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The Greatest

Morgan Freeman has earned his stellar reputation with some of the most compelling movie roles of the last 25 years.
From the Print Edition:
Morgan Freeman, Mar/Apr 2005

Every actor dreams of a moment like this. Clint Eastwood, accepting his Golden Globe in early 2005 for directing the heartbreaking boxing drama Million Dollar Baby, was speaking to a worldwide television audience of millions. He praised the film's leading lady, Hilary Swank, and then, his eyes focused on the camera, called her male costar, Morgan Freeman, "the world's greatest actor."

Less than 10 days later, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences agreed with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the overseer of the Golden Globes, that Freeman's performance as Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris in Million Dollar Baby ranked among the best of 2004. The Academy nominated him for a Best Supporting Actor award, a prize that was handed out in late February. Freeman did not win the Golden Globe, as Swank and Eastwood did, but there was widespread speculation, as this issue went to press, that he would take the Oscar this year for the first time in his career.

Freeman's role as the down-on-his-luck pragmatist and faded-to-gray boxer in Million Dollar Baby has cemented his reputation as one of Hollywood's most compelling and gifted thespians. His film career includes Best Actor nominations for the 1989 film Driving Miss Daisy and the 1994 release The Shawshank Redemption. He also garnered his first Best Supporting Actor nomination from the Academy in 1988 for the small, largely unheralded movie Street Smart.

That early film prompted the two-fisted New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael to pose a question that's not only worth pondering today, but predates Eastwood's pronouncement by 18 years: "Is Morgan Freeman the greatest American actor?" In Street Smart, Freeman had animated what could have been a stereotype by juxtaposing the violence of the role—a pimp named Fast Black, who comes to figure in the life of a mendacious journalist—with an amiable ruthlessness.

Today, his observations of the role provide a small window into how he approaches being an actor, and perhaps explain why he has become such a heralded one.

"I remember being out one night and seeing this guy—he was obviously a pimp—walking casually down the street with a woman in a headlock while he was punching her in the head. And he did it as easy as you please, never raising his voice. He could've been carrying groceries home," Freeman remarks, and the precision in his voice pulls the observer right into the street-theater scene that he used to bring the character alive. But then he quickly goes on to reveal a keen awareness of how fleeting praise like Kael's can be.

"It's always great when someone sings your praises, but there's a danger zone in believing your own press. I was thrilled when Pauline Kael wrote that. But then, what happens when someone turns around and writes, 'This motherfucker ain't shit!' And," Freeman roars with laughter, "That has happened."

Kael and Eastwood did agree on their judgment of Freeman, although they truly never agreed about much of anything else (Kael was notoriously critical of Eastwood's iconic status). It is in his collaboration with Eastwood that Freeman has found the freedom, and the comfort, to explore the outer reaches of his own acting ability. His first work with Eastwood was in the 1992 dark western Unforgiven, in which he played Ned Logan, a retired gunslinger hired to do one last job. The film earned Eastwood his first Oscar for directing.

"One of my favorite movies was the first western Clint directed, The Outlaw Josey Wales. I loved Clint's work, because there's always that hint of darkness in the middle of something seemingly normal, like in Tightrope. Did you see that one? But seeing him in those Sergio Leone westerns, I felt like, 'Man, I'd love to do one of those.' "

There was an immediate rapport on the set of Unforgiven between Eastwood and Freeman that continues to this day. "What I like most about Clint is the great feeling on the set. Because he trusts the material, and he trusts you. The shooting of [Million Dollar Baby] went like a dream because of that. He hires you because he believes you can do it. He spends his time on other things, like getting the film made. He doesn't direct the actors. He directs the film."

The Directors Guild of America agreed with Freeman's assessment of his costar, and boss; Eastwood won the DGA Award for Baby, upsetting another sentimental favorite, filmmaker Martin Scorsese. Often seen as a predictor of how Hollywood's notoriously fickle Academy thinks, the DGA vote also could mean that Freeman stands a much stronger chance of winning the Oscar for Baby.

The last time Freeman received Oscar recognition was for his portrayal of Ellis Boyd "Red" Redding, opposite Tim Robbins's Andy Dufresne, in The Shawshank Redemption. The prison buddy movie, which is considered a modern classic by many, explores the relationship between the two men, and then, Andy's eventual escape. That year, Freeman lost the Best Actor award to Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, which also beat out The Shawshank Redemption for Best Picture.

"That was such a great part that I thought I was never going to get it," he says. "It's the role that people come up to me and say it's their favorite most often. I think in that one, people ended up feeling I was standing in for them. I was representing their point of view, because the movie wasn't just something about heroes. But I don't like to intellectualize about this too much—acting—because it's not an intellectual enterprise. It's an undertaking."

