BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — There are very few people who have been more associated with a prison break than Morgan Freeman. The storied career of the Oscar-winning actor – who always speaks in a heavenly voice – includes starring in the classic men-behind-bars film “Shawshank Redemption.” It is one of the biggest films on his lengthy resume.
Freeman stresses there is a big difference between fiction and fact but his association to the prison break film made him the clear choice to host the new History Channel series “Great Escapes with Morgan Freeman.” The eight-part production – launching at 10 p.m. Nov. 9 – explores real-life prison breaks that have captured the attention of the public. It’s an up close and personal view of what the prisoners are faced with in executing their break outs.
It wasn’t Freeman’s “Shawshank” connection that prompted him to agree to be the host of the series. His first passion – as he has shown through hosting other educational series such as “The Story of God with Morgan Freeman” and “Through the Wormhole” – is the documentary filmmaking format.
“I love documentaries, some of which are just so well done and so fascinating on their subject matter. I pray that we manage that once of twice, and we’ll do it again,” Freeman says. We still have just an enormous amount of history that we don’t know much about that’s untold, hasn’t been dealt with.
“I think this project, for instance, is one of those. People don’t know about places like Alcatraz and Dannemora. They know about Shawshank.”
The stories being told in this first season include escapes from Alcatraz (San Francisco), Dannemora (New York) and Pittsburgh State Penitentiary. Escapes are presented using technology to recreate the prisons mixed with interviews with some of real prisoners plus actors playing key roles.
A small army of researchers, producers and writers put together details of each escape. There were times when forms known as the prison escape document would provide hundreds of pages of details as to how the escapes were performed.
The team had to keep in mind the escape documents were always heavily from the point of view of the prison officials. That was why so many interviews were done with prisoners, their families and friends to give a more complete story.
Even with all their work, there are some gaps in the stories.
Executive producer James Younger says, “We’re trying to tell the story in the most dramatic way. We leave a few things unknown. But we don’t really go into an analysis of who’s right or wrong.”
“I think one of the things that’s exciting about the show is we’re really telling it like an adventure. It’s a dramatic adventure from start to end. And, we use all the video game technology to put ourselves in the POV of the escapees. So, we’re not really stopping to analyze as much as we’re using all the knowledge we can find to get people on this trail to escape.”
There was never an interest in using the series just to spotlight people who have ended up behind bars. The focus was always to look at the planning, preparation and patience – that could take years – needed to get out of the jails. Some of the clever ways the prisoners escaped included starting a winemaking operation to cover up tunneling or the prisoner who made a copy of a key by walking up behind the guard and using a Styrofoam cup to get an imprint of a key.
Freeman was fascinated by all of the escapes featured in the series but his favorite was “The Great Escape.” The breakout was by a group of prisoners of war who escaped from a German camp during World War II.
It wasn’t necessarily the way they escaped but the fact so many didn’t end up being recaptured that intrigued Freeman.
“I don’t think that people who get out of prison escape if they’re caught and brought back. If you escape, you’re gone. And with ‘The Great Escape,’ a lot of those guys left. They were gone,” Freeman says. “They caught a lot of them, too. But most of the time when you break out of jail, you’re going to get caught. You’re not free. You Didn’t quite make it.”
Working on the project gave Freeman a chance to see just how complicated and difficult it was for the prisoners to find a way to escape. He stresses that it is “very, very, very difficult” to come up with a plan that works well enough for a prisoner to escape.
He also learned the escape is just the first part of the story.
“You can get out, but I almost guarantee you’re going to go back,” Freeman says.