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More than an hour into Monday night’s Chaplin Award gala, honoring Morgan Freeman with the 43rd annual prize, Robert De Niro had the well-heeled crowd at New York’s Lincoln Center laughing and applauding as he gently roasted himself, fellow actor Michael Douglas and President Barack Obama.
De Niro began by zinging the POTUS, joking that Freeman’s role as President in 1998’s Deep Impact inspired Obama’s White House run.
“According to reports, after seeing the film, Barack turned to his friends in Kenya and said, ‘I want to be president, too — if only I had a birth certificate,'” De Niro said to laughter and applause. He went on to joke that Obama has faced greater challenges than “a giant asteroid.”
De Niro continued: “Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out so great for him. Morgan’s President Beck only had to deal with a giant asteroid hitting earth and wiping out mankind. President Obama has had to deal with a Republican Congress.”
He then moved on to Douglas, his and Freeman’s co-star in 2013’s Last Vegas, a comedy about an elderly group of friends who go on a trip to Sin City.
“[In the movie], Michael Douglas learns that you don’t need a woman 40 years younger to find happiness, only 20 years younger … so just like real life,” said De Niro.
The venerable actor then used his recent roles to jokingly disparage himself and praise Freeman.
“Morgan, I wish I had your career,” said De Niro. “You’re the president, you’re God, you’re Nelson Mandela for God’s sakes. Me, in the last year, I’ve been an intern, a dirty grandpa and Bernie f—ing Madoff.”
While De Niro, Danny Glover, Matthew Broderick, Helen Mirren and Christopher Nolan, the latter appearing via video, all praised Freeman, remarking on his exceptional abilities as an actor, Freeman’s Street Smart director Jerry Schatzberg and his Shawshank Redemption co-star Tim Robbins, appearing via video, all took the opportunity to gently rib the honoree.
Robbins joked that after he introduced himself to Freeman on the set of Shawshank, Freeman said, “Nice to meet you, Ted,” and still calls him by the wrong name. But they’re not the only ones who can’t get it right. Robbins recalled that he and Freeman often compare notes on the latest mangled version of the Shawshank Redemption‘s title that fans have come up with, claiming that people can’t seem to remember the name of their movie. “It completely explains why the film didn’t make money when it first came out,” he said. “People saw this movie and said, ‘That was a great movie,’ but they can’t remember the title.” Towards the end of his remarks, Robbins jokingly addressed Freeman as “Milton Friedman.”
Schatzberg also recalled a humorous incident with Freeman, explaining that the actor started munching on a piece of fruit during their meeting about 1987’s Street Smart.
“In the middle of our conversation, Morgan reached down into his bag and pulled out a banana,” Schatzberg recounted. “He started to peel the banana. And I said to myself, ‘That’s audacious.’ He continued peeling the banana. He started eating the banana. He didn’t even offer me a bite.”
The director ultimately realized Freeman was right for the role of Times Square pimp Fast Black, which became his breakthrough role and earned him his first Oscar nomination. While working on the film, Schatzberg said, he was struck by Freeman’s humility.
He explained that the actor told him not to bother with shooting a close-up of him in a scene, arguing that Schatzberg wouldn’t use that shot.
Joking that he found it unusual for an actor to turn down a close-up, Schatzberg said, “I realized how generous Morgan was as an actor to worry about the scene, not his ego.”
In closing, Schatzberg didn’t miss the opportunity to pay tribute to the fruit that stood out during his meeting with Freeman, pulling out a couple from the podium as he said, “All I can say is thank goodness for bananas.”
Freeman is still humble, even after being nominated for four more Oscars and winning the supporting actor prize for his role in 2004’s Million Dollar Baby. On the red carpet ahead of Monday night’s gala, Freeman suggested that this honor meant as much to him as any other.
“Everytime someone pats you on the back, it doesn’t matter where they reach from, they’re patting you on the back saying ‘well done,'” he told The Hollywood Reporter.
Inside, Freeman said that while he’d been laid-back about the ceremony leading up to it, the tributes he received from his colleagues left him overwhelmed.
“The people who’ve come up here and spoken about me have turned my head. I didn’t know all of that was thought about me,” he said. “I hoped.”
Freeman went on to say that when he initially found out he was receiving the Film Society’s annual award, he first wondered if it signaled the end of his acting career, asking aloud, “Are they going to get someone else to do the voiceover for March of the Penguins II?”
He added: “The second reaction was to take a few moments to look back on my career and realize that all of these different films, all different roles, all of that travel, all wonderful actors was me living the dream, just like now.”
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