It’s difficult to imagine a time before Denzel Washington was Denzel Washington, before that name meant anything to anyone beyond the man himself. He’s now one of the best actors alive, with two Oscars and several of the best movies ever made in his past.
But, once upon a time, Washington was just an ambitious young performer annoying Morgan Freeman by trying to badly re-choreograph a simple on-stage sword fight. It’s a wonder he ever got to where he is today, with his new movies almost always box office dynamite.
While honoring Freeman at The Kennedy Center in 2008, Washington explained that he first met his idol in 1979 when he had just left acting school and got a job with the New York Shakespeare Festival, performing in Central Park.
Freeman was playing the title character in the play Coriolanus, while Washington was cast in a minor role. But the part did give him the opportunity to cross swords with Freeman, which he thought was his chance to make a mark on the production.
Washington said: “I had a scene where I had this three-hit sword fight with Morgan. And of course, I thought the play was all about my character. So I went up to Morgan and I said: ‘I think maybe I could wound you, cut, slice’. Morgan looked at me with that Morgan Freeman gaze, you know the one I’m talking about, that serious look.
“He said to me: ‘First of all, what’s your name?’ I said: ‘You don’t know me, I’m Denzel’. He said: ‘Alright, Denzel. We click the swords three times, click click click. I stab you, you fall down, and you die. Quickly’.”
It’s fair to say that Washington’s attempts to make himself the hero of this particular Shakespeare play fell on deaf ears. It’s probably for the better, and gave Washington a valuable lesson for his career.
The two actors, though, would eventually become friends. They worked together on the big screen in the 1989 movie Glory, by which time Washington too was a marquee name. In fact, Washington won his first Oscar for that role.
For more on Washington, find out our picks for the best Denzel Washington movies and learn why he got complaints about one of his most violent scenes. You can also find out which classic Western Morgan Freeman thinks is one of the best movies ever.