Laurence Fishburne has had quite the storied career. Starting out young at the age of 14 in the movie Cornbread, Earl and Me and even lying about his age so he could star in 1979’s Apocalypse Now, Laurence Fishburne movies and TV shows have pretty much been around for almost 50 years now. And while he’s come a long way from 1982’s Death Wish II to The Matrix, he’s always had that cool, yet somewhat ferocious performance lurking underneath the calm.
I really love doing these kinds of lists where I highlight black actors and actresses like Forest Whitaker, Viola Davis, and Octavia Spencer. But I found this list particularly difficult because of just how many films and TV shows I’ve loved Laurence Fishburne in over the years. For example, I grew up watching him as Cowboy Curtis on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and I even love him in bit parts like his role as Max Daniels in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. He even makes for a great Perry White in Man of Steel. But enough of the roles that didn’t make this list, and on with the ones that did! Oh, and minor spoilers up ahead.
12. Deep Cover (Russell Stevens Jr.)
You want to know a really cool movie? Deep Cover. Deep Cover is a really cool movie. Starring Laurence Fishburne (known back then as “Larry” Fishburne) as a police officer who fits the profile of a drug dealer so he pretends to be one, Deep Cover is a great follow-up performance to his role in 1991’s Boyz n the Hood.
Laurence Fishburne is so great in the role since he pulls off being a cop and a drug dealer so effectively. If this were a movie where he just had to play a cop, or one where he just had to play a drug dealer, it would still be convincing either way. Now that’s talent.
11. John Wick: Chapter 2 (The Bowery King)
Pairing The Matrix’s Keanu Reeves again with Laurence Fishburne was a match made in heaven. In this ultraviolent follow-up to the magnificent first film, Laurence Fishburne plays the Bowery King, a homeless man who actually rules the streets by keeping a close eye on what’s going on on the ground level. I mean, come on now, the role has Laurence Fishburne lovingly talking to pigeons. What more could you possibly want?
What I love about this role is that Fishburne takes the cockiness that he’s always exuding in all of his roles, and transposes it to a character in rags who looks like he would be the least important character in a movie, but ends up being one of the most important. It takes a lot to make a king out of a vagabond, but Laurence Fishburne manages to pull it off deftly.
10. Mission: Impossible 3 (Theodore Brassel)
I’m just going to put it out there—and don’t get mad—but J.J. Abrams Mission: Impossible 3 is the best movie in the franchise. I think some of that is in small part to Laurence Fishburne’s role as IMF director, Theodore Brassel, which effectively makes him Ethan Hunt’s boss.
And Laurence Fishburne plays a fantastic boss, as even the calmest reprimand from him still sounds utterly devastating. Also, because of the tangled web that this movie weaves, we spend a large portion of the film believing that Fishburne’s character is a mole. And -- SPOILER ALERT -- he walks the line so convincingly in the role that you come to believe that he could be working with the enemy, even though it turns out to not be true in the end.
9. Apocalypse Now (Tyrone “Mr. Clean” Miller)
Apocalypse Now is my favorite movie of all time, so I’m a bit biased. But nothing can take away from Laurence Fishburne’s performance as Tyrone “Mr. Clean” Miller, which was a part that he was only 14 at the time when shooting started, but ended up being 17 by the time the film was completed.
Tyrone is way too young to be in Vietnam, and you get a sense of dread throughout the movie since you like his character for having so much energy and youth. But when he dies on the boat and you hear his mother talking to him over a recording, it’s probably the hardest part of the movie to watch, which is saying a lot for a film that has a number of unsettling moments to sit through.
8. Event Horizon (Captain Miller)
You know, if a sentient space ship came back from the farthest reaches of space and I had to explore it, I would want Laurence Fishburne as my captain, too. That’s because Captain Miller will do anything for his crew—even sacrifice his own life—as long as it means some of his people get to see their families again.
Paul W. S. Anderson’s Event Horizon is a pretty scary film, and Laurence Fishburne is perfect as Captain Miller, as he plays calm in extreme situations better than anybody else. I mean, hell (Literally!), when Captain Miller sees the great beyond, he doesn’t give up. Instead, he picks up a metal beam and slams evil right in the face with it. Because that’s just the kind of leader Captain Miller is.
7. The Cotton Club (Bumpy Rhodes)
Laurence Fishburne plays a gangster in this period piece about the Jazz age. And while he doesn’t have much of a role in it, his performance is so distinct that it had to land high on this list.
In the racist 1930s, the black acts at The Cotton Club are constantly harassed by a bouncer who is always throwing them around and putting black people where he believes their place is. But in comes Laurence Fishburne as Bumpy Rhodes to deliver some retribution. I guess a face swirl in the toilet bowl could be a considered a drink for the lowest common denominator.
