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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

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"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.

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