Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.
This was the litany delivered to Red, Morgan Freeman’s character in The Shawshank Redemption by Andy Dufresne prior to breaking out of the penitentiary. Come to think of it, what a fitting statement it was to describe the actor’s real life struggle to make it big!
The name in itself is enough to throw us into a deep, pensive state with that authoritative yet calm baritone of his, ringing out sonorously. Yes, the actor is an icon in his own distinct way. From wielding his magic in pathbreaking films like Shawshank Redemption, Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby to playing challenging roles convincingly, the man has done it all.
But life wasn’t always peaches and cream for the legendary actor. His journey meandered through hardships and tumult.
Born on June 1, 1937 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, as the fourth child to a school teacher and a barber who had to work extra shifts to make ends meet, Freeman was sent to live with his maternal grandmother when he was an infant. The grandmother died when he was six and poor Morgan spent the next several years travelling with his mother, from Chicago to Nashville, Tennessee, before finally settling down in Greenwood, Mississippi.
The young Freeman boy loved the movies even as a kid, but never had enough money to buy a ticket, so every time he wanted to go to for one, he would scrounge for empty milk bottles and redeem them for money.
He always had a penchant for acting and a mischievous plan of his actually landed him his first role in a school play!
I was 12 and there was this girl in school that I really liked; very well-dressed, beautiful curls. To get her attention, I pulled a chair out from under her when she was about to sit down. She fell on the floor and ran to our English teacher. I thought: Oh, Lord, that’s it. But instead of bringing me to the principal’s office, she took me to another class that needed performers for a school play. And for this performance, I got my first acting award.
Growing up, he had always harboured an interest in the silver screen, fancying war films that featured airplanes. He even considered joining the forces as a fighter pilot but a whimsical change in decision turned his attention towards the movies.
…waiting for his big break which never came!
In the late ’50s, Freeman relocated to LA with dreams yet no dimes. He picked up a job at LA City College to hone his skills (which also included dancing lessons) in the hope of a big break, but nothing ever came his way.
Dejected yet not dissuaded, Freeman tried an alternate route: he moved to New York to try his luck. New York at that point in time was seeing a diaspora of actors to Hollywood, where ‘Blaxploitation’ films were driving people to the theatres. Actors were making $40,000 playing roles in these films. Morgan expressed a desire to work in Blaxploitation films but he never got one.
‘They would send for you when they want you’, is what he was told. Sadly, it never happened.
Morgan worked at the Off-Broadway Theatre for decades, usually cast in petty roles. While he was still working at the theatre, he made his movie debut with a tiny uncredited role in A Man Called Adam, which was directed by Leo Penn (father of Sean Penn). In the 1970s, Freeman was cast in a television role in The Electric Company, a children’s educational show. He followed it up with a supporting role in the film, Brubaker. After that, the curtains closed on him.
According to him, ‘the phone stopped ringing’.
Raising two children without a source of income was an arduous task for him. Sadly, no role came to him and it seemed as if it was the end of his acting sojourn. He started applying for a licence to drive taxis.
That’s when fortune decided to do a 180 degree turn on him!
A down-but-not-out Morgan Freeman was cast in the film Street Smart, playing the role of a black pimp named Fast Black. This role probably was the turning point in his life. The grace with which he played the role of a psychotic pimp, proved to be a career-anchor. He earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Success followed suit!
In 1989, in an anti-thesis to the psychotic character that he played in Street Smart, he played a light hearted guy named Hoke Colburn in Driving Miss Daisy, one of his most acclaimed films till date. He won an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
The march to super-stardom!
The ’90s proved to be a golden decade for the man. In 1992, he paired alongside Clint Eastwood who had established his dominance as an exemplary director (in addition to being a splendid actor) in the spaghetti western film titled Unforgiven.
In 1994 came The Shawshank Redemption and the game totally changed in Freeman’s favour. This was followed by 1995’s Se7en alongside Brad Pitt and the 1998 film Deep Impact. From then on, there was no looking back!
The 2000s saw him play different roles, each with elan.
The success continued and people’s fondness for Freeman only grew. He grew into a better actor with each role, his voice being hailed as the voice of ‘God’. He teamed up with Clint Eastwood in the Academy Award winning film Million Dollar Baby and bagged an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. He collaborated with Eastwood for the third time, playing Nelson Mandela in the Matt Damon-starrer Invictus and gave an inspiring performance.
Despite being a late-bloomer, Freeman appreciates the fact that success didn’t come ‘easy and early’ to him. According to him, “success comes when it comes”, had it come early, it might have “burned out easily”.