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Kennedy Center Honors: Morgan Freeman

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 7, 2008

MEMPHIS

He had the relentlessness of a Captain Ahab, which is what it took. Morgan Freeman's voyage seemed endless.

He watched as other actors began bolting Manhattan for Los Angeles and coveted television and film offers in the '60s and early '70s. He was stuck on a kids' show in the city.

It was better than hauling his clothes around and bunking with friends as he once had to do. But the voyage of Morgan Freeman remained rocky.

He turned 40 in 1977, and was still without a major film role. Sidney Poitier was 31 when he got his first starring role in "The Defiant Ones"; Denzel Washington, 27 when he got his first big part in "Carbon Copy."

"Fortunately," Freeman says, recalling those early challenges, "you're not by yourself struggling. The great thing about New York was that there was a brotherhood, a tight-knit group of actors hanging together."

He'd get a role onstage, knock the critics for a loop, only to see the show close. Acquaintances began to wonder if he'd ever break out, if he'd get beyond being another journeyman actor. Time was creeping up Freeman's back. He turned 50 in 1987.

And that was the year that Fast Black came into his life. He was the pimp Freeman played in "Street Smart," a movie that starred Christopher Reeve and Kathy Baker. Freeman was billed sixth but flat-out stole the movie. He got a surprising Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.

He wasn't anybody's ingenue -- this was a grown man who had been knocking about for years. Finally, the movie roles started to roll in: "Clean and Sober" in 1988; "Lean On Me," "Glory" and "Driving Miss Daisy" in 1989; "The Shawshank Redemption" in 1994; and "Seven" in 1995. A slew of documentary voice-overs, including "March of the Penguins," made his voice instantly recognizable, not unlike Louis Armstrong or James Earl Jones.

He was nominated for an Oscar three times before winning the Best Supporting Actor statue for "Million Dollar Baby" in 2005. America watched as Morgan Freeman, the little-known actor, suddenly, and not so suddenly, became Morgan Freeman the movie star.

Now come the Kennedy Center Honors.

* * *

He was born in Memphis during the era of segregation. The Freeman family moved back and forth between Mississippi and Tennessee. Freeman attended high school in Greenwood, Miss. Teachers heard the distinctive voice and introduced him to school drama productions. He gained some notice and performed on a few radio shows. Jackson State University dangled some scholarship money his way to come join its drama program, but he enlisted in the Air Force instead. Mississippi owned a lot of nightmares and he wanted out. "Thought Mississippi was the worst place on Earth for a black man," he says.

When he got out, he bounced between the East and West coasts. America changed; Mississippi evolved. And then he fell in love with what he had left behind. He resides these days for the most part in Charleston, Miss., a small town not far from the Tennessee border. He's become defensive about home. "Last I heard, the last lynching was in Texas," he says, referring to the 1998 James Byrd Jr. murder.

He's sitting in a small room at the private Ridgeway Country Club, a swank, rustic facility on the edge of Memphis. A lovely golf course lies beyond the window. He sometimes plays here.

Slowly -- and with a bit of a grimace -- he lifts a glass of iced tea. Freeman was in a highly publicized car accident last August on a road in Mississippi. Authorities ruled out drug or alcohol involvement. Surgery was required on his left arm and it remains bandaged. "Had some nerve damage," the 71-year-old actor says. A 48-year-old female friend was also injured in the crash. In the aftermath, Freeman's lawyer said that the actor and his wife of 24 years were separated and planning to divorce. Freeman did not want to talk about his marital life.

After leaving the Air Force, Freeman settled in San Francisco and got a job at the post office. He managed to save "a little stake" and decided to take off for New York City. The early '60s were churning. Possibilities seemed endless.

In Manhattan, he worked at a series of odd jobs. "Once I got a job as a skip tracer with a clothing manufacturer. They make clothes and send them off to places like Macy's. If the clothes didn't show up, I had to trace them."

He began reading for roles at Manhattan theater companies. It was a joyful time: actors chasing their dreams, sharing food, auditioning. "What I did we called 'dungeon theater' -- it wasn't even off-Broadway," he says.

Freeman liked the brew of actors and writers sitting around in small apartments from Harlem to Greenwich Village, talking about plays and doing workshops. "There was all this equal employment opportunity money coming into New York City, money for cultural stuff. You had John Lindsay as the mayor and he cared about these kinds of things. Theater groups were everywhere. You'd find yourself sitting in a room with writers like Ed Bullins and LeRoi Jones -- he became Amiri Baraka -- and Richard Wesley. And you could make just enough money with these small roles to keep yourself alive."

