Mississippi Calling

Jim Herrington
by Bob Guccione Jr. - Mississippi - February/March 2012

Morgan Freeman has spent a lifetime becoming one of Hollywood’s A-listers, but there’s nowhere he’d rather be than his Mississippi home

Morgan Freeman is both there and not there. He is absolutely present when you are with him—attentive, engaging. And he is certainly present in his acting, in which, exquisitely, he never seems to fill more space than he needs to, but fills that completely.

When he’s not in front of you either physically or on a screen, however, he’s in effect invisible, which is what is required for privacy these days. He doesn’t permeate supermarket tabloids or the infinite iterations of cable entertainment-news shows, and he’s not part of the rotting rubbish heap of celebrity gossip that’s now so ubiquitous we’ve come to think of it as reality. He has had precisely one scandal in just over seventy-four years on the planet, and that little balloon of sensationalism deflated as quickly as it was puffed up, when it was concluded that a car accident with a female passenger, around the time his twenty-four-year-long marriage was ending, was a legitimate accident, and that the woman with him was not a lover.

But Freeman is not shy. He has a powerful sense of self and a charismatic blend of the gentle arrogance that comes from attaining the highest level of confidence and the humility that results from having had one’s ass kicked by life more than a few times. In person his famous deep, annunciatory voice is slightly quieter. He sits erectly at a table, like an athlete, without the seemingly unavoidable stoop of age, and stands straight and ever so slightly imperiously.

He is so often asked the well-meaning but inescapably patronizing question of how he ever got out of Mississippi that his answer is automatic: “I took the bus!” The more intriguing question is, Why did he come back? “I realized it’s where I was happiest,” Freeman says. “It’s where I belong.” He lives just outside the town of Charleston, on land that his grandparents owned; he bought it from his parents in 1991, and built a beautiful new hacienda-style house on the site. A passionate horseman, he has a number of mounts on the property. Not far away in Clarksdale, he and his closest friend and partner, Bill Luckett, own the world-renowned Ground Zero Blues club and, down the street, an upscale, Michelin star–worthy restaurant, Madidi.

As with Sidney Poitier a generation earlier, it’s hard to imagine that Morgan Freeman hasn’t always been a movie star, film royalty. And as with Poitier, it’s a disservice (or at least inadequate) to call him the best black actor of his generation, when he stands in contention for best actor, period. But he was fifty before he landed his first major movie role, despite two decades of acclaim—not just good reviews but mesmerized critical acclaim—as a stage actor. That film role, as the chillingly menacing pimp Fast Black in Street Smart, earned him an Oscar nomination and propelled him to the front of Hollywood’s mind, where he has remained ever since. This summer Freeman will return as Lucius Fox in the latest Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises.

Freeman was born in Memphis in 1937, the middle child of five, in the thick mud of segregation, two years before World War II began. When he was six, his family moved to Chicago’s notorious South Side. This was not an improvement. “I hated it,” he once told the New York Times. “There were gangs fighting with knives, ice-picks, and bats. I ran to school and ran home every day.”

School was his salvation. His teachers saw something special in him even then, and some of them, along with his mother, pushed him toward drama. His first role came in a school play when he was eight, and he says he nailed it. “I knew by age thirteen that I was an actor and that’s what I wanted to be.”

At first, that conviction did not last. A few years later, his family moved back south—this time to Greenwood, Mississippi, where he went to high school—and Freeman decided he wanted to become a fighter pilot. “I shifted. I wanted be a warrior. That was just glamorous.” At eighteen, he joined the Air Force and got stationed in Southern California. Eventually he became disillusioned, realizing that the military wasn’t like the movies. The movies were like the movies. So when it came time to re-enlist or get discharged, he left the Air Force and drove the short distance left between him and Los Angeles. “I was in Hollywood,” he recalls. “I’m where I’m supposed to be, but it’s not working out for me, of course. I had some of my hungriest days in Southern California.”

He got a job and a car, and enrolled in acting, voice, and dance classes, but then soon decided to leave. “I had a friend that I’d met who wanted to go to New York,” he explains. “I said, ‘Why don’t we do it? If you want to be an actor, New York is the place to be.’ We drove to New York and I got a good job, but I could not get backstage.” Five months later, he crossed the country again, this time to San Francisco, where he worked at the post office and performed with a small amateur music company until he got fired for refusing, while playing a Native American, to carry the flag. “The lady who ran the company was very nice, but she said, ‘Excuse me?’ And I said, ‘It’s not right. I just can’t do it.’ I read too much history.”

Freeman moved back to New York. It was the mid-sixties now, an exciting time, he says: hanging out with writers and actors, all trying to make it. He performed in off-off-Broadway productions, what he and his friends called “dungeon theater.” He regularly got great reviews. He regularly failed to break through.

In 1971, he landed the role of Easy Rider on the PBS kids’ show The Electric Company, where he remained for six years. It was a good gig, one that many people might have understandably felt was as high as they would ever get. Freeman continued to hone his craft, however, and in 1978 he finally made it to Broadway, as Zeke, an ex–gang member, in The Mighty Gents. After nine performances, the play closed.

When he landed the part of Fast Black, Freeman created the character out of two unrelated bits of cloth. “I was in this bar in Chicago,” he says. “There was this guy sitting across from us, good-looking guy with a Stetson hat, nice jacket and vest, and cowboy boots. He just kept looking at us. He wasn’t flashy. Finally he said, ‘If you need anything, I can help.’ That stuck with me.

“At the time I got the chance to play that role, I lived on West End Avenue at the corner of 92nd Street. A block away, Broadway was a bad neighborhood. Young hookers hung out up there. One night on my way home, I saw one being chastised. The guy never raised his voice. He was talking to her and started punching her. He had her on the pavement.  When I auditioned, we were all sitting out there on our chairs. I hear all this yelling and stuff. When it was my turn, I walked in, grabbed the girl by the hair—the scene was the guy threatening to take the girl’s eyes out with a pair of scissors. I laid my fingers on her eyes and I started saying, very quietly, ‘Which one do you want to lose? The left one or the right one? Your choice. Tell me, which one?’ So I got the part.”