Morgan Freeman: The Latecomer

I remember watching Morgan Freeman as Easy Reader on The Electric Company as a kid.  Like most people, I had no idea who he was.  Freeman spent decades trying to make a name for himself as an actor.  His efforts finally paid off in 1987 with the one-two punch of Street Smarts and the stage version of Driving Miss Daisy.  For the next decade, Freeman slowly built up his resume until he became Hollywood’s go-to guy for mentor characters.  In this interview from the May 1997 issue of Movieline magazine, Freeman describes his struggles and the attitude that got him through the lean years.

Like Duke Ellington with his orchestra, pretending to be startled by the sweetness of his own music, Morgan Freeman is presiding at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, humorously nagging his retinue because, he says, he suspects they are secretly turning down the heat. He prefers the heat kept high, and like anyone about to turn 60 (in June) who has thoroughly made it, he has every intention of being comfortable and having a proper grand time in a place like this hotel. Hasn’t he earned it? Without a trace of boastfulness, he knows he’s at his peak–feels it, like Ellington feeling the beat behind him. He doesn’t take his success for granted as something bound to last, but he is perpetually entertained that his own simple, yet vast love of pretending, of doing what he calls “a bit of a skit,” has taken him so far. His eminence delights him all the more because he sees the streak of absurdity in it.

A lot of people are calling Morgan Freeman the best actor in America (this began with Pauline Kael, back in ’87 when Street Smart was released). Who rivals him for grace, dignity and authority? At six-foot-two he has a dancer’s figure still. He moves and talks and reacts like someone born for movies–ideally the movies of the ’40s and ’50s, the ones he saw as a kid, when he looked on the wondrous world of white stories and loved it, without resentment or anger, and knew he deserved it. But getting there was a long journey.

Freeman gazes out the windows of his suite at the misty, damp day and sees his own past, a day that was one of his first in this city. Los Angeles: the late ’50s; a young man right out of the Air Force, looking for roles and believing in movies like an idiot. “I didn’t know what I was doing, or how impossible it was,” he remembers. “I just asked for parts.” On the day he’s thinking of now, he says, “I was walking, and I hadn’t eaten for three days. I remember realizing, and saying to myself, ‘Why, you could die right here.'”

Freeman spent not just years, but decades as someone unsure of where work would come from. When he finally got a steady gig doing kid TV on The Electric Company, the undemanding acting came to bore him so much he started drinking and found he was an alcoholic. He was barely holding together when Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino were becoming the great American actors. The sheer passage of time has to be underlined in Freeman’s career not just to point to his persistence, but as a measure of his humor and fatalism–and as the backdrop to the absolute serenity of being Morgan Freeman now.

Freeman has always wanted to be where he is now. But it wasn’t until ’86 and ’87 that he “arrived,” with the stunning double act of Driving Miss Daisy onstage and Street Smart (for which he was Oscar-nominated) on-screen. In just over a decade since then, he has done Clean and Sober, Lean on Me, Johnny Handsome, Driving Miss Daisy (the movie), Glory, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Power of One, Unforgiven, Bopha! (which he directed), The Shawshank Redemption, Outbreak, Se7en, Moll Flanders and Chain Reaction. His new film, The Flood, is about to open; Kiss the Girls is upcoming; and he’s about to begin work on Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. He has earned a special reputation for performances that gently guide young, white actors–Brad Pitt in Se7en, Robin Wright in Moll Flanders, Keanu Reeves in Chain Reaction and Christian Slater in The Flood. He is more than in demand; he’s been booked solid for several years.

So now he has this suite at the Four Seasons, filled with his own cheerful retinue, and he’s announcing the debut of his own production company, Revelations Entertainment, which plans to make a big sci-fi movie out of the Arthur C. Clarke novel, Rendezvous With Rama. He is cashing in, in a deft, good-natured, totally American way. If Morgan Freeman has come to be famous and revered late in life, this means that we, his audience, never knew the Morgan Freeman who was young, foolish, impetuous–a jerk, a punk.He grew up in Greenwood, Mississippi, near where he lives now with his wife, designer Myrna Colley-Lee, but he grew up partly in Chicago, too. The lessons he learned from these two different ways of growing up mean everything to him.

“Is Morgan Freeman your real name?”

“Yeah, it was my father’s name.”

“Where does the ‘Morgan’ come from?”

“No idea.”

“It’s a Welsh name, isn’t it?”

