Joe Clark, the Inspiration Behind Morgan Freeman’s ‘Lean on Me,’ Dies at 82

Torry Threadcraft Torry Threadcraft is a contributing writer at Okayplayer where he…
Photo Credit: Yvonne Hemsey/Liaison

Morgan Freeman portrayed Joe Clark in the award-winning 1989 film.

On Tuesday night, Joe Louis Clark, the New Jersey high school principal who inspired Lean on Me, the iconic 1989 film starring Morgan Freeman, passed away at the age of 82. Clark’s family released a statement breaking the news.

“Joe Louis Clark, the baseball bat and bullhorn-wielding Principal whose unwavering commitment to his students and uncompromising disciplinary methods at Paterson, New Jersey’s Eastside High School inspired the 1989 film Lean on Me, has passed away,” the statement reads. “A longtime resident of South Orange, NJ, Clark retired to Gainesville, Florida. He was at home and surrounded by his family when he succumbed to his long battle with illness on December 29, 2020.”

As principal at Eastside High, Clark reportedly expelled 300 students for fighting, vandalism, abusing teachers and drug possession. A former U.S. Army Reserve Sergeant and Drill Instructor, Clark was a polarizing figure due to his approach, which included brandishing a baseball bat.

“Steadfast in his approach,” the family tribute continues, “Clark explained that the bat was not a weapon but a symbol of choice: a student could either strike out or hit a home run.”

Born in Rochelle, Georgia, Clark’s family moved to New Jersey when he was six years old. He began his career teaching at a grade school in Paterson, where he also served as Director of Camps and Playgrounds. After retiring from Eastside High, Clark worked as the Director of the Essex County Detention House for six years. He authored a book titled Laying Down the Law: Joe Clark’s Strategy for Saving Our Schools.

“Joe was a father figure to school kids,” Freeman wrote in a statement. “He was the best of the best in terms of education.”

In 2018, LeBron James and John Legend announced their plans to create a TV series based on the film. However, the script was not picked up to pilot.

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