IN THE ANONYMITY of his dressing room, Al Freeman Jr. reads his fan mail.
Surrounded by the bottles of Guinness Stout, coffee beans from Bloomingdale's and sheet music by Sergio Mendes and Stevie Wonder, he reads a letter from a woman in Canada. She is writing about his role as a policeman on the soap opera "One Life to Live." In a contrast to the other characters, she says, "you are a gentleman."
Freeman, an intense wisp of a man in casual blue and beige, smiles. Fan mail is the paper upper for any actor. But the kind of mail he's getting in his mid-40s underscores the irony that confronts many actors who -- after years of reputable theater work -- get their recognition and awards from bread-and-butter serial work.
Freeman has seared the stage as an angry militant in such landmark black productions as James Baldwin's "Blues for Mr. Charlie" and has infused public figures such as Malcolm X in "Roots II" with reality. Now he plays a cop on day-time TV.
Here in the cool basement of an ABC television studio, he tries to balance it all out. On the one hand, there is fan mail and steady work from "One Life," and an Emmy Award earlier this year for his soap character. On the other, there is his reputation for dozens of substantial roles during the '60s, an Emmy nomination for his role in the "Roots" sequel, but no exciting new offers.
"The Emmys," he repeats, looking askance and releasing a horrow-show chuckle, "You watch these kind of awards and you see some guy get it, and you say 'how did that - - - get it.' And all of a sudden, they call out your name and you realize you are the next - - - ." He stops, a blend of boyist self-satisfaction and actor's pragmatism surfacing. "When they call out your name, you are thrilled. It's nice to get and it's one of those moments -- people cheering and applauding -- but beyond that, things still go on."
But the second Emmy nomination, to be decided in tonight's telecast, he says, is "a lot more gratifying."
His equanimity comes from years of pruning away anticipation. A 20-year veteran of stage, films and television, Freeman has clocked the tides of his own popularity and watched the boom and recession of black theater, whose ascension is historically tied to politics and cash registers.
And although he can receive some satisfaction when ABC tells him that he is the first actor ever nominated for a daytime and evening Emmy in the same year, he still feels that he is underused.
That's the rub. Freeman represents the group of actors, particularly black actors and actresses, who want to work but find the pickings slim. These are the people who don't want to play bucks and butlers, mammies and madams. The legitimate, respectable roles are events, not work, and those who have filled them -- alike Al Freeman, Cicely Tyson, Clarence Williams III, Gloria Foster, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee -- made the contemporary theater world cognizant of the worth of the black actor. But now those roles are few; and everyone, in Freeman's view, shares the blame for the current depression.
Freeman, like the scores of other actors and actresses who received wild praise for their work in "Roots," has not seen any direct employment profit. "It doesn't work that way for black actors, at least not for me. There is really no continuity, at least, in that sense. A white actor can have a hit in film or a television show and there are offers. It doesn't work that way for us," he says.
Frustrations have mounted after two periods of raised hopes: the serious theater movement of the early 1960s and the "Roots" explosion. Freeman, who appeared in several movies in the 1960s -- including "Finian's Rainbow" with Fred Astaire and "The Detective" with Frank Sinatra, both in 1968 -- chose to sit out the in-between period of blaxploitation movies.
"I was a little bewildered by that period," he says. "It still was very firmly in the hands of Hollywood. They kept making the same kind of picture over and over again, so that no real serious films ever came out of that whole thing.
"Fred Williamson makes picture after picture after picture, all the same junk. I don't know what he learns. Ron O'Neal with "Superfly 2" tries to do something. It didn't come off -- where is he now? I think that's an indication of what the motive was -- to get in and really make some bucks, not to build an institution, not to say something about the black experience. It's the only conclusion I can draw. It's not around any more."
In that rush to get black faces on the screen and the black consumer dollar at the box office, Freeman says, he was only offered one job. "I was asked to direct "Blacula." I read the script and I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever read. I thought this would be a real campy movie. I made the mistake of saying that to the producer and he said, 'Yeah, but will it scare anybody?' I said, "Well, just a few.' Then he said, 'Well, we'll get back to you.' It was a big hit."