“Never been able to find out anything at all about that. I don’t know why he was named ‘Freeman.’ I know some of the background of that side of the family, but the strange thing about the black family tree is that usually you can follow only the mother’s line. I know that my grandfather’s name was Hubert Freeman. He was married for a while to my grandmother, and then she was living with another man. She had three sons. Looking at them, I get the distinct impression they were from three different fathers. But one never knows. I wasn’t old enough to ask the questions. Later, I had a very strong need to know, so I know that my great-great-great grandmother was a Virginia slave who was bought up by a man named Colonel Wright and taken to the territory of Mississippi, and who had three sons, one of whom was the father of my great-grandmother, [who was born] out of wedlock–he didn’t acknowledge her. Her I knew. She lived till I was four years old, but I avoided her because she was that old, sick woman, doomed and dying for the longest time.”

“Were you born in Mississippi?”

“I was born in Memphis because my parents were working there. They were both from Mississippi, but they were in Memphis in the same hospital–she was a nurse’s aide and my father was an orderly. But my earliest recollections of life are in Charleston, Mississippi, at the age of about four. I was left with my paternal grandmother when my parents took the exodus. That was the journey so many blacks took out of the South, going into the industrial North in the early ’40s. Going into the factories. And, of course, the war made that almost a must.”

“Was your father in the war?”

“Well, no, he was in the Army for a minute, but my father wasn’t much of anything, actually–my natural father. He didn’t make it in the Army, not beyond basic training. My stepfather was involved, I think, in getting him out because of hardship and disability.”

“When did the stepfather come in?”

Freeman laughs expansively. “Well, he was there all the time. He was the one I thought was my father–until I met my father, really saw him, when I was six. I knew he was my father because he was my grandmother’s son.”

“How many children was your grandmother looking after?”

“Just my younger sister and I. My mother had four kids, and the two of us were by this one man. Then my grandmother died, not long after I was six, and my father came and got us and took us to Chicago where he and my mother were living–in estrangement, in 1943. That was only for a minute or two. It wasn’t meant to work, so then it was just my mother, my sister and I–in Chicago, and in Mississippi, back and forth. My mother, I think, really wanted to live in a city, where there was more opportunity. But, I don’t know what she wanted–I really don’t know.”

“So most of your childhood was spent in–”

“Greenwood, Mississippi. My maternal grandmother was there. Turned out I had two other siblings she was taking care of, and then we all got to know each other.”

“This was an era of complete segregation?”


“How was that explained to you?”

He laughs again, and there’s a hint of impatience with the way white people still don’t quite get it. “It wasn’t explained. You don’t have to explain segregation–you’re born into it, that’s the way life is, the way you perceive things. I mean, people say it was better in the North. Bullshit! It wasn’t. In the South it was fact, out in the open. You weren’t suckered. But in the North!” He shakes his head at the memory of the duplicity. “That was one of the reasons I went back to Mississippi.”

“What was your school like in Mississippi?”

“An all-black school. But I had just come from an urban cesspool where getting to school was a problem. In school, you could manage, but the getting back and forth–violence, terrible violence. You couldn’t live alone, function alone. You had to be with some gang–go along to get along. It was all predicated on violence and lawlessness.”

Freeman grows very quiet, and it is easy to feel how often the young Morgan must have been on the edge.

“So you’re forced into gangsterism,” he continues. “Which is the legacy we have in South Central Los Angeles now. There is no other life. The only way out is to get out. How do you do that? Well, I was snatched out by my maternal grandmother. So, living in Greenwood during the early ’50s–six years of high school–it was the best of times for me. I had great teachers who thought I was something. I became very well liked and supported by a community. You know Hillary Clinton’s statement, that it takes a village to raise a child? She was dragged through the coals for that, but it works–when you’re in a small community, where all of the kids are everybody’s responsibility. Children need that line to tow. If they don’t have it, that’s what makes them angry. [They think] ‘No one gives a shit? I’m just here?’ I lived in a situation where if you stepped over a certain line–I mean, Mrs. Brown would say, ‘I’m going to tell your parents.’ And I would go home and get a whipping. And my mother was never going to go to the school and take a teacher to task–my mother was going to beat my butt if she found out I had embarrassed her by getting whipped in school. I was going to get it both ends. Nowadays, if you can’t discipline children–if they have the power–how can you raise them?”

“So you had come back from Chicago as a pretty wild kid?”

“Someone who could have gone waaaay down the wrong road.”

“Were you tall as a kid?”

“I was skinny.”

“Pretty striking-looking?”

“I don’t know. I think I was just kinda … I don’t know. I remember living in Chicago and feeling kinda nerdy. Because it was all in my imagination. And I was into books. I read constantly, because I didn’t like being out there on the street alone. I got my library card when I was eight, and my first book was Black Beauty and from then on I read all of the animal stories, and then I graduated to Nancy Drew-types of stories. Then I got into ‘deeper’ books–I started reading Mickey Spillane and Peyton Place. And I was also very active in anything that had to do with the stage–plays, putting on skits. I discovered at 12 that I was born to pretend.”

