In the beginning, before he was God, the President of the United States or Nelson Mandela, Morgan Freeman was a playful lad with an active imagination, staring out at the cotton fields near his grandparents’ home in Mississippi, and starring in fantasies based on Hollywood films of the 1940s.
Born in Memphis on June 1, 1937, Freeman loved westerns and war movies best, especially those about the Air Force. Straddling the branch of a tree, he would pretend to ride into the sunset or soar beyond the horizon.
At school, Freeman gained confidence in his first title role, “Little Boy Blue.” He went on to win a statewide acting competition at age 12, earning a pin, which read “Best Actor.” It stuck.
The Trustees of the American Film Institute have selected Morgan Freeman as the recipient of its 39th Life Achievement Award for a body of work encompassing heroes and villains, sidekicks and leading men. His characters are drawn from history books and comic books. They are crime-fighters familiar with back alleys and statesmen at home in the corridors of power.
“Morgan’s mind is never a blank,” Joseph Papp, legendary producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival, once said. “It’s as if he’s had 1,000 years of living experience.”
This towering and well-deserved achievement stands, as it must, on a broad and solid foundation. Freeman was not an overnight success. He became a film star in 1987, the year he turned 50, in his break-through, Oscar-nominated role as Fast Black, the lithe and lethal pimp in STREET SMART. “Is Morgan Freeman the greatest American actor?” film critic Pauline Kael asked in the New Yorker. This question posed of his first significant film role.
During the 1960s and ’70s, when Hollywood jumped on the box-office bandwagon of “blaxploitation” and flashy pimps seemed to be everywhere on screen, Freeman remained in New York, observing the real-life street scene around him and polishing his craft on stage. He stretched his talent with five years of dance training — not to be a dancer, but to improve his chances of getting acting work. There were some lean times, but he worked.
Freeman quit his day job to appear off-Broadway for $72 a week and flexed his acting chops in classic works by Brecht and Shakespeare. When he landed the role of Head Waiter in the long-running hit musical “Hello, Dolly!,” Freeman’s dancing lessons paid off, and he acquired the discipline and stamina of a Broadway gypsy.
In 1971, Freeman began a six-year, 780-episode marathon of sketch comedy, Sesame Workshop’s THE ELECTRIC COMPANY on PBS. As Easy Reader, a groovy literary junkie, he taught Generation X its ABCs. In the process, Freeman learned to use his voice more effectively, to act and react in front of the camera day in and day out.
Returning to Broadway, Freeman’s shattering performance as Zeke, a street gang member turned wino in Richard Wesley’s “The Mighty Gents,” earned him a Tony nomination and the New York Drama Desk Award for Best Actor. Other plays followed, including an off-Broadway gem by Alfred Uhry called “Driving Miss Daisy,” but by then the film community had taken notice and Freeman found himself in the driver’s seat of his own career.
Then came 1989, a year Freeman completed an historic hat trick of three memorable film roles: Joe Clark, the controversial principal of a failing Newark high school in LEAN ON ME; Sergeant Major John Rollins, the heart and soul of a regiment of black soldiers in the Civil War drama, GLORY; and Hoke Colburn, the patient chauffeur and best friend of his Southern, Jewish employer in DRIVING MISS DAISY. Freeman’s return to the role added an Academy Award nomination to his Obie Award for Best Actor in an off-Broadway play.
The nation’s film critics also responded. “The most formidable actor on the American scene,” cheered LA Times film critic Sheila Benson in her review of LEAN ON ME. Freeman “has a seemingly limitless range, quicksilver modulation, surprise, a dry humor and a watchful intelligence.” “Nowhere on Hollywood’s long list of war movies is there anything like GLORY,” Jay Carr raved in the Boston Globe. “Simply put, it’s the most overdue war movie ever made, not only reflecting American history, but putting right its glaring downplaying of the pivotal role of black troops fighting on the Union side in the Civil War.”
“Freeman’s performance is a revelation, based on close observation and quiet nuance,” wrote Roger Ebert of DRIVING MISS DAISY. “It is the work of an actor who has gone through all of the possibilities,” added Vincent Canby in the New York Times, “stripped away all of the extraneous details and arrived at an essence.”
Racial barriers were central to these films, but what followed transcended race. Freeman demonstrated through sustained excellence that Hollywood could reflect an increasingly color-blind society as it approached the new millennium.
Clint Eastwood, Freeman’s “friend and fellow artist,” cast him as Ned Logan, a retired gunslinger, in UNFORGIVEN. “The role could have been played by a white man or a black man or a man of any race,” said Eastwood. “I’d like to think that we are at the point where it is irrelevant.”
It was Freeman’s ability to expose the essential humanity of his characters that made it irrelevant. He was wise and forgiving as Red, Tim Robbins’ prison buddy in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, a part originally conceived as Irish-American. Beyond the movie theater — from television to Blu-ray — the film’s critical and cultural impact continues to grow with each passing year.
In 2004, Freeman won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as Eddie “Scrap Iron” Dupris, Eastwood’s loyal corner man in MILLION DOLLAR BABY, which also won the Academy Award for Best Picture. “It’s an easy working relationship,” he said of his collaboration with Eastwood. “He expects you to do your job. He’s not micromanaging at all.” This “direct the film, not the actor” approach has served Freeman well in his own work behind the camera.
Gravitas became his trademark as an actor, and he often commands roles of uncommon authority. Among the screen portraits in his gallery are God, a US president, a brigadier general, a director of central intelligence, a colonel, a major, a judge, a defense lawyer, two world-weary detectives and a high-tech guru. When he narrates, as he did in WAR OF THE WORLDS and MARCH OF THE PENGUINS, his deep, calm voice conveys infinite galaxies of wisdom and compassion.
“What I’m doing is channeling,” Freeman has said of acting. “It’s easy for me. If I find I have to work at it, I’ve got the wrong job.”
With stardom have come new jobs and hyphenated titles. Freeman won acclaim for BOPHA!, his1993 directorial debut, and he continues to develop projects with Revelations, his production company. He is a restaurateur and owner of two blues clubs, and he is involved in a variety of political, philanthropic and environmental causes.
Today, the skilled rider of UNFORGIVEN and ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES raises quarter horses on a 122-acre ranch near his childhood home; the young aficionado of WWII Air Force movies flies solo to meetings in Los Angeles in his Cessna 414; and when his busy work schedule permits, he sails the Caribbean on Afrodisia, his Shannon 43 ketch.
INVICTUS had it right — whether on land, sea or in the sky, on stage or silver screen — Morgan Freeman is the captain of his soul.