‘Shawshank Redemption’ at 25: Why Morgan Freeman almost balked at playing ‘Irishman’ Red

Morgan Freeman was enchanted by Frank Darabont’s script for The Shawshank Redemption when he first read it. He was even more tickled when his agent told him the filmmakers were interested in casting him to play Ellis “Red” Redding, the inmate and prison smuggler serving a life sentence who befriends the wrongfully convicted Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) in the revered drama, which was released 25 years ago, on Sept. 23, 1994.

Freeman wasn’t however, familiar with the original source material penned by Stephen King.

“Then someone sent me the novella,” Freeman told Yahoo Entertainment during a 2014 Role Recall interview. “And I read the first page and Red was this Irishman. So I closed the book. I never read another line. I was like, ‘I can’t play an Irishman!’”

Indeed, in King’s 1982 novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, “Red,” as he’s simply called, and who narrates the story, describes himself as Irish. But writer-director Darabont and company clearly intended to make the character an African-American man in extending the role to Freeman, who of course eventually signed on — and subsequently earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for the part.

“I didn’t play an Irishman,” Freeman laughed during our interview. But Red’s past ethnicity is winked at in the film version. “Red. Why do they call you that?” Andy asks him when they first meet in the prison yard. “Maybe it’s because I’m Irish,” Red retorts.

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