Before Shawshank, the movie that catapulted him to stardom was Driving Miss Daisy, which won the Best Picture Oscar in 1989. That year, Freeman lost the Best Actor award to Dustin Hoffman for his turn as an autistic man in Rain Man. It was evident his acting talent was no longer unheralded. He became a hot property.

The role of Hoke Colburn in Driving Miss Daisy was not without some controversy, however. Some people were not happy with Freeman playing a black manservant and driver to the elderly and white Daisy Werthan, played by Jessica Tandy. Freeman was comfortable in the role, because he had been onstage in playwright Alfred Uhry's Pulitzer Prize—winning play of the same name.

"I know a lot of people thought Hoke was an Uncle Tom, but he wasn't," Freeman says solemnly. He remembers the assaults the character endured, and says, simply, "Hoke survived, and it took a lot of wisdom and patience to get by in those days down South. Anybody who's spent time down there knows what a complicated place it is."

In that soft acknowledgement of his background, you also begin to catch glimpses of Freeman, the man. The South runs through his nervous system. The savory meatiness of his upbringing allowed him to thicken the tepid broth of many films into a dense, rich stew—as such, it's a place close to Freeman's heart. He keeps a home in Mississippi, near the small town he grew up in, and he owns a thriving restaurant/blues club there. When he's asked about the South, he asks warily, "Why? What do you know about Mississippi?" before learning the questioner has roots in Hattiesburg. In his mind, one has to have a rightful claim on the place to understand.

"People who don't know [the South] are fast to judge it, like they do Hoke. He kept his head up under that cap he wore. I based a lot of Hoke on my father. Guys like him were pretty sly, and spoke a different language around white people. Maybe it's why I was so happy it got the attention. All of those people like that, I knew them very well."

His manner suggests that he was raised in a place—and time—where waiting was the order of the day, luxuriating in the breadth of stories detailed on front porches while screen doors creaked open and slammed shut and the air was so dense and muggy, it seemed to add another five or six seconds to every minute. If you've spent any time in the Deep South, the region engenders a tranquil gentility in its natives, which Freeman embodies.

"You can exist down there without having to hear your neighbor break wind or, for that matter, hear your neighbor. I love it down there, that humidity," he says with a grin, conjuring up the places of his youth. "All that moisture can wear some people down, but I live for it."

He recalls the support he received from his family and the community during his childhood. "[I remember] my mother giving me the impression I was special when I was growing up. And then my teachers gave me the impression I was special. And then the townsfolk gave me the feeling I was special. And I get out here into the world and think, 'I'm special.'

"Yeah...right!" he says, laughing. "But if you keep plugging away, things can bear out. It wasn't like I was a big fish in a dry pond—it gave me the encouragement to do what I had to in this business. [My mother] made me feel like I was a star growing up, and I remember the first time I was in Los Angeles in the late '50s, standing on Sunset Boulevard, thinking I was gonna prove her right. It took a while, though.

"

In his quiet assessment of the struggles he went through, Freeman can't help but address the issue of racism. But it's not a topic he dwells on.

"Sure, I dealt with that getting started. New York was a better place than Los Angeles, but not much better," Freeman says, recalling the prejudices that prevailed in his early working days. "I had those viciously sad and discouraging—distraught—moments when I thought, 'There's no place in this world for me. How am I gonna get along?' But I tried to always think about the next step in the evolution, because that's the cheap out. You can fall back on that one. You gotta want it, and you gotta keep at it."

 

 

Freeman's journey began in Memphis, Tennessee, on June 1, 1937. His parents, who were hospital workers, struggled to raise a family of six, and finally, in hopes of finding steady, more lucrative work, moved to Chicago. But Freeman stayed behind, moving in with his grandparents in Charleston, Mississippi. It was there he began his acting career in junior high school, where, according to published interviews, he won an acting competition.

His love of acting continued throughout his high school career. During the summers, he would travel to Chicago to visit his parents, and there, he has recalled, he would collect bottles for deposit refunds, using the money to hit the movie houses. His favorites were almost always war movies, and he was particularly drawn to the airplanes. In the end, that seemed like a better avenue to pursue a life, so he joined the Air Force at 18. But he never realized his dream of becoming a fighter pilot, and finally, after more than three years, he resigned from the military and moved to Los Angeles. He worked days at City College, which gave him access to acting and dancing classes for free.

Late blooming, or long suffering, probably understates the long years of Freeman's wait for a big break. He arrived in New York in the late 1950s from Los Angeles and began doing odd jobs around the Big Apple. "I moved to New York because I was running away from here, Los Angeles," Freeman says, laughing. "I met a woman, got in trouble, and I had to get out of here. It was a great theater scene in New York. Ivan Dixon was there, Lou Gossett was there, and of course, Sidney Poitier was the biggest thing going. New York was just more hospitable to black actors then. Hell, it was more hospitable to any kind of actor.

