I was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1937. Later, my mother took me to live in Chicago. This was during the Second Great Migration, when millions moved from the South to the Northeast and Midwest in the hope of finding jobs and opportunity. So I lived a brief but intense period of my childhood in the Windy City. Life in the ghetto was hard. There wasn’t work for everyone, you had to find other ways to get by. My mother thought the neighbourhood we lived in wasn’t safe for a young boy and kept me indoors as much as she could. It was tough for her. My father had left us a while ago and she struggled to find the cash to pay for heating in winter or sometimes even to put food on the table. I’d get up in the morning and there would be ice on the bathroom mirror. Buying me a watch was the last thing on her mind. If ever I needed to know the time, I’d ask a passer-by or look for a clock on a building. Then one day, actually my birthday, my grandmother came by. She handed me a small package wrapped in brown paper. I tore off the wrapping and inside there was a watch. Just a plain, ordinary watch but to me it was worth all the gold in the world. In the late 1950s I was out of work and someone offered me a few dollars for it, but there was no way I was ever going to sell that watch.
I wanted to learn to fly, so I joined the US Air Force and used my pay to buy my second watch. I wanted girls to think I was a pilot, so I looked for one that would give the impression I spent my life up in the air. Which I didn’t, given that I was a mechanic on the ground! As for the watch, it never kept good time. After leaving the Air Force I moved to Southern California. Hollywood wasn’t far, so off I went to Tinseltown. I was 21 when I started to seriously consider acting as a career. Like so many others, I thought the movies were waiting for me open-armed. How wrong I was. It was another nine years’ hard slog before things started to pick up. Having said that, I know actors who had it rough for much longer than that!
Looking back, I can say there were times I went hungry, times I wondered how I would get by. A lot of this was after I’d left Los Angeles for New York. I’d go from one audition to another, hoping for a callback. I wasn’t fussy about the part on offer, all I wanted was to keep my head above water. One day I did a reading where I felt I’d really given my all, that I’d done a good job, but I still didn’t land the role. I came out of the audition into the pouring rain and, as I was crossing Broadway, I looked down and saw a twenty dollar bill floating in the gutter. For me it was a sign not to lose hope. Destiny was knocking at my door.
Yes, when I reached 30 and started appearing on TV shows. Television pays well, so well in fact that I was able to buy a yacht and sail the Atlantic. I remember coming up against what sailors call “survival storms”. I passed a few icebergs too, but my biggest fright was the time I was swimming when suddenly I heard an enormous “boom!”. At first I thought another boat had run into mine but it was actually a huge wave crashing against the hull. The ocean was turning rough. Fortunately I was able to scramble onto the deck to safety. Because I needed a watch that could withstand the elements out at sea, I invested in a Rolex Submariner on an alligator strap to remind me of my Mississippi home, but also for show. There are situations where you need instruments you can rely on. Your life depends on it. Whenever I’d sail into harbour, the old seadogs would be eyeing my watch more than my boat! It would certainly have been easier to steal. Just hang around on a corner and wait for me to walk by. Once I’d realised that, I kept it hidden under my sleeve. I mean, why tempt the devil?
Sure. As a teenager, I’d earn a dollar or two as a caddie for wealthy golfers. One of them always took off his watch before taking a shot. I can still see that huge gold Rolex! It was as heavy as a gold bar. He’d slip it off his wrist and ask me to hold on to it while he played. Maybe he thought it would affect his centre of gravity and ruin his swing. Who knows how much it cost but I can assure you I didn’t take my eyes off it for the entire 18 holes. If I’d lost it, imagine how many years it would have taken to replace it. (laughs)
Never! People asked me that when I played God in Bruce Almighty opposite Jim Carrey and I told them I looked in the mirror every morning and wondered what I was doing on Earth (laughs). When I made The Shawshank Redemption, I was often asked if I had done research into prison environments. I can think of a few actors who would willingly spend two or three nights in jail if it would help them better understand a role. Personally I prefer to sleep in my bed at home. The one and only time I’ve researched a part is when I portrayed the great Nelson Mandela. I was already full of admiration for him. He was quoted as saying that if ever his memoir, Long Walk to Freedom, was made into a film, he wanted me to play him. Anyway, I had the chance to visit him in Johannesburg, with my wife, and while we were there I slipped into the conversation that if I were to play him, I would have to hold his hand and watch him up close. And he agreed. For a number of years I had access to him whenever we were in the same city. I drank his every word. He is truly a wise man and I know what I’m talking about. Remember, I’ve played God twice!
No idea. There was no Plan B.
(Bursts into laughter). No, I switch on the TV like everybody else!
Golf. I’m a golf fanatic who happens to be a terrible player. I’m constantly trying to improve my game. I watch the Golf Channel and try to understand what makes the perfect swing. Once I feel I’ve got it, then I can go back to bed. When I’m out on the fairway, though, I realise I still have a long way to go…