MORGAN FREEMAN

         
In Lee Breuer and Bob Telson's pop-gospel musical The Gospel at Colonus, Morgan Freeman played a traveling preacher who went into a trance to play the part of the mythical Oedipus to the assembled congregation. But to the black woman squirming in her seat next to me exclaiming "He's my man!", Freeman was the charismatic star of NBC's soap opera Another World. During the two years he toured with Gospel at Colonus to Houston, Washington, Paris, and Los Angeles (it was also shown on PBS), he also completed the TV movie The Atlanta Child Murders and two features, Marie and That Was Then, This Is Now. When I met him at his rambling, nothing-fancy Upper West Side apartment, he had just returned from doing Gospel in Los Angeles and was taking a break. He was thinner in person than I expected (onstage, he towers), but relaxed and friendly.

Did you always want to be an actor?

Always, except for a short period between sixteen and twenty, when I wanted to be a jet jockey. When I graduated from high school, I went into the Air Force. It convinced me really quick, "What you really like to do is pretend to fly, with the camera sitting right over there, clouds in the background."

What did your mother think about your wanting to be an actor?

She was all for it. She was always telling me when I was a kid, "Boy, I'm going to take you to Hollywood" -- I must have heard that I don't know how many times. And she was always my best audience in school, sitting up front laughing and crying.

When I got out of the service, I went to Hollywood. (He mimes getting a pie in the face.) I bought a trench coat and a porkpie hat. I had on my brown suit and my wide cable-sole tan shoes. I got on a bus and after about a half-day of riding I wound up in Hollywood somewhere. Paramount had an office up there by Capitol Records at the time, and I didn't know from agents. I walked in. This blond sitting at the desk said, "May I help you?" I said, "My name is Morgan Freeman, and I'm an actor looking for a job." She gave me some slips and said, "Fill those out." I went in this little booth, and there were questions like what office machines can you operate and how many words can you type. I filled out what I could and left. That was my Hollywood experience.

I finally got a job at Los Angeles Community College as a clerk. You could go to school for free if you were working there. I had gotten out of the service in February, didn't get a job 'til May, and didn't have any money. So I learned to deal seriously with hunger. I didn't eat for days. I had some friends, but I went to visit them so often that by the end of April, pride wouldn't let me keep going. It's one thing to have a couple of dollars in your pocket and go to somebody's house and have dinner. But to have absolutely nothing in your pocket. . . I got to where I couldn't eat anything but milk and raw eggs. I'd beat 'em up in a glass, and that'd be a meal.

But nothing comes easy.

So I got into school at Los Angeles Community College. Part of the curriculum was dance movement, and the instructor told me, "You have such a knack for this, you should go into it." In 1961 I dove headfirst into dance, and I was in it for four or five years until it dawned on me that I had branched off the center line. I was in it for acting, not dance. In 1966 I got an understudy part in The Royal Hunt of the Sun, along with being in a chorus of Incas. One night one of the stars collapsed onstage, and I got to do the part. It was, like "Yeah! This is right! Acting!" That's what I was supposed to be doing. After that, my acting career just took off.

What made the difference?

Luck. My first job in New York was a play called The Niggerlovers. Stacy Keach was in that, and his agent, Jeff Hunter, saw me and liked me and sent me out for some stuff. I went into Hello, Dolly! with Pearl Bailey's company. One thing led to another, and in 1971 The Electric Company started up and I got a job there. Five years, nine to five, four months out of the year. I had lots of time to play, sail my boat, go skiing, make money. However, I had only planned to do it for a couple of years. When you're young, it doesn't make any sense to do a long series. Your career becomes very finite. But for an actor who's making money, the hardest thing to do is walk away from it. I was developing ulcers and a drinking problem, and my first marriage started to crumble over the fact that I was doing something I didn't want to do anymore. But they know all the right ways to stroke you, particularly with money. I'm always broke.

In 1979, Joe Papp started the short-lived Shakey Rep, as we used to call it. Joe had seen me at my absolute best in a Broadway play in 1978, Richard Wesley's The Mighty Gents. I was the new kid on the block, and everybody was talkin' about me. So when they started up the Shakey Rep, I went down to audition for him, but I don't audition well, and I just barely squeaked in. I got the part of Casca in Julius Caesar. Then the press got ahold of the whole thing. Edith Oliver in the New Yorker said, "And Morgan Freeman was playing Casca -- a star if there ever was one." The next play was Coriolanus, and Clarence Williams III was originally playing the part. But the director was not satisfied, and because of the reviews from Julius Caesar they let Clarence Williams go and I got the part and. . . [He leads me over to his hallway and shows me his framed Obie Award for his performances in Coriolanus and Mother Courage.] Well, it was a marvelous experience, to do a lead role in Shakespeare and get this award.

Was that your first award?

No, this was my first award. [He picks up a clear glass paperweight, inscribed "Clarence Derwent Award."] And I got the Drama Desk Award and a Tony nomination for The Mighty Gents.

Which played about a week, right?

A week. It just angered me to death. I took it very personally that they closed the show. It made no sense at all to do it on Broadway. When they move something to Broadway, I don't care what it is, they want to Broadwayize it. If it's a nice, heavy, long piece of drama, they're gonna water it down so it fits this medium [he points to the television], which is what Broadway aspires to. They have to appeal to the great number of people, which is the lowest common denominator. That's why I have no desire at all to be on Broadway anymore. When you first come to New York, that's the place to be. Well, I've done Broadway now four times. That's enough.

When you moved to New York, did you think that you would also do movies?

I started out to do movies! I was going to be the first black actor to win an Academy Award -- my whole thrust was to do that. We were in the movies by then. Sidney Poitier was getting to be a big name, so I knew there was room.

Were there actors you looked to as role models or inspirations for your career?

For my career, no. For my acting, yeah. Gary Cooper, Bogart. And later in life, James Cagney. They go right at the role, and thatís all they do. No personality bullshit. I did most of my learning in my first play onstage from Stacy Keach, just watching him prepare.

What did you pick up from Stacy Keach?

Trust. Part of acting is having the security to turn yourself loose and let yourself go in order to reach whatever depths a character has. If your guts arenít hanging out there, you donít offer anything. Iím forty-eight. Iíve been doing it professionally now for twenty years. Early on, I had to learn the technique of getting into a role. Once you get into it, getting it across is nothing. Audiences believe what you believe. Itís a matter of believing yourself. If I believe me, then youíve got no choice. None at all.


from Caught in the Act: New York Actors Face to Face (photo by Susan Shacter)