His biggest fan, though, was his mother, who by now was remarried and working as a nurse’s aide while also playing piano in church. Freeman says he learned to act by watching Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, and Sidney Poitier at the local cinema, then racing home to practice their moves in the mirror. “I’m going to take you to Hollywood!” his mother would say.
Although he very much wanted to act and had even been offered some scholarships to study theater, Freeman also dreamed of flying. Seduced by the military movies he’d seen as a kid, Freeman joined the Air Force. But when he had the chance to train as a fighter pilot toward the end of his enlistment period, he realized he wanted nothing to do with killing people in a real-world war. “I had this very clear epiphany,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘You are not in love with this; you are in love with the idea of this.’ So off I went to Hollywood.”
From that moment, Freeman’s commitment to acting never wavered. He worked as a clerk in Los Angeles and took acting, singing, and dancing lessons at night. Sensing more opportunity back east, he moved to New York City. There he honed his craft in off-Broadway shows. In 1967 he landed a Broadway gig in Hello, Dolly!, starring Pearl Bailey. Freeman eventually nabbed a spot on the public-TV kids’ show The Electric Company.
Had Freeman’s life been a movie, the years that came next would have been the part where the hero hits rock bottom. Despite steadily turning up for casting calls, Freeman couldn’t make the transition to movies. He grew disheartened, and by the late ’70s his life was in a shambles. He had fathered two sons out of wedlock by different women before he married Jeannette Bradshaw in ’67 and adopted her daughter, Deena; the couple had a second daughter, Morgana, in ’71. But Freeman’s marriage was disintegrating, and he was drinking heavily.
“I was depressed,” he says. “I was doing a television show, and I hated it. So I was very upset with myself, because now I’m doing something I no longer want to be doing, just for the money, and that’s a bad place to be.” Freeman gave up drinking after “waking up face-down on the floor in the hallway in my New York apartment.” Does he think he inherited his father’s predisposition to alcoholism? “No,” he says. “I’m not addicted to anything, really—I can go headfirst into anything and stay with it for a while, and then I’m done with it.”
Freeman finally caught the breaks he needed in the 1980s. He married his current wife, Myrna, a costume designer, in ’84. He headlined bigger and better stage productions such as Mother Courage and Othello, “the only role I’ve been intimidated by.” And he broke through to stardom in films. After earning raves as the sordid pimp in Street Smart, he veered to the saintly in his first starring role, as Jessica Tandy’s chauffeur, Hoke, in Driving Miss Daisy. Wearing a gray wig and adopting an arthritic gait, he gave a nuanced performance that melded the deference and self-respect he had personally witnessed in Southern blacks who served white employers. “I knew who that man was, how the whole song was sung,” he said.
Some African Americans viewed Hoke as an Uncle Tom and were discomfited by his passivity. But Freeman wasn’t about to inject artificial rebelliousness into the character to avoid catching flak. “Hoke was certainly not kowtowing to that lady, and he had a lot of dignity and strength,” says Driving Miss Daisy’s director, Bruce Beresford. “Morgan was aware that some people wouldn’t like it, but characteristically he said, ‘I can’t help that.’ ”
Last June, while filming the fantasy action film Wanted in Prague with Angelina Jolie, Freeman hit a milestone: to mark his 70th birthday, the cast and crew serenaded him and presented him with a cake. When asked how it feels to be 70, he answers with no hesitation: “Great. Fabulous.”
He radiates good health and ease—and he works at staying fit. He enjoys the beef tips and fried oysters at Madidi, for instance, but he is careful not to overeat, does yoga, and works out in his gym at the ranch to keep his frame lean. He says he has not noticed any decrease in his energy as he has gotten older.