"I can't remember my first movie audition, but I do remember my first movie job [in the 1964 film The Pawnbroker, starring Rod Steiger]. It was as an extra. It was so easy." There were other roles as an extra, too, including one in A Man Called Adam, a 1966 movie with Sammy Davis Jr. Freeman also began gravitating toward the stage, taking bit parts and looking for any kind of work as an actor. He made his Off-Broadway debut in 1967.

What followed was 20 years of near misses, and lots of odd jobs. By the mid-'60s, he'd already been through plenty of ups and downs, trying to put food on the table.

Freeman has no compunction about enumerating those ups and downs during that period. "I got a job as a dancer. I remember I went to this audition being run by Michael Kidd, and it was a cattle call. The kind of thing where they go, 'OK, I pick you… you… and you. The rest of you, thank you very much.' And it was for Water World, for the 1964 World's Fair in New York. And it was great. And after that, when the money ran out, and it did pretty quickly, I had to get a job."

Work was his way of coming to an understanding about Manhattan and himself. "I went to work for Nedicks, the equivalent of fast food. And," he says grimly, "I hated it, and then I got a better job as an office temp. I worked as a telegrapher in the telegraph office in New York, the first time I came here, in 1960. I learned to type in the Air Force, and could type at least 65 words a minute. What we did at the telegraph office was called press wireless, sort of a central clearing house for foreign correspondents. Guys from around the world would send us their news stories and we would send them out. That was one of the office jobs I had, and I was very good at them because I was so handy."

But the office job was almost scary. Freeman recalls that he began to think it might just be his calling. "One of my bosses, who really loved me, told me why she couldn't bring me on the regular staff. She said, 'You're gonna go off and audition for parts, and you need that flexibility, and that's fine with me. But if you get a job, you'd be out of here and never look back.' "

After a deep laugh, he continues. "I said, 'That's true.' But she also said, 'You're bored to death when there's nothing to do.' And that's because I just can't make work if there's nothing to do. If there's nothing to do, I believe in doing nothing. Now, if there's work to do, I'm on it. I'm all over it, because there is no bad job."

One of those jobs that he capitalized on was a TV show called "Electric Company," a precursor to "Sesame Street." Joining the ensemble cast in 1971, he played the sanguine, cool-breeze icon "Easy Reader," among other roles he ran through on the series. The Easy Reader character still leaves Generation Xers with fond recollections: during a Freeman appearance on "Late Night," host Conan O'Brien cooed over the actor and acted as if he were a Labrador puppy having his belly rubbed.

But his work on that offbeat kids program honed a skill that would serve him well in his later film successes: he gained control over his voice. It's that distinctive and cool vocal instrument that he has used to supply emotional undercurrents in films, even serving as the basic lifeline, as it did in The Shawshank Redemption. In the midst of the interview for this article, you can hear the same sonorous mesmerizing tones of that line in Shawshank, when he spoke about going to Zihuatenjo in Mexico. It comes out as he describes his first time sailing, in 1967. Now, he gets to enjoy that love of sailing only about once a year, on a boat he keeps in the Caribbean.

"[My voice] wasn't a natural thing at all," Freeman explains. "It came out of training. Like many people, I spoke at a higher register than my voice actually is, and had to learn to bring it down. Now, that's OK for women"—he shifts his voice higher—"to speak like this, because it sounds feminine. But I was taught to use my voice right, and really got control over it doing all of those voice-overs I had to do on 'Electric Company.' It's why I've always said there are no bad jobs." The other skill he took away from "Electric Company" was the ability to work in an ensemble cast, a combination of his innate people skills coupled with experience gained from the weekly grind of turning out a TV show. The original cast included Rita Moreno and even had occasional visits from Bill Cosby. The show ran for more than 700 episodes, and it gave him a steady income throughout the 1970s, when not much else was happening in his career.

Being able to work effectively with a group is a skill that fellow actor Michael Keaton, who starred with Freeman in the widely acclaimed 1988 film Clean and Sober, says can help every actor on a movie set.

Keaton talks admiringly about Freeman. "We all loved Morgan. He hadn't popped yet," Keaton said, recalling a film made before the big splash of Driving Miss Daisy, "and I felt like he was just the coolest guy. Likable, friendly, and told the greatest stories. One day, we were shooting a scene with a room full of people. And everybody's hanging out, having fun.

