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Laurence Fishburne is Thurgood Marshall on Broadway

NEW YORK — Laurence Fishburne has been taking risks since the age of 14, when he spent 18 months in the Philippines playing a young soldier in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” Since then, he has won Tony, Drama Desk and Emmy awards, as well as an Academy Award nomination.

Fishburne’s latest challenge is “Thurgood,” his first one-man play, which opened yesterday at the Booth Theatre on Broadway. For 90 minutes with no intermission, he fills the stage as the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first black American to sit on the Supreme Court.

In a rehearsal hall off Times Square before the play entered previews, Fishburne, 46, was coolly confident and ready to test himself.

“So far, so good,” he said with a grin, before becoming more serious. “I mean, it’s a huge challenge. It’s a huge piece, and I’m very excited because I feel like it’s going to help me to grow. … I’m going to have to use different parts of myself.”

Fishburne recounts Marshall’s life story through anecdotes and a heavy dose of humor. He takes the audience from his job waiting tables at a country club, through his advocacy during the civil rights movement, until his last day as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. The highlight is Marshall’s appearance before the Supreme Court as the NAACP’s lead counsel in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.

The character is a departure for Fishburne.

“He was a funny guy. He was hilarious,” he said of Marshall, who died in 1993. “And so, I get to use that side of myself and show a much lighter and more humorous side of myself in this role, because, you know, I’m not particularly known for being a funny guy.”

That, of course, is an understatement. Comedies are notably absent from Fishburne’s long list of movie credits. He is best known for his savage performance as Ike Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” which earned him the Oscar nod, and for his role as Morpheus, the steely action hero of the blockbuster “Matrix” trilogy.

In the 1995 screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” Fishburne played the tortured Moor of Venice. Most recently in “21,” he played a Las Vegas security chief, who uses a very persuasive pair of fists to discourage card counting in his casinos.

In person, Fishburne leaves no doubt that he can command a stage. It’s not just his physical size — although he’s imposing even dressed casually in a black T-shirt and blue jeans — but also his intensity, which is only occasionally broken by a full-throated laugh that seems to shake the room.

He made it clear that he didn’t want to share details about his personal life, including his new baby, Delilah, who was born last June to actress Gina Torres. (Fishburne has an older son and daughter, Langston and Montana, from his first marriage.) He was more at ease talking about the man he is embodying onstage.

Fishburne said he knew little about Marshall before meeting with director Leonard Foglia to discuss the role.

“We sat down, we had some tea, talked about it,” Fishburne recalled. “And, you know, when I read it, I just thought the things that I learned about [Marshall’s] life and his work were to my mind so important, I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do this.”

Fishburne has done his homework to prepare for the role, but credits the script, written by George Stevens Jr., for its revelations into Marshall’s life and his character.

“People who don’t know Thurgood Marshall’s story will be really, really changed by it,” Fishburne said. “I mean, his work changed the way we live in America and the way we relate to each other in this country, particularly in the South.

“It’s that basic,” he added. “Before his work, [blacks and whites] couldn’t eat in the same restaurant.”

Between movies, Fishburne has always made time to return to the stage. In 1992, he won Tony and Drama Desk awards, as well as an Outer Critic’s Circle Award and a Theater World Award for his performance as Sterling Johnson in August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running.”

He returned to Broadway in 1999 to play King Henry II in James Goldman’s “The Lion in Winter.” In 2006, he starred in California productions of Alfred Uhry’s “Without Walls” and August Wilson’s “Fences.” He has also written and directed a play, “Riff Raff,” which he adapted into a 2000 movie, “Once in the Life.”

Foglia noted that some actors forget the skills needed to perform onstage after acting in movies, but not Fishburne.

“He has very wisely kept both muscles going, because they are very different muscles,” Foglia said.

However, the director warned Fishburne that “Thurgood” would be a unique experience because he would be breaking the fourth wall to interact directly with his audience.

“The audience is my scene partner,” Fishburne said. “I’m not doing a one-man show. I’m doing an evening with an audience. And hopefully, I will be engaging enough and they will be generous enough to engage with me.”

Fittingly, “Thurgood” is opening during a Broadway season that is remarkable for an unusual number of racially diverse casts.

James Earl Jones, who Fishburne called a “major inspiration,” is starring in an all-black cast of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” just one block away. Jones originally played Marshall in a 2006 workshop production of “Thurgood” at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut.

Morgan Freeman is on Broadway, too, opposite Frances McDormand in Clifford Odets’ “The Country Girl.”

Fishburne has had no shortage of job offers. Besides “21,” which was a box-office hit, he has three movies currently due for release in 2008: “Black Water Transit,” a thriller set in post-Katrina New Orleans; “Tortured,” an organized crime movie; and “Days of Wrath,” a Los Angeles-based ensemble drama. He’ll be seen in at least four more movies in 2009.

And until the limited engagement of “Thurgood” ends on Aug. 3, he’ll be on Broadway.

“I’m lucky,” he said, letting loose again with that room-shaking laugh. “I’m just lucky.”

(Associated Press)