Wesley now chairs the Department of Dramatic Writing at New York University. On the phone from Singapore where NYU has a similar program, he remembers those early New York City days with Freeman: "Morgan always had this ability to disappear into roles," Wesley says. "Those of us who had the distinct privilege to watch him as a stage actor never forgot it. We feel blessed." Wesley says others wondered why it was taking Freeman so long to break out. "But I never heard him complain. I think he appreciated that other actors admired his work."

Freeman found steady work in 1971 on "The Electric Company," a PBS reading show geared toward children. The eclectic cast of actors engaged in a lot of improvisation. The kids giggled up a storm. "I began to think then I had a future," he says about the job.

In late 1976, Freeman went into rehearsals for a play that would eventually open on Broadway in 1978. It was Richard Wesley's "The Mighty Gents." Freeman played a former gang member in his 30s who was dealing with the vicissitudes of life. The play closed after nine performances. But a kind of Freeman cult emerged from it: It was the play everyone talked about but not enough people had gone to see.

"I got sterling reviews!" Freeman remembers. He was nominated for a Tony and won a Drama Desk Award. He soon joined Joseph Papp's maiden company of black and Hispanic actors putting on the works of Shakespeare. "We used to call it the Shaky Rep," Freeman says, cackling. "Joe had said, 'We have to find someplace where black and Hispanic actors can do the classics.' " The company eventually disbanded.

Shows opened and closed. Theater companies folded. Each time Freeman neared another port on his voyage, earning praise for an exemplary performance, he'd run aground yet again.

Then in 1986, Freeman received a script about a magazine writer who fakes a story about a pimp. "I met a pimp in Chicago one night," he recalls. "I was doing a movie with Cicely Tyson. Anyway, this pimp is needle-sharp. And he gave you the impression that anything you asked for he could provide. That image got me away from playing the pimp in the pimp hat and the pimpmobile." He played the pimp -- Fast Black -- in a chillingly quiet manner.

The movie, with Christopher Reeve in the role of the magazine writer, didn't survive in the theaters long. It earned about $1.1 million at the box office. But Freeman's performance was hard to shake for those who saw it. "That was the movie that catapulted me," he says. "And thanks to Sheila Benson -- she was head movie critic at the L.A. Times at the time -- I got an Oscar nomination."

Benson called Freeman's performance "commanding and terrifying." Others gave some credit for the nomination to New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, who had been familiar with Freeman's New York stage work. In her review of "Street Smart," Kael's first line asked: "Is Morgan Freeman the greatest American actor?"

The old Manhattan crowd was overjoyed at his late-blooming screen success. "Those of us in New York were now walking around as if everybody else finally knew about America's best-kept secret," Wesley says.

"Morgan was out there doing Shakespeare plays in Central Park," says Louis Gossett Jr., an Oscar winner for "An Officer and a Gentleman." "He paid his dues. He's been good a very long time."

Suddenly, Freeman was as dependable a screen presence as Spencer Tracy. Perhaps a tad too dependable. There are those who worry that, in the twilight of his career, Freeman's roles lack the edgy vitality they once had. There is the hard-to-ignore element of typecasting. "Yes, it has Morgan Freeman playing yet another Wise Old African-American Sidekick," the Star News of Wilmington, N.C., remarked about his role in the 2005 film "An Unfinished Life."

He'll soon be off to South Africa to make a movie about the 1995 Rugby Cup and the role the South African team played in the country's ongoing healing. Director Clint Eastwood wants him to play yet another good guy. "I'll be playing the great man," Freeman says about Nelson Mandela.

"As an actor," Freeman says, "you like to be well rounded. But the industry puts you in a niche. I don't think Sidney [Poitier] ever successfully played a bad part. Fonda did once in 'Once Upon a Time in the West,' but it was the only time he played a really bad guy. Gary Cooper never did. Clark Gable never did. So you're in good company when you get packaged as Mr. Good Guy. Of course, you have to be careful in thinking that's who you are in life. It's called the Othello effect. Taking the character offstage."

* * *

The voyager sails still.

Freeman got his first sailboat in the 1960s. "I'd been up in Vermont doing summer stock when a man gave me a little sailboat," he says. "I started reading a lot about the sea. Started with 'Moby Dick.' "

Sometimes there is no one around to hear the cascading Freeman voice: He's out there on the sea, all alone. He sails because he likes the challenge. "Sailing on the ocean, you have a real good shot at meeting yourself. How do you handle fear? How do you handle emergencies? Can you take care of yourself?"

He once sailed from Gloucester, Mass., back to New York. "I knew a weather system was coming up. But I left anyway. Had too much to drink the night before. Anyway, there came a point out there on the water when it seemed I was just feeling my way blindly along. But it worked out. There are times out on the water you just say, 'Whatever happens, happens. I'm in it and I'll deal with it.' "

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