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Movies for Grownups
by Nancy Griffin, AARP The Magazine, December 29, 2007
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.”
The actor’s eminence can be intimidating, says Ben Affleck, who directed Freeman playing a Boston police captain in Gone Baby Gone, coming out this fall. “Morgan is so imposing,” says Affleck. “He’s like a sage. He spends a lot of time on set making jokes—he’d rather have people be comfortable than genuflecting and babbling, making fools of themselves.”
Freeman has a third film coming soon: The Bucket List, an odd-couple romp that opens at Christmas. He plays a mechanic who befriends a billionaire, played by Jack Nicholson, when they both receive terminal-cancer diagnoses. The guys make a list of the things they always wanted to do in life, and flee the hospital together to pursue them. “It’s not a downer,” says Bucket List director Rob Reiner. “It’s about living your life and finding joy.”
Reiner contrasts the acting styles of his two stars. “Jack is all over the place in a way, like a brilliant abstract artist. Morgan is a Zen master—he’s so centered and elegant.” Reiner offers his opinion on Freeman’s reluctance to discuss race: “Morgan’s whole being is about transcendence,” he says, “and that makes a powerful statement.”
For his part, Freeman calls working with Nicholson one of the great thrills of his career, and launches unprompted into an imitation of how Jack, an inveterate script tinkerer, approached him on the set each morning with dialogue changes. “‘You know, Morgan, I was just thinking,’” he drawls. “‘Y’ know I don’t sleep at night, so, well, this is what I thought…how does this sound?’” Freeman laughs heartily. “‘I love it, Jack. Whatever you want to do—I don’t care.’”
On the last day of filming, feelings were running high on the set. “We’re not going to hug each other, are we?” Nicholson muttered to Freeman. But after the final shot wrapped, Freeman told his costar, “This has been a dream come true for me.” “Likewise,” said Nicholson, and the two men shared a bear hug, to the applause of the cast and crew.
I remember something my father would say to me when I was growing up,” says Morgana Freeman, 36, a beauty salon owner in Atlanta and one of the star’s four children. “If I was complaining about something that wasn’t going right, he would say, ‘Now what? You are still in the race.’ He made me see that I could keep going, readjust the plan.”
He is respected all over the world and commands up to $20 million a picture. 'I’m saddled with it,' he says, deadpan.
Freeman has lived by his own advice, rising to stardom only after 50, following decades of struggling in the New York theater and in small film and television roles. Born in Memphis in 1937, he had a chaotic childhood: his mother, a domestic worker, split with his alcoholic father, a barber, when her five children were young, and the family moved frequently. When they fell on hard times in Chicago, his mother’s parents drove north, picked up the children, and brought them back to Charleston, Mississippi. Eventually Freeman’s mother, Mayme Edna, moved to nearby Greenwood and made a home for her children there. In the ’40s and early ’50s, Greenwood was a racially tense community. Just ten miles north of the town, young Emmett Till was murdered for (supposedly) flirting with a white woman in 1955, the year Freeman graduated from Broad Street High School.
Although its students made do with hand-me-down books, all-black Broad Street High provided Freeman with a first-rate education, he says. “You had to stand up in class and quote the prologue to The Canterbury Tales and passages from Macbeth.”
“Morgan was a skinny guy, a good student, and a high stepper, the drum major in the school band,” recalls his friend Benjamin Nero, a Philadelphia orthodontist. “Even though he had a comedic personality, he was a shy-type guy.” Freeman’s English teacher, Leola Gregory Williams, recognized his talent and challenged him to enter regional drama competitions, where he won prizes. “She thought I was God’s gift to the world,” he says. “She expressed that to me and everybody who would listen. When that is happening to you, well, you just step up another rung.”
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.
Maybe one way Freeman stays youthful is by learning new skills, tackling each one obsessively until he masters it. He rode until he became an adept horseman. Then for years, if he wasn’t working, he could be found on his ketch Sojourner, which he sailed around the Caribbean. “Some people feel insignificant out at sea,” he says. “I feel the most significant, like I have wings.”
