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Character King Bob Gunton on The Shawshank Redemption

As Told To Scott Voisin

SV You're probably best known for your role as the warden in The Shawshank Redemption. How did you get the part?

BG Well, when that script came out and people read it, everybody in Hollywood was banging on the door to get at those roles. They knew it was a wonderful script, and as soon as I read it, I was just blown away by the storytelling and the wit and the nuance of the writing. It was the best movie script I'd ever read that had been sent to me. I had only been in California for four or five years, so by that time I had worked a lot but I hadn't done any role of that size and of that centrality. I met with [screenwriter/director] Frank Darabont and the producer, Niki Marvin, and it was one of those times where I just knew who the character was. I just knew in my guts who he was, why he did what he did and what his relationship with Andy Dufresne was. There were some physical things going in my direction too. Tim [Robbins] is about six-foot-five, and one of the plot points is that when he breaks out of Shawshank, he carries with him the warden's suit. For Andy to walk into the banks at the end wearing this beautiful suit, whoever was playing the warden had to be within the realm of possibility of being a similar size. It was obvious they couldn't cast someone who was five-foot-eight or five-foot-ten to play the warden, and I'm about six-foot-two, so I think that worked in my favor. Another plus for me is that back then I looked like I could play a wide age range. Whoever was going to be the warden had to be somebody who could start out looking like he was in his early 40s and end up close to 60. In the end, I think the main thing was that Frank and Niki saw that I really understood this guy, but then they had to convince the studio.

SV How did that happen?

BG They wanted a screen test, and it was the only role I ever screen-tested for. I was doing Demolition Man with Sylvester Stallone at the time and my head was shaved. I was playing a character who was completely bald. The producer on that film didn't want to fake it, he wanted my head shaved so I'd look like Erich von Stroheim. I knew I didn't want to play the warden bald, partially because I wanted to have hair that could be grayed and aged to help make that twenty-year leap that takes place in Shawshank. Frank and Niki arranged for a very fine wig-maker to make me a wig just for the screen test. They flew me back to New York on one of my days off from Demolition Man and Tim Robbins came in to read off-camera while they shot the test scenes with the actual cinematographer, Roger Deakins. I was very humbled by all of the trouble they went to, and I think it was Frank and Niki fighting the good fight for me because I think people at the studio said, "Who the hell is Bob Gunton?" I found out later that some big, big names wanted to play that role. Shortly after I finished Demolition Man, I found out that the studio had okayed my playing the role. The serendipity connected with it was when we got to Mansfield, Ohio, and began shooting, I still was pretty much bald. We kept the wig, and the first number of scenes that I'm in, I'm wearing that wig over the stubble that is starting to grow under it. We shot-thank God-basically in sequence, starting with the scenes in the 1940s and going through the 1960s. By the time we got to the scenes in the movie during the '60s, we took the wig off and my own gray hair had grown out into a crew cut, which is what I played the rest of my scenes in. It made the character seem harsher than when he started out. At the beginning he looks like a Presbyterian minister, and towards the end he starts looking much more thuggish. That was an interesting part of the mix of how this character is transformed over twenty years. It's sort of a stretch that there would be one warden in one prison for twenty years. That's highly unlikely, and in the original novella, there were actually three different wardens. Frank had combined all three wardens into one to make him a primary antagonist, which I think was a brilliant bit of dramaturgy. But it begged the question of what happens to a guy who stays twenty years in a prison as the warden? My thesis was that he gets as hardened and corrupt and soulless as many of the prisoners do. He becomes institutionalized too. I don't know how much any of that came across in the movie, but it gave me a sense that there was a lot of dimension to this character.

SV What was it like working with the cast?

BG They were superb. Morgan Freeman is the genuine thing and to be on the same set with him is to be uplifted. And James Whitmore-this guy carries the history of show business with him. Tim was terrific but we didn't get particularly close and I think that may have been a choice on his part to keep a kind of wariness between his character and mine. Every one of those guys that played inmates are terrific, terrific actors. They're a wonderful bunch of guys and a wonderful bunch of actors. Clancy Brown and I were kind of bound together since he was the warden's amanuensis, and he's such a sweet, gentle guy. We talked about how we're both very domestic, nice guys playing these two evil, dark-hearted individuals, but if you ask people in Hollywood, very often the actors on the set playing the villains are the nicest guys! All of us belong to an honored fraternity where for many people this movie is like a religious experience that they continue to have. I can't tell you how many people stop me and say, "Anytime that movie's on television, I just stop what I'm doing and watch right to the end." There's just something very hypnotic and almost spiritual about it. It is obviously a movie that has become a classic the world over. I've been in Morocco, Germany, France, Australia-even Bora Bora-and people just revere this movie. I'm humbly grateful to have been a part of it.