The Pawnbroker (1964)—“Man on street” (uncredited)

AVC: There’s a recurring rumor that, although you’re not actually credited, you’re an extra in The Pawnbroker. Is that true?


MF: Yep. That was my first movie.

AVC: How did that come about? Was there an audition, or were they just looking for extras?


MF: No, no, no. Nobody auditioned me. [Laughs.] There was an agent named Bernie Styles in New York, and I arrived in New York from San Francisco. And looking for how to get any kind of work, I heard about Bernie Styles, so I went and… well, you’d just go and sign up with them. I mean, you’d just say, “I would like to sign up with you to be an extra.” And I got called to go on this set one time, one night, up in Harlem, 119th Street. And I was in a crowd that got whittled down to the point where there was nobody in the scene but me and Rod Steiger.

The Electric Company (1971-1977)—various characters

AVC: How did you find your way into the repertoire company for The Electric Company?


MF: That one I auditioned for. They were holding auditions in 1971, and I went and just clowned my way in. [Laughs.] The character was supposed to be kind of clownish, he went berserk over the written word, so I took it to the max. And then after I got the job, I toned it way down.

AVC: Did you enjoy the opportunity to do sketch comedy?

MF: Yes, I did. I enjoyed it immensely for the years I was there.

AVC: Do you have a favorite character of the bunch that you played?

MF: No. I mean, my central character was Easy Reader. I had another one who was a disc jockey named Mel Mounds. [Instantly slips into his Mel Mounds voice.] I enjoyed Mel because I had an FM voice for Mel Mounds. [Laughs.]

Brubaker (1980)—“Walter”

Street Smart (1987)—“Fast Black”
AVC: In the wake of The Electric Company, you found considerable success on the stage, including earning a trio of Obie Awards (for Coriolanus, The Gospel At Colonus, and Driving Miss Daisy). Did you always have a desire to do more work in front of the camera, or were you happy sticking with the stage?


MF: No. From early childhood, my thrust was to get into the movies. [Laughs.]

AVC: It seems like your first big break of note, movie-wise, was playing Walter in Brubaker.


MF: No, that wasn’t my first big break. My first big break was playing Fast Black in Street Smart.

AVC: Well, I knew that you’d gotten an Oscar nod for that, certainly. It just seemed like getting a memorable part in a Robert Redford movie would be a pretty big deal.


MF: Well, it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. [Laughs.] But to tell you the truth, it was a role that I fought not to get. In the script, this guy that I played weighed about 240 pounds, and he could tear a toilet off a wall! Bob Rafelson was the original director, and he asked me to play the role, and I said, “Man, no! That’s not… I can’t even pretend to be somebody who can do stuff like that! No, thank you.” But, you know, it finally happened.

AVC: How did they finally sway you?

MF: Money.

Bopha! (1993)—director

AVC: You’ve ventured behind the camera once, to direct Bopha! in 1993, but you haven’t really directed since then. Do you have a desire to return to it?


MF: Well, I wouldn’t call it a desire. I’m willing. But not with what I’m dealing with right now.

AVC: Did you enjoy the experience the first time around?

MF: I did. I really enjoyed the pre-production and production. Post-production was sort of messy.

Unforgiven (1992)—“Ned Logan”

AVC: Your first film with Clint Eastwood was Unforgiven. Was that also when you first met him?


MF: Yep, that was the first time I met him.

AVC: How did you enjoy him as a director?

MF: Perfect. As a matter of fact, I think he may be my favorite director of all… and I have some that I like a lot!


AVC: And you actually stuck around for about a week after the film wrapped so that you could be a real cowboy for a while?

MF: Yeah, and I did it even while we were shooting. If I didn’t have to work that day, I would just come to the set and be a cowboy and help the wranglers.


AVC: So what’s your equestrian background?

MF: Broomsticks. [Laughs.] When I was a kid, I’m telling you, man, I was a cowboy. I had a cap pistol, and I’d get up in the morning and strap it on before I got ready. But I actually started riding horses at about the age of 19.


AVC: How was it to take that knowledge and use it in front of the camera for the first time? Was it intimidating?

MF: Nah. If you’re comfortable on a horse, you’re comfortable on a horse. It’s like being on a motorbike.

Nurse Betty (2000)—“Charlie”

MF: Well, I was working with Chris Rock on that one, who’s a very funny guy. And Neil LaBute, I think he’s one of these kind of… one-offs. He’s different than most people you’ll run into. But a really wonderful person. Sort of a teddy bear. [Laughs.] And easy to work with. So we got on really well.

Batman Begins (2005) / The Dark Knight (2008) / The Dark Knight Rises (2012)—“Lucius Fox”


AVC: Did you enjoy getting to work in the superhero genre?

MF: Well, there was nothing to that, because I wasn’t the superhero. I was just a regular guy who was trying to help the superhero stay alive. [Laughs.] It was a fun role… but there was nothing heroic about my part!

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)—“Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding”

MF: Well, when I got the script for Shawshank, nobody said anything about it. Just, “Read the script.” So I read it. Then I called my agent and said, “I don’t care which role it is, I’ll do it. I want it.” And then I said, “What role do they want?” He said, “They want you to do Red.” I said, “You’re kidding! That’s the movie!” [Laughs.] But, no, they weren’t kidding. And the rest, as they say, is history.


AVC: The film has gone on to be viewed as a classic, but it wasn’t a huge commercial success when it was originally released.

MF: You know why?

AVC: Why?

MF: Because nobody could say “Shawshank Redemption.” Marketing only really works with word of mouth. It’s like, now you can see how things… well, as you said earlier, they go viral. That’s word of mouth. I tell my friend and you tell your friend, and you say, “I saw this movie, it was really terrific, it had so-and-so and so-and-so in it, and it was called… Shank… Shad… Sham… Well, it was something like that.” [Laughs.] You do that, and I’ll forget all about it! That’s why it didn’t do well.


AVC: Was it gratifying to see it finally finding an audience over the years?

MF: In a way, yeah. I mean, I didn’t have a back end. [Laughs.]

AVC: Do you find that to be the film quoted back to you the most?

MF: Yeah. Oh, yeah. “Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’.” I hear that all over the place!