Five years ago he got even closer to sprouting wings, taking flying lessons. He and his best friend, Bill Luckett—Freeman’s partner in Madidi and other Clarksdale ventures—teamed up to buy a twin-engine Cessna 414 and a Cessna Citation jet. They fly together frequently, on fishing trips to Montana or business jaunts to New York or Los Angeles, trading off on the controls. And recently Luckett introduced Freeman to golf. “Morgan had never picked up a golf club,” Luckett says. “He took to it like a duck to water; he has a beautiful golf swing. Once he gets onto something, he’s on it.”
Freeman’s family life, which he once described as “convoluted,” has stabilized. He and Myrna pursue their own interests; if he’s not working, he’s usually flying somewhere, while she loves to take care of the Charleston house and garden. When asked now what the key is to his long marriage, Freeman lets out a big laugh. “Sh-t, I don’t know,” he says.
He knows what kind of father he has been, though: “Not much, I don’t think. When my kids were growing up, I was off working. Two of them I didn’t even have any truck with at all.” Once his two sons, who were raised by their mothers, became adults, he established relationships with them. Alfonso, an actor, has a small part playing his son in The Bucket List. “He’s in St. Louis right now rehearsing for Othello,” says Freeman with pride. Saifoulaye, a stay-at-home dad, lives in Michigan; daughter Deena, a hairdresser for films, is in South Carolina.
“In my opinion he was a great father,” says Morgana. “He’ll say he wasn’t, and I can’t say his being away a lot didn’t make it hard, but we learned to deal with it. When he was there, he was there, and his words were always very helpful.”
Freeman has no desire to slow down his work pace—“I love moviemaking,” he says. He will produce and star in a film about Nelson Mandela that tells the story of the 1995 rugby World Cup, held in South Africa. “That’s gonna be a real challenge,” he says. He hopes to persuade Clint Eastwood to direct, which would afford him the pleasure of joining two of the three people he says he most admires: Mandela, Eastwood, and the Dalai Lama.
The suffocating midday heat has abated, and Freeman has a date with Luckett at the local golf course. Luckett, a lawyer, is the hands-on impresario of an ever-increasing network of business and charitable ventures that enmeshes Freeman in Mississippi. They founded Madidi and the nearby Ground Zero Blues Club partly for selfish reasons: they both love great food and good music, and there was no place local to go. Clarksdale, known as the birthplace of the blues, has long attracted pilgrims who come to see the sleepy crossroads town where such greats as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and Ike Turner all lived, performed, or recorded; even Elvis played here as a youngster. “This town is legendary, but there was nothing here to support the legend,” explains Freeman. He and Luckett admit they lose money on both the restaurant and the club, but their losses are offset by profitable investments, including in real estate.
Freeman is low-key about his charitable endeavors, but through his Rock River Foundation he has given millions to 4-H clubs, Teach For America, and other educational institutions. While most of his efforts are dedicated to the Mississippi Delta region, after Hurricane Ivan in 2004 Freeman helped the Grenada Relief Fund, established to rebuild the devastated Caribbean island.
More than five decades ago, when he left Mississippi, Freeman couldn’t imagine ever wanting to return. But around 1990, with his mother growing older, he moved back to spend time with her. By then she was living in what had been her parents’ house in Charleston, and Freeman bought adjacent land to build his own home next door
While he was growing up in Mississippi, his professional prospects and even his options for self-expression were limited; for a black man, defying a white person in power could have fatal consequences. A vivid measure of the distance Freeman has traveled occurred in 2000 when he took part in the tribute to Eastwood at the Kennedy Center Honors annual gala in Washington, D.C. At the dinner, says one source, an intermediary approached Freeman with a request from Mississippi senator (and former segregationist) Trent Lott—could Lott come to the star’s table to meet him? “I don’t see any reason why,” Freeman calmly replied. “Tell him you can’t find me.”
Freeman’s ancestors worked this soil, and his mother is buried on his land, where her modest house still stands, a reminder of where he came from. “You know, you go around the world, and you have eaten in the best restaurants and stayed in the best hotels,” he says. “But here, there is peace and quiet and solitude. And the realization that this has always represented safety.” What kind of safety? Freeman taps the side of his head. “Psychic safety. So I tell people I’m where I’m supposed to be.”
West Coast editor Nancy Griffin profiled Helen Mirren for the March & April issue.
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