"All of a sudden, Morgan starts screaming. And I'm thinking"—Keaton's trademark impish eyebrows raise in suspicion—"'Oh, man. He's crazy.' And Morgan walks to a corner. I wander over—right?—to ask him: 'What was that all about?' And Morgan smiles and says, 'They were taking it too easy.' " Keaton nods in appreciation, "He was right, too. His instincts are so good."

In fact, Freeman's instincts are so good that he can take even mediocre scripts in modest movies and pump life into the flattest of failed pulp fiction. He first showed that remarkable ability to take over a movie in 1980, in Brubaker, starring Robert Redford. Kael, taking her first real notice of Freeman's acting, said the film's plot never recovered after his departure from the story.

But there are other roles that Freeman has executed that live beyond the movie itself. In the third-rate chase picture Chain Reaction, he stood out as the no-nonsense scientist, Paul Shannon. In David Fincher's landmark thriller, Se7en, his poised and intelligent detective, Lt. William Somerset, opposite Brad Pitt's brash detective David Mills, was so compelling that it moved Gwyneth Paltrow to say that Freeman should have been named People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive in 1995, not Pitt (who was her boyfriend at the time).

It's also hard to forget his Azeem, in Kevin Costner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves; or President Tom Beck in Deep Impact, the doomsday story about a comet about to destroy Earth; or recovering alcoholic lawyer Charlie Grimes in the movie High Crimes, with Ashley Judd; or William Cabot in the Tom Clancy thriller, The Sum of All Fears, costarring Ben Affleck. Moreover, with Unleashed headed for the theaters this summer, in which he plays Sam, a blind piano tuner, the chances are he is only going to add to the roster of unusual but memorable characters. That doesn't even take into account the other movies in which he has roles that are slated for release in 2005, including Batman Begins, with Christian Bale; the movie he is currently working on, Lucky Number Slevin; and another going into pre-production currently titled Colors Straight Up.

All those recent projects seem to be coming to fruition in what Freeman might consider an "off" year. That's because he's had what he considers extraordinary good fortune in years ending in 7, including the year he was born, 1937.

"Every tenth year of my life, every birth year, is when things seemed to click into place for me, and '87 was when I really noticed it. That was when I understood I wasn't going to perish, that I would prevail," he observes. "'87 was a jump ball, and I was ready. I wasn't gonna kill myself, I wasn't gonna overindulge in drugs or liquor or anything like that."

The first fortuitous year was 1967. His vocal assurance, that voice again, demands you take in his remarks at the pace he's set, as if he were laying down eight bars for a lazy blues tune. "1967 was a banner year for me. It was when I first learned to sail, got on my first 18-foot boat. It was also the year when I had the thunderbolt of realization: 'I'm not a dancer. I'm not an office worker. I'm an actor.'

"1977 was big, too: The Last Street Play, an Off-Broadway production written by Richard Wesley that made a lot of noise at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Then, it was moved to Broadway, which was the wrong place for something strong. It should've stayed where it was, instead of moving to a big house, where it closed in a little more than a week. Man," he shrugs. But he was on Broadway, however briefly.

"Broadway wouldn't support heavy work like that, even back in those days. But the noise was all around me, and I really got into the lifestyle. I was living over my head, using up my credit cards, and, man, I got in debt fast."

But then there was 1987. That was the year he started performing in Driving Miss Daisy on the stage, which then led to the film role, and which in turn led to the recognition from the Academy that had been so long in coming. Good fortune had finally struck in his 50th year; a lesser man might have given up much sooner.

In talking about his life, while driving from Santa Monica, California, back to the Four Seasons Hotel for his photo shoot, Freeman knows he gravitated towards all of the things that matter to him like a compass drawn towards magnetic north. And somewhere in his heart, even though it took so long, it always seemed as if it was destined to happen.

"Well, that's the right analogy, isn't it? I mean, I don't know that this pattern of my birth year being a highlight is always going to hold true. But I've learned to be ready for it. And like with setting up our production offices with our partnership with Hewlett-Packard, I've learned that when there's a void to be filled—and there always is—you should be ready to fill it. I know what matters to me. Taking a sailing trip, which I only got to do once last year, because I'm always working. I enjoy working with diesel engines, something I found in the Air Force, which helps because I know I'm a boat guy, not a car guy."

Before he can continue, a brand new Bentley Continental GT coupe—in rich, gleaming hand-rubbed black—slices past him, and he watches the car in awe.

"Maybe I'm not a car guy, but I can appreciate a thing of beauty. Something that takes time to build."

Sometimes, life hands us easy symbols—and Morgan Freeman has applied sweat, craft and persistence to assemble a legacy as lovingly hand-tooled as the piece of powered steel that's cruising past him. And, he's not done yet.

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