On Stage and TV

Caption: Above, Laurence Fishburne, Lynne Marie Stewart, and Paul Reubens in Pee-wee’s Playohouse; below, Thurgood.


While Fishburne was becoming a movie star, he never lost sight of his early career on stage and television. If 1999’s 12-years olds were discovering Fishburne as Morpheus, a decade before 12-years-olds might have caught him as Cowboy Curtis on Pee-wee’s Playhouse, singing to children from 1986 to 1990 in his cowboy hat and jheri-curl mullet. And in 1992, Laurence Fishburne won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor for his part in the short-lived TV show Tribeca. And while he didn’t return to a reoccurring TV series role until 2008, when he took on the part of Dr. Raymond Langston on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Fishburne continued to show up in a number of well-received TV movies.  After appearing The Tuskegee Airmen, Fishburne starred in Joseph Sargent’s 1997 historical drama about the 1932 Tuskegee Study of Untreated Blacks with Syphilis in Miss Evers’ Boys, a role that got him an Emmy nomination and Image Award. At the same time, Fishburne, who started on the stage as a little boy, continued to show up at the theater. In 1992, Fishburne won a Tony for his performance as Sterling in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. In 1994, he wrote, starred in and directed Riff Raff, a noirish urban drama set in NYC. And in 1999, he appeared as King Henry II, opposite Stockard Channing, in a revival of The Lion in the Winter. In 2006, Fishburne teamed up again with his What’s Love Got To Do With It co-star Angela Bassett for August Wilson’s Fences. For Variety, Fishburne “shapes the character’s oratory with masterful melody and rhythm that thrum with the energy of the blues.”  And in 2008, Fishburne shone in Thurgood, a one-man performance based on the life of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Having played the part to much acclaim on stage and in theaters across America, in 2011, HBO turned his performance at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts into a film event. The New York Times (reviewing both the play and film) wrote, “ At every point Mr. Fishburne conveys the essence of a man who seemed to enjoy his life deeply, a man who savored his accomplishments with none of the grandiosity that so often afflicts the exceptional.” In many ways, the same thing could be said for Fishburne himself.


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