Morgan Freeman's AFI Tribute: Betty White, Helen Mirren and Clint Eastwood Honor the Actor

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for AFI
Morgan Freeman at the AFI tribute

Sidney Poitier, Rita Moreno and Samuel L. Jackson were among those who praised Freeman, who received the institute's Life Achievement Award.

Hollywood’s oldsters kicked up their heels as the American Film Institute paid tribute to Morgan Freeman, the recepient of its 39th Life Achievement Award, Thursday night at Sony Studios in Culver City.

The testamonials were bookended by appearances from Sidney Poitier, 84, and Clint Eastwood, 81. At 89, Betty White joined a high-stepped chorus line to sing Eastwood’s praises, while Helen Mirren, 65, and Rita Moreno, 79, both testified to the 74-year-old Freeman’s ageless vitality.

Even though Freeman made his acting debut at age 9 in a school play and went on to build up a solid resume of stage and TV work, he did not find his breakthrough role on screen until 1987’s Street Smart, released the year he turned 50. His performance as a Times Square pimp earned him his first Oscar nomination. Two years later, in a complete change of pace, he played the chauffeur Hoke Colburn in Driving Miss Daisy for which he received another Oscar nom and general regard as one of the best actors on the current scene.

Freeman, who is also known for his commanding voice, provided his own introduction as the evening got under way with an introductory video, describing the founding of the AFI in 1965 and its long line of Life Achievement honorees, before the camera revealed that Freeman himself was providing the voice-over as he said, with a smile, “Tonight the  honoree is me.”

Poitier called the proceedings to order, by formally introducing Freeman, who he hailed as “a prince of the path of acting,” before the two embraced.

After a dinner catered by Wolfgang Puck, the program proper got underway with the suprise appearance of White, who was driven on stage to the theme of Driving Miss Daisy. Although she shares one film credit with Freeman -- 1998’s Hard Rain -- White said she’d actually always wanted to appear with him on stage in Hello, Dolly!. (Freeman was part of the all-black Broadway cast that Pearl Bailey headlined in 1968). And so White jumped right into a parody version of the musical’s title song -- backed by an all-male chorus line -- to the tune of Hello, Morgan.

Moreno, who appeared alongside Freeman in Children’s Television Workshop’s The Electric Company in the '70s, paused for a moment to take stock of the setting: Sound Stage 15, where such classics as The Wizard of Oz and A Night at the Opera were filmed, because it’s where she made her singing and dancing debut at age 16 in The Toast of New Orleans. And then she launched into a sexy, free-form poem in praise of Freeman that had the room applauding.

Mirren, who recently starred with Freeman in the senior citizen action movie RED, began her presentation by quoting the poet Lord Byron about the ravages of age --  to which she responding with a dramatic “Bullshit!”. Introducing a series of clips in which Freeman proved he knows how to throw a punch, she said, “In movie after movie, this AARP member has proven without a shadow of a doubt that he can kick some serious ass.”

Others who rose to offer praise to the actor included Samuel L. Jackson, who observed “in a world of too much cubic zirconium, you are the real thing”; Don Cheadle; Matthew Broderick; Cuba Gooding Jr.; Matthew McConaughey; Casey Affleck, who confessed, “He can intimidate the shit out of people”; Forrest Whitaker; and Tim Robbins. Chris Rock, Steven Speilberg, David Fincher, Ashley Judd and Renee Zellweger appeared in videotaped messages.

Finally, Eastwood, who has directed Freeman in The Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby and Invictus, talked of the easy rapport the two have developed.

“He is the most effortless person to be around and to act,” Eastwood said of Freeman, who won the Oscar as best supporting actor for playing an ex-boxer in Baby.

“I don't know if it’s proper to love another man, but this is as close as I'm going to get to it,” Eastwood added as he summoned Freeman to the stage to accept the award.

Looking out across the room, Freeman summed up his emotions by saying, “This is easy to take, but hard to believe. Where I come from in Mississippi, they call this walking in high cotton.”

Freeman continued, “For me, heaven has always been about acting in the movies. Acting for me means living -- it’s what I do. And tonight, you told me I am pretty good at it.”

As a final thought, he added, “I’m proud to e an actor, although for this one night, you have made me feel like a star.”

The evening also included welcoming remarks from Howard String, Sony Corp. CEO and chairman, who also serves as chair of the AFI’s board of trustees.

It included a musical performance by Garth Brooks, who led a choral group in a rousing rendition of "Stand By Me," the title of one of Freeman’s films.

And also included the presentation of the Franklin J. Schaffner Alumni Medal to film editor Steven Rosenblum.

The program, which will be broadcast by TV Land on June 19, was produced by Bob Gazzale, AFI president, and Chris Merrill for AFI and directed by Louis J. Horwitz.