Regarding The Shawshank Redemption, if any of you folks out there are A.V. Club readers, I've done Random Roles with four of the cast members over the years. I won't bother offering up the links to all 'em, but just for the sake of sharing their stories, I put all of the actors' reminiscences together for your reading enjoyment, so it plays like an oral history. (BTW, just for the record, all of four gentlemen proved to be solid interviews, so their individual interviews are well worth seeking out if you're a Random Roles fan and haven't caught 'em all.)
Morgan Freeman (“Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding”): 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.
Bob Gunton (“Warden Norton”): I’m sure that, unless the gods come down from heaven with another marvelous movie, that will be the movie that I will probably be remembered for and that I am most proud of. It’s one of the few movies where I got a lot of screen time and also great scenes, and it’s where I learned that if you’re a character actor, unless the camera comes in for a close-up, you’re really just part of the mise en scène. You’re really just sort of background, or moving the story along. But in this case, I was the antagonist to Andy. And it was a great collection of actors once again, all of the prisoners. I loved working with Frank Darabont, and Morgan was great, Tim [Robbins] was terrific—it was a dream role, and I had to work pretty hard to get it.
Frank and the producer wanted me to do it from jump street, but initially the studio said, “Yeah, well, the guy’s a good actor, but this is a starring role. This calls for a star.” So they tested me, and I’d been doing Demolition Man just before, and my head was shaved. And I knew if I did this role, I didn’t want to do it with a chrome dome, so they actually bought me a wig for the screen test. [Laughs.] And I was still shooting Demolition Man, so they flew me to New York, and Tim very generously was off-camera during the screen test, so I did the scenes actually opposite him. And Roger [Deakins], the cinematographer, shot the screen test. So I had everything going for me! And sure enough, a couple of days later, they called me and said, “You’re on. They want you.”
William Sadler (“Heywood”): I had just done the first episode of the series Tales From The Crypt, and Frank Darabont was one of the writers. He approached me on the set when I was visiting one day, and he came over and said, “I’m going to do this movie, it’s called Rita Hayworth And The Shawshank Redemption, and I would like you to be in it.” He said it just like that. A couple of days later, he mailed me a copy of the Stephen King anthology, I think it’s called Different Seasons, and I read the novella, and I have to say, when Frank first said that he was writing the screenplay and wanted me to be in it, when you’re in Los Angeles, there’s a part of you that says, “Yeah, right.” [Laughs.] Because everybody you meet is writing a movie, and they want you to be in it. Every cab driver is writing a movie! But thank God, it turned out that Frank was completely serious, and something like a year and a half or two years later there we were shooting it, and it was one of the most fun shoots I’ve ever been involved with.
Clancy Brown (“Captain Hadley”): Everybody loved that script, because Frank [Darabont] is one of the best writers out there. He got the first string in probably every department on the script, because he was kind of an unknown commodity as a director. That’s where I met [cinematographer] Roger Deakins. Strangely enough, I had met Deakins’ wife, James, on Blue Steel. Who else did they have? Terry Marsh, the production designer, who was genius on that one. But nobody knew it was going to be any good. And even when it came out, nobody knew it was going to be any good, because nobody went to see it when it came out! And then when the Oscars came around, it actually got noticed, which was deserving. And now you can’t avoid it! [Laughs.] It’s just, like, on all the time now! But, yeah, that was a fun one. Made a lot of good friends on that one.
[Hadley] was pretty bad. [Laughs.] But, see, that’s where Frank’s a great writer. In the short story, there’s a whole turnover of the administration of that prison, and he had to figure a way to keep those characters consistent. So Hadley and the warden were absolute Frank Darabont constructs, based on stuff that happened somewhere in the novella that Stephen wrote. But those are Frank Darabont characters through and through. I’d work with [Frank] again in a heartbeat. I love that guy.
Gunton: It was a wonderful three months in beautiful downtown Mansfield, Ohio. Actually, I was back there last year for the 20th reunion of Shawshank, and the way that movie has become such a cult and has such devotion around the world… I mean, in Morocco, in Europe, in Australia—and recently I was in South America doing a movie about the Chilean miners, and down there people would come up to me with their words of homage for the movie. It really is a classic.
Sadler: I mean, they just don’t come around, movies like that. Frank even talks about that. Whenever we get together, we just sort of shake our heads and say, “Can you believe it’s still going as strong as it is?” He feels like we really caught lightning in a bottle, and I think to some degree that’s true. It was a strong script, but I don’t think any of us had any idea that it was going to take on this life of its own and become such a beloved film.
Gunton: It was disappointing when it first came out, because the reviews were not all that great, and the attendance for the initial run was not good. Even after it was nominated for a couple of Academy Awards and was re-released, it did not do good business.
Sadler: I don’t know if you remember, but it opened in the movie theaters, and it closed, like, a week later or two weeks later. It had no run at all. Nobody knew what a Shawshank was. No one could pronounce it. It’s a terrible name. I remember Frank showing me a list of 10 different names they were going to call it, because everyone knew that name was just dreadful. And people tell each other, “I saw this movie last night. It was great! It was called… Shrimptank something?” [Laughs.]
Freeman: 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.
Brown: Yeah, we’ve heard that. But my joke about the name—because everybody always asks us what’s the crazier version of the name you’ve ever heard, and Morgan likes to say, “Oh, it was The Scrimshaw Redaction,” blah blah blah—I always say, “You know the craziest name I ever heard for The Shawshank Redemption? The Green Mile.” [Laughs.]
Sadler: I think the name hurt almost more than anything else. Morgan and Tim Robbins were not household names at the time. I mean, they were strong film actors, but there wasn’t a name attached like Tom Cruise that you could hang the movie on. They went for a strong ensemble, and that’s what they got, and I really do think that’s part of the magic and the strength of that film: It felt like you could aim the camera at any face in that room and see the whole story played out in those eyes. It was a true ensemble.
Gunton: It continues now to be one of the most remunerative of the movies I’ve done, in terms of residuals and stuff, because it’s played all the time, but more important than that, people just respond to it with almost a religious respect. So to be associated with that movie, particularly in an important role, it’s a great, great privilege, and it’s a lot of great memories for me.
Was it gratifying to see it finally finding an audience over the years?
Freeman: In a way, yeah. I mean, I didn’t have a back end. [Laughs.]
Do you find that to be the film quoted back to you the most?
Freeman: Yeah. Oh, yeah. “Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’.” I hear that all over the place!