“Did that impress other kids? Girls?”

“Well, I’ll tell you this. I had a paper route when I was 15. One Sunday I was making my collection round, and I knocked on this lady’s door. She gave me the five dollars, or whatever, and I signed a receipt, and she looked at it and said, ‘Oh, you’re Morgan Freeman! My daughter talks about you all the time!’ So, yes, I had a lot of girlfriends. And I got a lot of flak from the jocks, too: ‘Hey, man, there must be something wrong with you. You spend all that time around those girls!’

“You didn’t do well at sports?”

“No, I was clumsy physically. Great dancer, though! Rock and roll, rhythm and blues. We had a place in Greenwood called the Stand–a little shack. Friday and Saturday nights, we’d get greased up, go to the Stand, drop a nickel in the jukebox and dance! dance! dance! That place was shaking.”

“Were teenagers better behaved then than now?”

“We were. I went to a 20-year high school reunion, and there was a whole class of people who had successful lives. Not in jail. Not dead.”

“Is it still there, the potential for the village?”

“No. What has happened is the courts. Those little towns still have schools that are federally funded, and the courts have said you can’t use corporal punishment. If a kid stands up and tells you, ‘Go fuck yourself,’ and you slap him, they can call the police. Incredible, isn’t it? I argue this with my wife, about rights. I say, children don’t have rights. You give them permission. She says, ‘Children have rights!’ I say, ‘No, they only have whatever you give them.'”

“You don’t speak out on this kind of thing very much.”

“Not my place. I’m just an actor.”

“But you’re highly respected, not just as an actor, but as a man of integrity and character. You never feel a pressure to speak?”

“No, because, look, I’m just talking to you. We’re discussing things, and this is how I feel about growing up. But I’m not political, as an animal. I avoid it as much as possible. I keep my mouth shut–unless I’m asked a direct question.”

“Why did you go into the Air Force?”

“Well, remember, I grew up with the movies. I went to the movies every day during the summer. When I lived in Chicago, I had access to three different movie theaters. Programs lasted three days and all I had to do to go every day was find enough bottles. Quart milk bottles were a nickel. Movies cost 12 cents. Two Coca-Cola bottles and a beer bottle was movie money. So I spent a lot of time looking for bottles and hoarding them. I went on my own. Got in to everything. Didn’t seem to be any ratings. Strongest thing then was Clark Gable’s ‘damn’ in Gone With the Wind. No one took their clothes off.”

“Who were your favorites?”

“I suppose my favorite was Gary Cooper. My earliest love as an actor. Then Gregory Peck, Spencer Tracy, Bogart, Cagney, Dick Powell and William Powell. And all the ladies. Lizabeth Scott, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis.”

“What does this have to do with the Air Force?”

“I lived in my imagination, and flying was the great dream. I would fly in my sleep, and I had a lot of dreams of falling–but I never hit the ground. I leveled off, came back out of it. I really wanted to fly. So I just went along to recruiting when I was 16–the Korean War was still on–and the sergeant said, ‘You’ve only got one year of high school. Go back and finish.’ So I did, and as soon as I had finished high school I went back and I went into the Air Force, in Mississippi. They sent me to Texas. They should have put me straight into the Strategic Air Command, but nobody black was going into that, so they made me a radar mechanic. I thought, that’s OK, that’s temporary. I’ll do that and then I’ll start my campaign to fly. But by the time that fell into place I realized that the military and I were two different animals. My problem is I question authority–deeply. And I don’t suffer fools easily. But the military is full of them. So we were going to part company.”

“Somehow, I managed to stay out of jail–but you couldn’t say anything to me without me talking back to you. So I got into this plane, a T-33 Jet Trainer at North Isle Air Station, and I’m sitting there, thinking this is really real. I had just seen a movie, Battle Hymn with Rock Hudson, and there’s a scene where a pilot is in his plane and he sees a column of North Korean soldiers. He doesn’t see that there are civilians around, and strafes the column. But then as he banks his plane he sees the civilians. Screws him up. Now, I’m sitting in this plane, and I’m remembering the movie, and thinking how all the people got up, dusted themselves off, and did the shot again. But this plane is real. This is a bullet. This is a bomb. Not what I wanted. I wanted a camera sitting there! I was 21 and somehow it occurred to me that I wanted make-believe.”

“When do you think your breakthrough came?”

“Every time I got a job!”

“For a long time, then, you wondered if you were going to get a job? When did that feeling end?”

