Morgan Freeman just paid tribute to Joe Clark, who died on Tuesday. Clark was the high school principal who inspired the movie Lean on Me. Freeman portrayed Clark in the 1989 film and said he was the "best of the best."
"Joe was a father figure to school kids," Freeman told PEOPLE. "He was the best of the best in terms of education." Clark received national attention when he became the principal of Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey. He used unique methods to improve the school from within.
"Roaming the hallways with a bullhorn and a baseball bat, Clark's unorthodox methods won him both admirers and critics nationwide," his family's statement said. "Steadfast in his approach, 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." Clark expelled 300 students for fighting, vandalism, abusing teachers, and drug possession one day shortly after becoming the principal at Eastside High School. In a 2014 interview with the Grio, Freeman reflected on his role as Clark in Lean on Me.
"We don't have one young black America; we have two or three young black Americas," Freeman said. "There is one where kids are doing quite well, but there are not that many and not quite enough. There's another where kids are struggling and trying to stay in school — and another where they're hopeless."
Freeman received praise for his role, as he was nominated as a top hero in American Film Institute's 100 Heroes & Villains list. The 83-year old actor also won the NAACP Image Award for Oustanding Lead Actor in a Motion Picture. Lean on Me grossed over $32 million and won an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Motion Picture.
Clark was living in Florida at the time of his death. In an interview with CNN, the former principal explained why he took drastic measures to reach his students. "I don't just categorically extirpate young people out of school, but I am categorically emphatic that we cannot any longer condone hooliganism, aberrant behavior, and deviant behavior in those schools," he said. "I'm convinced that young people, the vast majority, deserve the right to an environment that's conducive to learning." Clark became very popular when Lean on Me was released, appearing on 60 Minutes and The Arsenio Hall Show.