Despite the occasional opportunities in black drama -- "The River Niger" and "Sizwe Bande is Dead" -- the kinds of plays he likes to do are scarce. His preference is to "say something about the way we live, how we are to each other, stuff like that," says Freeman, who will direct a play at the Henry Street Theater this fall. His friend Robert Hooks says, "Al is determined to do kinds of things he wanted. He always held out and has paid a price. But he's making up for it with daytime television."
Donald Bogle, in his book "Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks," said of Freeman's serious stage and screen work: "Each of his performances was so well thought out and so expertly tempered that his emotional outbursts were never just uncontrolled hatred. Instead they were explanations of why black America has so much pent-up anger. For this reason, Freeman's work still outshines that of many name actors" during the '60s.
When Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" ushered in a new era of black-experience evenings on Broadway in 1959, Freeman was ready. A native of San Antonio, Texas, Freeman had studied drama at Los Angeles City College, and according to eyewitnesses played a brillant Oedipus. The dramatization of Richard Wright's novel, "The Long Dream," which lasted five days, brought him to New York and the juggling of a career as an actor and an apartment-house manager. In 1961, Freeman joined the cast of Oscar Brown's musical "Kicks & Co.," which closed rapidly in Chicago. In 1962, he met his first success in the Joshua Logan production, "Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright," which brought to Broadway Alvin Ailey, the late Diana Sands, Cicely Tyson, Roscoe Lee Browne and Ellen Holly.
In the period from 1964 to 1966, Freeman appeared in three of the era's most important black plays: "Blues" by Baldwin and "The Slave" and "Dutchman" by LeRoi Jones, now Imamu Amiri Baraka. In every setting, Freeman was the seething, young radical; the critics labeled him "flaming" and "brilliant." His anger was so convincing that Langston Hughes once wrote that he got sick to his stomach every time he heard Freeman's name. The poet and social critic wrote that "Mr. Freeman is perfection at snarling, sneering, cursing, sniveling, complaining, bullying, and browbeating."
"The parts that came along had something to say about the times," says Freeman, earnestly. "I was lucky enough to land a few of those right in the heart of it. It was very rewarding, I felt a part of the struggle." But as the struggle was eclipsed in the social lethargy of the early '70s, so was Broadway's interest in the material.
Producer Joseph Papp -- who calls Freeman "one of the finest actors in America" with "a fine aristocratic sense and an interesting mind" -- says that Freeman's dilemma is typical: "There has been a trend in the theater that the commercial offerings on Broadway are all junk. You can work off-off Broadway and starve. Or you can face the question of how to make a living."
During the decline of serious theater, while Broadway has capitalized on all-black musicals and revues, Freeman's visibility has continued sporadically through television movies like "My Sweet Charlie" with Patty Duke, his eight years on the daytime soap, his worldly, slightly cynical job on TV's "Hot L Baltimore," and choice parts as a Bayard Rustin-like character in "King" and Malcolm X in "Roots: The Next Generation."
In his 40s, Freeman looks a good 10 years younger.He has a sprinter's lean build. But there's an intensity on his global face, from the clear, dark eyes through the jut of his dimpled chin. In a character this frailness disappears. But the challenge as an actor, says Freeman, is to vitalize the public figure, who has been over-interpreted by the media and compartmentalized in the public mind.
For Freeman the soaps gave him the opportunity to stay in New York, where he has lived for 20 years, and near his newly-acquired country home complete with wine cellar. Also the work "allows you to say no to some things," says Freeman.
He joined the "One Life to Live" cast in the early '70s, when "hovering around in the air were brutality incidents." Playing a policeman, Freeman says, "I wanted to make sure my man had authority and that he used it fairly. He's the kind of person you could talk to, a listener, not so authoritarian." He wants the proper image, the drive that has made him a memorable character actor.
He laughs about his character's impact, his well-veined forehead crinking up: "I hope he doesn't wind up saying black people can be just as mediocre as anybody else."