Pete Hammond

He may have only received his first major big-screen break at the age of 50 in 1987′s Street Smart, but Morgan Freeman has created such a distinguished body of work in the quarter of a century since then that Thursday night he was named the 39th recipient of the AFI Life Achievement Award for a career in film. Just after the honor was announced by the American Film Institute on October 11th, I ran into Freeman at an awards-season event and he was ebullient, telling me, “Now I am one of the big boys.” During Thursday’s warm ceremony on Sony’s Stage 15 and at the after-party nearby on the lot, Freeman still seemed just as happy about the honor.

In fact, after he accepted the award from his Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby co-star and director Clint Eastwood and made his speech, he became the first of the AFI’s 39 honorees to actually remain on stage and sing along to one of his theme songs, “Lean On Me,” from the 1989 film in which he starred as real-life school principal Joe Clark. Earlier in the evening, Garth Brooks and a large chorus sang the song — actually twice, as a snafu forced them to perform it again. The black-tie industry crowd didn’t seem to mind at all.

Among those in attendance who offered toasts or onstage tributes with personal anecdotes about Freeman were Sidney Poitier, AFI Board of Trustees chair Howard Stringer, AFI president and CEO Bob Gazzale, Betty White, Samuel L. Jackson, Rita Moreno, Don Cheadle, Matthew Broderick, Helen Mirren, Cuba Gooding Jr, Matthew McConaughey, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker and Tim Robbins. Filmed tributes were also shown from Chris Rock, Dan Ackroyd, Steven Spielberg, David Fincher and Ashley Judd.

Via a pre-taped bit, Freeman actually opened the show with his signature voice saying, “Over the past 39 years, the AFI has honored the giants and tonight, ME,” as he coyly smiled and gave a big thumbs up. Other than 1992 recipient Poitier, Freeman is the only other African American on the list, so it was entirely appropiate that Poitier began the proceedings taking note of the fact that Freeman’s film career really didn’t get going until he was 50 but called him “a character actor and a real character who has become a star and now a star of the AFI forever.” Freeman then entered to a standing ovation, hugged Poitier (who also received a standing O) and then strode to his place of honor at the head table.

Stringer came on and noted a Pauline Kael review of that breakthrough role in Street Smart when she asked, “Is Morgan Freeman the greatest actor in America?”

Betty White (who co-starred with him in Hard Rain) came out with six chorus guys to do a rousing special version of “Hello Dolly” (“Hello Morgan, it’s so nice to have you here at AFI. … Is that really Betty White with six black men?”) that won huge applause form the A-List crowd.

Red co-star Mirren said “In movie after movie, this AARP member has proven without a doubt he can kick some serious ass,” while Shawshank Redemption co-star Robbins said, “It was an honor being locked up with you, Morgan.”

Several people noted his long run in the 1970s on the PBS kid series The Electric Company including the 81-year-old Eastwood, who slyly said, “I grew up watching Morgan Freeman. My son and I watched Electric Company all the time, but I never realized he could act until Street Smart.” Eastwood noted that Freeman at one time approached him to do a Western, if Clint was planning one, by telling him he could ride and act and wondered if “you want someone to ride with you?”

“So we did Unforgiven and it won Best Picture,” Eastwood said. “And then we did Million Dollar Baby and it also won Best Picture. Then I decided it might be a good idea to find scripts that only Morgan Freeman was in, so we did Invictus, but he didn’t have to act in that because everyone already thought he was Nelson Mandela, even Nelson Mandela.”

After his second standing ovation of the evening when 1996 recipient Eastwood handed him the award, Freeman said: “Where I come from in Mississippi they call this High Cotton. What an honor. … Tonight I saw things I don’t remember doing, but that doesn’t matter … I’m proud to be an actor, although for this one night you have made me feel like a star.”

Afterward, the general consensus was that, even if it was less “starry” than last year’s tribute to Mike Nichols, it was another great evening for the AFI honors that began in 1973 with John Ford and have gone to some of the biggest stars and directors in the history of film. At the after-party, a very relaxed Poitier  told me, “it was a special night. You could feel the love in the room.”

Certainly Freeman was feeling it as he soaked up the praise at that party until well past 11 PM. TV Land will broadcast the show June 19.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.