'Shawshank Redemption' at 25: Why Morgan Freeman almost balked at playing 'Irishman' Red

Morgan Freeman in 'The Shawshank Redemption'
Morgan Freeman in 'The Shawshank Redemption'

Morgan Freeman was enchanted by Frank Darabont’s script for The Shawshank Redemption when he first read it. He was even more tickled when his agent told him the filmmakers were interested in casting him to play Ellis “Red” Redding, the inmate and prison smuggler serving a life sentence who befriends the wrongfully convicted Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) in the revered drama, which was released 25 years ago, on Sept. 23, 1994.

Freeman wasn’t however, familiar with the original source material penned by Stephen King.

"Then someone sent me the novella,” Freeman told Yahoo Entertainment during a 2014 Role Recall interview. “And I read the first page and Red was this Irishman. So I closed the book. I never read another line. I was like, ‘I can’t play an Irishman!’”

Indeed, in King’s 1982 novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, “Red,” as he’s simply called, and who narrates the story, describes himself as Irish. But writer-director Darabont and company clearly intended to make the character an African-American man in extending the role to Freeman, who of course eventually signed on — and subsequently earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for the part.

“I didn’t play an Irishman,” Freeman laughed during our interview. But Red's past ethnicity is winked at in the film version. “Red. Why do they call you that?” Andy asks him when they first meet in the prison yard. “Maybe it’s because I’m Irish,” Red retorts.

Shawshank, which earned a total of seven Academy Award nominations but won exactly zero, is considered one of the most beloved American films ever. In fact, according to IMDb, it's the top rated movie — as voted on by millions of users – OF ALL TIME, a distinction it's held since 2008, when it passed The Godfather.

“I know, it’s bizarre and wonderful, isn’t it?” Darabont told Yahoo Entertainment in a 2016 interview. “It’s a wonderful feeling.”

The filmmaker, who would eventually adapt versions of King’s The Mist and Green Mile before launching The Walking Dead on TV, had his own trepidations about the film.

“When we were done shooting, I was exhausted, and not sure if I ever wanted to direct again, because it really takes it out of you. But I felt we had a really good movie, and that if audiences gave it a chance, they would like it. Once we had a cut of it and started doing test screenings, that proved to be the case. The people who saw it really dug it. The trick was getting people to see it. When it came out, it really didn’t do well at first. There was some talk about the awkwardness of the title — you know, that the title worked against you.”

Darabont credited cable mogul Ted Turner, who once owned Castle Rock, the production company behind Shawshank, for making the film a hit. “Turner started airing Shawshank on TV like every five minutes for years, because I don’t think it cost him anything!” the filmmaker recalled with a laugh. “There was this endless opportunity for people to catch up with it on a Turner network, and so I bless Ted Turner as well. Because he played the heck out of it.”

Meanwhile, despite what the internet would have you believe, Shawshank is not Freeman's personal favorite, even when it comes to just his own filmography.

“They’ll say that, because it’s maybe one of the best films made,” he said. “But it never quite made my best list, no.”

Watch Part 2 of our Role Recall interview with Morgan Freeman:

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