Laurence Fishburne (credited as Larry for the first half of his career) has led one of the most diverse careers of any actor working in Hollywood today. He’s starred in both blockbuster franchises The Matrix and John Wick, along with having pivotal leading and supporting roles in classic dramas. He’s graced the screens of unsung gems, and even appeared in children’s television for years as the beloved Cowboy Curtis in Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. His career actually kicked off with a bona fide cinematic masterpiece (Apocalypse Now, for which he lied about his age in order to get the part) and he’s still making them today.
With many exploring Laurence Fishburne‘s rich career thanks to the popularity of the latest Matrix sequel, Matrix: Resurrections, now seems like an ideal time to look back at one of the most dynamic and arguably underrated careers in modern cinema. Read on to see if any of your favorites are on the list or better yet one of your next favorites!
6 Boyz N The Hood
In the 1990s, Fishburne had the pleasure of starring in many critically acclaimed classics, with one of his most notable roles coming in John Singleton’s 1991 debut Boyz N The Hood. In the film, Fishburne portrays Furious Styles, the father of Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character, who serves as a voice of reason and role model for the protagonist. Despite being a supporting role, Fishburne manages to leave a lasting impression, and his gravitas gives his character a fully three-dimensional, lived-in feeling. Many of Boyz N The Hood’s most memorable scenes feature Fishburne’s character, including a scene where he delivers a monologue on gentrification, and one encouraging his son to make wise choices for his future.
Fishburne’s take on Furious is one of his most sympathetic and quietly powerful, showcasing his true dramatic range and depth. In a career full of memorable performances, Fishburne’s work in Boyz N The Hood is among some of his most subtle yet impactful to date.
5 King of New York
It takes quite a talent to match up to the energy and sheer presence of a legend such as Christopher Walken. However, that’s exactly what Fishburne manages to do with his electrifying and volatile role in Abel Ferrara’s 1990 crime drama King of New York. Fishburne offers a change of pace from his usual cool and restrained roles with his explosive and dark performance as Jimmy “Jump” Colt, yet despite being a supporting character once again, Fishburne more than effectively dominates each scene he appears in.
While Fishburne may be remembered for his more heroic roles, it’s a testament to his range that he effortlessly slips into the vicious and sleazy nature of Jimmy so well, gamely standing toe to toe with Walken in their scenes together. As a performance, Fishburne’s role in King of New York may not always be his most publicized, but thanks to its raw power and versatility remains one of his most captivating, and is further proof of his commendable range.
4 John Wick Franchise
As an actor, Fishburne is no stranger to lending himself to roles in large ensembles. He reunited with Keanu Reeves in the John Wick films after their prior large-scale franchise ensemble, to entertaining effect. In John Wick 2 and 3 Fishburne plays the eccentric yet cunning Bowery King, an underground crime lord who ends up becoming one of Wick’s most trusted allies. In the role, Fishburne gets to showcase many facets of his acting talent including his action star prowess, knack for sly humor, and generosity toward his fellow actors, strengthening their performances by giving them space and playing off them perfectly in his truly varied and colorful role. It’d be easy for a minor character like the Bowery King to feel one-note or over the top; however in Fishburne’s hands, he manages to turn the role into something surprisingly three-dimensional. Credit also the innate chemistry the actor shares with co-star Keanu Reeves, which truly makes for some of the franchise’s most exciting moments. Fishburne is continuing the role in John Wick 4.
3 What’s Love Got To Do with It?
Biographical dramas focusing on famous artists, musicians, or historical figures are often a surefire way for performers to showcase their acting skills, garnering acclaim in the process. In the 1993 biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It? (exploring Tina Turner’s rise to stardom and her volatile marriage to Ike Turner), Fishburne unveils one of his most layered and commanding performances yet. In the role, Fishburne manages to convey both Turner’s charisma and his ferocious intensity, and while it’d be easy to write his character off as solely a villain, Fishburne manages to add his signature humanity as well. For his performance as Ike Turner, Fishburne received critical acclaim and several nominations including an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, along with one for co-star Angela Basset. As a showcase of his pure dramatic talents, Fishburne’s role in What’s Love Got To Do With It? is a mesmerizing achievement which solidified his status as a genuine talent.
2 Deep Cover
While Fishburne held his own in supporting roles early in his career, it was with 1992’s Deep Cover that his leading man status finally emerged. In the film, Fishburne portrays L.A. police officer Russell Stevens Jr. who goes undercover to dismantle a large scale drug operation. While undercover, Stevens begins to climb the ladder, eventually encountering Jeff Goldblum’s maniacal drug lord, and struggles to maintain his morals and identity in the process. In the lead role, Fishburne utilizes his dramatic stoicism to great effect and believably conveys his anguish and anger over the violence and brutality he witnesses around him. Fitting some of his other roles, Fishburne’s sense of authority make his arc here feel organic and he more than amply carries the film alongside acting legend Jeff Goldblum. While Deep Cover was not his most well-known film until the Criterion Collection re-released it, it’s arguably one of his most pivotal achievements acting-wise and strong evidence that Fishburne can carry a film on his own.
1 The Matrix Franchise
Of course this list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Fishburne’s iconic role as Morpheus in the original Matrix Trilogy. While much has been said about the importance of the character and the symbolism surrounding it, what truly allows Morpheus to remain popular is Fishburne’s engaging take on the character. While the mentor character is an often-used trope often used, Fishburne’s Morpheus managed to deliver an elegant sense of cool while appearing human as well. The character’s progression over the three films, displaying doubt, faith, resignation, and hope, all anchored by the actor’s great performance. For many actors, delivering a role like this could be tricky but in Laurence Fishburne’s capable hands it becomes one of his most fully formed and signature roles to date.
Laurence Fishburne says he turned down Pulp Fiction because of the movie’s famous heroin overdose scene with Uma Thurman.
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