6. Mystic River (Detective Sergeant Whitey Powers)
Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River is a pitch black movie full of (morally) pitch black characters. But the one person who just looks to be seeking out the truth is Laurence Fishburne’s Detective Sergeant Whitey Powers, who is also Detective Sean Devine’s (played by Kevin Bacon) partner.
Laurence Fishburne is so effective because you can watch his facial expressions and see the thought process working behind his eyes. He suspects one of his partner’s childhood friends is a murderer, and he plays a super convincing role as a detective who thinks he has uncovered the truth and is on the hunt for the answers. And if you’ve seen Mystic River, then you know it’s the kind of movie that doesn’t hand out answers easily.
5. Othello (Othello)
Laurence Fishburne is no Orson Welles, and I mean that in a good way. I’m referring to the fact that Orson Welles once donned black face and played the moor who married Desdemona in the 1951 movie version of the famous Shakespearean play. Thankfully, Laurence Fishburne plays Othello in the 1995 version, and yes, I’ll admit it, Laurence Fishburne is downright sexy in the role.
And while Kenneth Branagh definitely steals the movie as Iago, Laurence Fishburne is one of the few actors I can honestly say made me fully understand Shakespeare. Because yes, I love Shakespeare and all, but sometimes, I just don’t understand it. And Laurence Fishburne made me understand it! That’s how good his performance is.
4. Black-Ish (Earl "Pops" Johnson)
Laurence Fishburne actually has several different standout performances on television, but one of his best is definitely as the recurring character Earl “Pops” Johnson, who plays Andre’s dad on the show, Black-ish. In the role, Fishburne plays the surly but lovable grandpa type who is always telling stories of his youth and why his son’s (and grandkids’) generations just don’t measure up.
I love this character because we don’t often get to see Laurence Fishburne be hilarious, and Black-ish gives him that outlet. He is often given some of the best lines and can usually be seen delivering them above an open newspaper. I’m looking forward to him having his own spin-off with Jenifer Lewis on the new spin-off, Old-ish.
3. Boyz n the Hood (Jason "Furious" Styles Jr.)
Do you know how old Laurence Fishburne was when he took on the iconic role of Jason “Furious” Styles Jr., who plays Cuba Gooding Jr.’s father in the movie, Boyz n the Hood? 28. And while there are plenty of 28-year-old fathers out there, Cuba Gooding Jr. was actually 23 at the time—a mere five years younger. Still, that didn’t prevent Fishburne from playing a convincing father, especially one who seems to have a great deal of knowledge of the world.
Boyz n the Hood is a pretty harrowing and eye-opening movie, and with all the gangster violence and depressing moments, Laurence Fishburne shows a stark reminder of the intelligence and selfhood that still exists in these neighborhoods. That is, if you’re actually willing to look.
2. Hannibal (Jack Crawford)
You know, I once wrote an article dreamcasting a Silence of the Lambs movie with a more diverse cast. And for the character of Jack Crawford, I picked Mahershala Ali. Because I think he would be a good Jack Crawford in a movie version. But Jack Crawford was already played by a black actor on the TV show, and the man who played him was Laurence Fishburne.
Fishburne actually won a Saturn Award for his performance as the character. And for those who are wondering, this is not the movie’s Crawford by any stretch of the imagination. This Crawford will get into a knife fight if he has to. But as the boss, a lot of things slip underneath his nose, and Fishburne is so convincing in the role that you almost allow yourself to see his way of thinking, even though it’s clear what’s going on. Plus, to take this iconic character and make it his own is no small feat. He would be my favorite Laurence Fishburne performance if not for…
1. The Matrix (Morpheus)
Come on, there could only be one (or Neo, which is an anagram for one). The man who launched a thousand memes with his red pill/blue pill scene, Morpheus will likely forever be Laurence Fishburne’s most iconic and best performance. As the captain of the Nebuchadnezzar and one of the first freed from the Matrix, Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus is likely the first character people think of when you mention the name, “Laurence Fishburne.”
And for good reason! Morpheus is the kind of character who can spout philosophical nuggets one second, and then kick butt the next. He’s also the kind of character who looks like a born leader, but one who can also get captured and have to be rescued. In other words, he’s a fully three-dimensional character and Laurence Fishburne plays him like a pro, which is why he will likely always be the actor’s greatest role and the one who will live on the longest.
Laurence Fishburne is still going strong, and the future is bright for the actor. It kind of sucks that he won’t be in the fourth Matrix movie, but whatever he shows up in, I’ll definitely be there to see it. Won’t you?
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Rich is a Jersey boy, through and through. He graduated from Rutgers University (Go, R.U.!), and thinks the Garden State is the best state in the country. That said, he’ll take Chicago Deep Dish pizza over a New York slice any day of the week. Don’t hate. When he’s not watching his two kids, he’s usually working on a novel, watching vintage movies, or reading some obscure book.