“When I did Street Smart, and at the same time onstage I did Driving Miss Daisy. A few years before that, I could not get arrested. Then the dam broke. Early in 1986, when I was doing The Gospel at Colonus onstage, and having a great time with it, I got a call about doing Driving Miss Daisy for stage. Now, I’d heard of this play a while before, and I’d read it, and I said, ‘This is my song.’ My only question was who would play Miss Daisy, because I felt then she shouldn’t be that old. They picked Dana Ivey–that was that. Driving Miss Daisy opened within weeks of Street Smart and both got huge attention.”

“Do you ever feel like saying to people, ‘You should have seen what Morgan Freeman could have done in the ’60s and ’70s?'”

“No, I’ve developed this fatalistic attitude. What happens happens as it should. There’s no way to go back again. I’m not sure I was all that hot in the ’60s. But if I had gotten my break around ’66, something big at the age of 30, who’s to say I wouldn’t have misused myself?”

“You think maybe fate has been kind to you in an odd way?”

“Yeah. Part of the young Morgan Freeman was a jerk! So, I guess so. You think about where you’ve been–looking back–how did you get here? One step at a time.”

“And are there particular things still that you’d like to do?”

“Well, if someone, from somewhere, could come up with another Inherit the Wind, and let me play the Darrow part–that sort of thing–I’d love to do a courtroom piece.”

“You talk about Darrow–a famous white role. And in recent years, I think, a lot of your roles have been roles written as white.”

“Yes, or not specified, which means white.”

“So let me ask you this: once upon a time it was common for white actors to play Othello. Orson Welles did it, and Olivier was maybe the most famous Othello of all. Now suppose, say, that the National Theatre in London wrote you and said they’d like to offer you some parts. And they mention King Lear. And then they say they’ve got this new play, Lincoln in the White House, about the private, family man. What would you say?”

“No. I’d do Lear, not Lincoln.”

“Tell me the difference.”

“Lincoln is not make-believe. Lincoln is somebody we all know, as a figure in American history, whose contribution to history is predicated on fact, and who was a white man. And I don’t think you should corrupt that. You could make him Jewish if you wanted to, but I don’t think you could make him black.”

“You don’t think it’s possible that you have an imaginative understanding of him that’s as great–”

“No. I have a problem with a black actor playing Richard III, Henry IV or Henry V. I don’t have a problem with Lear because you can shift that, you don’t even have to set it in Britain. The story of Lear is not necessarily English.”

“But in opera, say, we’re well used to black singers doing white roles.”

“Yeah, I think so, but opera has nothing to do with what you’re looking at, in terms of the actors, but everything to do with the music and the voice. Who’s singing it isn’t nearly as important as how it’s being sung. But when you do a stage play, the audience is going to get totally involved with the actor. And if you stretch credibility, in terms of who’s interacting with who, the audience keeps jumping in and out of the play. Everything to do with the stage has to do with the suspension of disbelief.”

“So how do you feel when you see Olivier do Othello?”

“I don’t really care what Olivier does, he’s one of the greatest actors ever. And there’s the fact that Shakespeare wrote Othello–I did it and I realized it’s a white man’s job. Shakespeare didn’t know anyone black. I feel that Othello is merely a foil for Iago. It should be called Iago. I didn’t realize that until I’d done it. I found myself totally inadequate. Then I saw Olivier do it, and I was floored by the performance. I’ve seen black actors–me included–never approach it.”

“So tell me about Revelations Entertainment, your new company.”

“Well, I met Lori McCreary several years ago and we did this project in South Africa, Bopha!. That started our relationship, and as time went on she said she wanted to start a production company. And I’d had a couple of things before, more for acquisition purposes than real production, but I thought, This is a great idea. Now I can get into producing without having to spend all my time on the business. And she’s someone I really know and trust.”

“But you’re at your peak as an actor, and now you’re getting into all the compromise. Is there something in you not fulfilled yet?”

“Yes, I hope so. Fulfillment is death. It means there’s nothing else you want. And for all the material being written, there isn’t much, I find, that is interesting to me, and to the history I want to see treated–the history of other peoples in this country that, if aired, could give an entirely fresh concept of what it is to be an American. This is not just a country that was founded by the white forefathers. And so part of my desire with Revelations is to reveal some of this, the work of the Chinese, blacks, all the diaspora people who came here and created this country.”

“Does this feeling of duty come out of anger?”

“No, anger is not what it is. I had my period in there when I was angry, but it occurred to me at some point that you can’t be angry about the telling of history. If I want my part told–it’s up to me.”


David Thomson is the author of Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles, published by Knopf.


Posted on May 24, 2017, in Movieline Articles, Movies and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Well, when Morgan Freeman’s career got busy, he stayed busy.


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