History’s Greatest Mysteries

6 Things You Didn’t Know About Laurence Fishburne

Laurence Fishburne stars in History's Greatest Mysteries

Acclaimed Hollywood actor Laurence Fishburne has come to Sky HISTORY as the host of History’s Greatest Mysteries. This new series puts a magnifying glass over some of the most compelling mysteries of the past. Was there a conspiracy to cover up the sinking of the Titanic? What really became of DB Cooper, the man who got away with hi-jacking a Boeing 727? Did John Wilkes Booth actually escape justice after assassinating President Abraham Lincoln?

These are some of the questions posed in History’s Great Mysteries. And, in the spirit of the revelations to come, here are some fascinating facts about host Laurence Fishburne…

1 You can see him as a kid in Apocalypse Now

Think 'Laurence Fishburne' and some iconic performances will spring to mind, from his commanding presence as Morpheus in The Matrix saga, to his career-making turn as Furious Styles in Boyz n the Hood. But even many film buffs may not realise that, long before his most famous roles came along, a very young 'Larry Fishburne' appeared in one of the greatest films of all time: Apocalypse Now.

Fishburne was just 14 when he was cast as 'Mr Clean', a cocky and trigger-happy soldier in Francis Ford Coppola’s hallucinatory Vietnam epic. Young Larry fibbed about his age to bag the part, which saw him billed alongside the likes of Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall and Marlon Brando. It was a seminal experience for the teenager, not least because the famously troubled production dragged on for years. 'It was the beginning of my understanding of cinema, it was the beginning of my understanding of the world,' he later said.

2 He was also in one of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies

Being in a movie of the calibre of Apocalypse Now was a momentous breakthrough for the young actor, and he also landed roles in more Francis Ford Coppola films (Rumble Fish, The Cotton Club), as well as Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple. But his early CV wasn’t exclusively about prestige productions – horror fans may have spotted him in 1987’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, where he played a hospital orderly.

3 Pee-wee Herman played a key part in Fishburne’s career

In the 1980s, Fishburne had a recalling role alongside the Pee-wee Herman in the kids’ TV series Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Here, the future Morpheus rocked a giant mullet as the pink-shirted, big-hatted 'Cowboy Curtis', hanging out with Pee-wee and a cast of puppet characters including a talking cow.

Someone else involved in the show was a young, aspiring director called John Singleton, who was on set as a PA and security guard. He’d written a script he was keen for Paul Reubens (aka, Pee-wee) to take a look at. As Fishburne later recalled, 'Every day John would go up to Paul and ask, "Have you read my script yet?" Paul would say, "Oh I’m so sorry, I haven’t got the time.”'

That script turned out to be Boyz n the Hood, the landmark drama about young men coming-of-age in gang-torn Los Angeles. Having struck up a friendship on the Pee-wee’s Playhouse set, Singleton gave Fishburne a key role in the film, which would help pave the way for Fishburne as a bona fide Hollywood A-lister.

4 The age difference with his on-screen son in Boyz was… small

One of the major story arcs in Boyz n the Hood is the relationship between Fishburne’s character, Furious Styles, and his son Tre, played by Cuba Gooding Jr. It feels incredibly authentic, which is quite an achievement when you consider that the age gap between the two actors is… seven years.

5 He was the first Black actor to play Othello in a major film

In 1995, Laurence Fishburne made history when he played the title role in Othello, alongside Kenneth Branagh’s villainous Iago. This marked the first time that a Black actor had actually played the role in a major film adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Previous big-name versions had featured the likes of Orson Welles (in dark make-up) and Laurence Olivier (in all-out blackface).

6 He saved Emilio Estevez’s life

And we end by circling back to Apocalypse Now, and the curious story of how the teenage Laurence Fishburne saved the life of future film star Emilio Estevez during the movie’s production. Estevez was visiting his dad Martin Sheen on location in the Philippines, and wound up almost drowning in a lake. Fortunately, Fishburne was on hand to whisk him to safety. Incredibly, Martin Sheen didn’t realise what had happened until decades later. As Sheen later said, 'I would have gone up and hugged and kissed him and thanked him, but I didn’t have a clue.'