Laurence Fishburne: Legendary Actor of Integrity & Merit
Laurence Fishburne has built his legacy playing legendary characters. This Augusta, Georgia native launched his acting career as a ten-year-old. Since then, he’s led a distinguished career by deliberately choosing expansive roles that empower African Americans’ cultural identity. A current resident of the 1930s apartment complex Castle Village in Hudson Heights, Fishburne can see Route 1 via the George Washington Bridge from his home. Here are highlights from Fishburne’s personal journey as an African American actor—and their connection to the Route.
Laurence Fishburne’s Childhood and Breakout Role
Laurence Fishburne was born on July 30, 1961, in Augusta, Georgia. His parents separated in Fishburne’s early childhood, and he credits his mother, who was a teacher, with raising him after their divorce. Although Fishburne never lived with his father, he remembers him as “a good guy [who] loved me.” Fishburne moved with his parents to Brooklyn at age four, where his father worked for the Department of Juvenile Justice in NYC as a “jailer:” the person responsible for transporting arrested teens from the courthouse to the jail. Before working for the city, Fishburne’s father was a cook in the Korean War. “He was a major authority figure in my life,” says Fishburne. His father’s presence and personality influenced the way Fishburne portrayed his roles—from their often-militant and commanding nature to their well-kept style. “My old man liked to dress well,” Fishburne says, “and he kept his shoes shined always and wore a tie when he was going out.”
While Fishburne’s father helped mold his persona, his mother was the one who galvanized him into acting action. She recognized her son’s talent early on and began encouraging him to audition when he was eight or nine. Fishburne resisted until she told him he would be paid. Incentivized by the possibility of a cash payoff, Fishburne auditioned for—and landed—his first role as a young boy in the Manhattan-staged play “My Many Names and Days.” Fishburne continued acting in small parts until, at age 14, he starred in the Francis Ford Coppola directed blockbuster, Apocalypse Now. This 1979 film—now considered one of the greatest of all time—took two years to film. Fishburne lied about his age in order to get the part, and recalls it as a formative experience, that “was really the beginning of me thinking of myself as an artist,” as well as “the beginning of my understanding of cinema.” Beyond working with Hollywood’s highest-caliber actors and directors, Fishburne was influenced by the fact that the Philippines-shot film “was in a place where most of the people looked like me, so it opened up a world of possibilities.” Here, Fishburne’s referencing his vaguely Asiatic features: a unique physical characteristic that a DNA test showed as not necessarily correlating. “It appears that I am mostly West African, English, Irish, and Scottish. But the West Africans—there was definitely trade between West Africa and China.”
This type of self-awareness around his race and the possibilities—or lack thereof—continued to inform Fishburne’s career decisions. Upon the completion of filming Apocalypse Now at age 17, Fishburne had more creative options than many actors. Still, he reports that he “was certainly frustrated and angry about the fact that there weren’t as many roles available to people who looked like me.” He began taking on roles that allowed him to define his career on his own terms while turning down high-paying roles that portrayed African Americans in ways he disagreed with. Fishburne’s role as a drug lord’s right-hand man in King of New York, for instance, helped him work through his anger at the industry’s inherent bias. Meanwhile, he turned down a role in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, because he felt that the burning of the pizza parlor overlooked his first-hand experience of the solidarity present in urban African American communities. (Fishburne would later star in Spike Lee’s School Daze, saying “that was attractive to me as a Black person. School Daze was still dealing with apartheid. And my character is correct: Black people are still catching hell all over the world.”) This same moral compass led Fishburne to turn down a role in Pulp Fiction because the heroin usage struck him as cavalier.
Fishburne’s adamant adherence to his identity as a Black actor—and the integrity thereof—has helped him prioritize roles that depict African Americans in an authentic, powerful, or original light. He’s portrayed Nelson Mandela, wise-man Morpheus in the Blockbuster hit The Matrix, the father to an inner-city youth in Boyz in the Hood, and a flight cadet in the based-on-real-life-movie The Tuskegee Airmen. Throughout all his roles, Fishburne has not only paved the way for other Black actors, but he’s accumulated a level of experience that grants him unique insights into African Americans’ potential in the film industry. In an interview with The Guardian, Fishburne says that “things have become considerably better for men of color since I was born. But I’d say that we’ll be really getting somewhere when things get better for women of color.”
His performances have earned him the NAACP Award, the Tony Award, the Gregory Peck Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Drama Desk Award twice over—the second time for his role portraying former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the one-man play Thurgood, which showed at the Boothe Theater on Broadway in Manhattan. Nowadays, in lieu of seeing Fishburne perform along the Route, you can catch him in the television series Black-ish.
Elisia Guerena Dec 23, 2020 People
Elisia Guerena Dec 23, 2020
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