To find Morgan Freeman, you have to drive for miles through the rural Delta country of northwest Mississippi, past cotton fields and fried-catfish joints, to arrive at the city of Clarksdale, population 22,000. Implausibly located in its rundown center is Madidi, a fine- dining establishment co-owned by Freeman that features honey-coated salmon with horseradish and roasted red pepper fondue on its menu. This is the Oscar-winning actor’s preferred place to socialize and conduct business. It represents his deep emotional and financial commitment to his home state.
Looking every bit the cool cat in blue jeans, Freeman arranges his six-foot-two frame in a chair next to a window in the empty restaurant, leans back, and props his cowboy boots up on a table. “I have deep genetic roots in Mississippi,” he says. Freeman, 70, and his wife, Myrna, live down the road in Charleston, on a 126-acre ranch with a large, gracious main house, peach trees, and stables. He built the ranch on the same patch of land his grandparents worked, where he spent much of his childhood.
By grounding himself here, far from the warping influences of Hollywood, Freeman paradoxically safeguards his box-office appeal. For while his superstardom is the result of an abundance of natural talent and years of dedication to his craft, he also embodies a virtue that is sorely needed, in the culture at large as well as in films: authenticity. In his new movie Feast of Love, an ensemble meditation on romance, costarring Greg Kinnear and Jane Alexander, Freeman plays a retired college professor whom people seek out for guidance. “Morgan and Paul Newman have the greatest moral stature among American actors,” says Feast of Love director Robert Benton. “Dustin Hoffman said you can’t act certain things: you can’t act eroticism or a moral quality. And Morgan certainly represents the moral center.”
By grounding himself here, far from the warping influences of Hollywood, Freeman paradoxically safeguards his box-office appeal.
In his greatest roles, Freeman has elevated that essential goodness to heroic stature with his physical grace and exquisitely modulated voice: as the dignified chauffeur in Driving Miss Daisy, the runaway slave and Union army sergeant in Glory, the decent convict in The Shawshank Redemption, and in his Academy Award-winning portrayal of a washed-up fighter in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. For all that, he says he has more fun playing villains, such as the vicious pimp in Street Smart. That role put him on the map, earning him his first Oscar nomination in 1987 and prompting critic Pauline Kael to ask rhetorically, “Is Morgan Freeman the greatest American actor?”
These days he doesn’t get the chance to take on roles that would tap the dark or twisted sides of his nature. And though he never asked to be our national truth teller, he’s too classy to complain, especially since the perks are exceptional: he is respected all over the world and commands up to $20 million a picture. “I’m saddled with it,” he says, deadpan.
The trust factor has allowed Freeman, in summer blockbusters, to convincingly break color barriers that have yet to be smashed in real life. When he appeared in Deep Impact as the president of the United States, audiences didn’t think of him as a black president—he was, simply, Our President. In The Sum of All Fears he played the head of the CIA. Freeman has even portrayed an insouciant, sneaker-clad incarnation of the Creator in the comedies Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty.
Freeman himself downplays the significance of race. Or, rather, “I don’t downplay it,” he says crankily, “I just don’t play it.” Like Bill Cosby, Freeman has long encouraged people of color to accept personal responsibility for their lives. When 60 Minutes reporter Mike Wallace asked him, “How can we get rid of racism?” in 2005, Freeman’s reply was swift and blunt: “Stop talking about it. I’m going to stop calling you a white man, and I’m going to ask you to stop calling me a black man.”