Actor, director, narrator. Morgan Freeman was born on June 1, 1937 in Memphis, Tennessee. The youngest of five children born to barber Morgan Porterfield Freeman, Sr. and schoolteacher Mayme Edna, Freeman was raised in Chicago and Mississippi in a low-income home. Not long after he was born, Morgan’s parents, like so many other African-Americans struggling under the pressures of the Jim Crow south, relocated to Chicago to find work. While his parents looked for jobs, Freeman remained with his maternal grandmother in Charlestown, Mississippi.
At the age of six, Freeman’s grandmother died and he moved north to be with his mother, who had already separated from her alcoholic husband. More moves followed, to Tennessee and eventually back to Mississippi, where Mayme Edna settled her family in Greenwood.
As a kid, Freeman spent a good portion of his time scraping together enough money to see movies, where he formed an early admiration for actors like Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, and Sidney Poitier. It was by chance that Freeman himself got into acting. He was in junior high school and, as punishment for pulling out a chair from underneath a girl he had a crush on, Freeman was ordered to participate in the school’s drama competition. To his surprise, and probably school administrators, the 12-year-old proved to be an immediate natural on the stage, taking top honors in the program.
But while Freeman loved to act, flying—in particular the idea of being a fighter pilot—was in his heart of hearts. And so, upon graduating high school in 1955, Morgan turned down a partial drama scholarship and joined the U.S. Air Force. The military, though, proved to be much different than what he’d expected. Instead of darting around the skies, Freeman was relegated to on-the-ground activity as a mechanic and radar technician. He also realized that he didn’t want to be shooting down other people.
“I had this very clear epiphany,” he told AARP Magazine. “You are not in love with this; you are in love with the idea of this.” In 1959, Freeman left the Air Force and tried his fortunes out West, moving to Hollywood to see if he could make it as an actor. It wasn’t an easy life. He took acting classes and struggled to find work. In the early 1960s, he moved again, this time to New York City, where more petty day jobs and nighttime auditions followed.
In 1967, the same year he married Jeanette Adair Bradshaw, Freeman’s big career break came when he landed a part in an all African-American Broadway production of Hello, Dolly! starring Pearl Bailey. Around that time, Freeman also performed in an off-Broadway production of The Nigger Lovers.
Some national exposure followed in 1971, when he started appearing regularly on The Electric Company, a public television-produced children’s TV show that focused on teaching kids how to read. On a show that included such current and future stars as Rita Moreno, Joan Rivers, and Gene Wilder, Freeman had some of the show’s more memorable characters, like “Easy Reader,” “Mel Mounds,” and “Count Dracula.”
But television proved to be a grueling and demanding life for Freeman. Despite some stage work, including a Tony-nominated performance in The Mighty Gents in the late 1970s, Freeman couldn’t seem to break into movies like he wanted. When The Electric Company was canceled in 1976, Freeman saw himself starring at a career that was far from grounded. His personal life was hurting, too. Long before the show ended, Freeman found that his marriage had started to fall apart, and he began drinking too much. Freeman and Jeanette divorced in 1979.
A year after his divorce, Freeman’s career caught a break when he landed a part as a crazed inmate in the Robert Redford film, Brubaker (1980). However, the steady stream of film work he hoped would follow did not materialize, and Freeman was forced to retreat back to television for two hard years on the cast of the soap opera Another World.
For much of the rest of the decade, Freeman took on roles that earned him some acclaim—but not the big, powerful jobs that would garner A-list attention. There was a part in the 1984 Paul Newman film Harry and Son, and he was narrator for the TV mini series, The Atlanta Child Murders among other roles.
In 1987, Freeman’s fortunes changed when he was cast in the film Street Smart, which placed the actor on the screen as the volatile pimp Fast Black. The role proved to be huge success for Freeman, earning him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Film critic Pauline Kael even went so far as to ask out loud, “Is Morgan Freeman the greatest American actor?” Two years later, Freeman earned more acclaim—and a second Oscar nomination—as the kind-hearted but stubborn chauffeur in 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy. By the 1990s, Freeman was starring in such big budget films as 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption, Seven (1995) and Deep Impact (1998).
In 2005, Freeman won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. And in 2008, he reprised his role as Lucius Fox in Batman Begins (2005) for the blockbuster sequel The Dark Knight.
“I like being ecclectic,” he has said about his film choices. “The more varied the better; the wider the range. I’ve been sucked into a kind of mold of a good guy and that’s actually almost beyond my ability to control. But other than that, a good story and an interesting character is all I am looking for.”
Freeman’s eloquent, distinctive voice has also made him a natural for narration. His voice can be heard on such memorable films as War of the Worlds and the Academy Award-winning documentary March of the Penguins. In 1997, Freeman co-founded the movie production company Revelations Entertainment, including its online movie distribution company, ClickStar.
While it may be a late-blooming success, it’s nothing he’s at all bitter about. “Success comes when it comes,” he has said. “I had a career for 30 years; a 30-year career is not bad. I often think I’m probably lucky that I wasn’t a wild success early on, coming up through the 1970s. I could have very easily burned out.”
Freeman has coupled his ever-expanding brand with a host of charitable endeavors. The actor, who resides in the Mississippi Delta, raised money for Katrina victims not long after the devastating hurricane ripped through the area. Through Rock River Foundation, an organization he started, Freeman’s group has donated millions to educational programs. And in 2004 he helped organize relief funds for hurricane victims in Grenada.
Freeman’s energy extends into other realms, too. In his home state of Mississippi, the actor co-founded a blues club in Clarksdale. In recent years Freeman also earned his pilot’s license.
While Freeman’s personal life has experienced a bit of turbulence in recent years—he and his second wife, Myrna, split in 2007, and he was in a near-fatal car accident in Charlestown, Mississippi—the actor shows no signs of slowing down. In 2009, Freeman teamed up with Clint Eastwood again, playing the role of South African President Nelson Mandela in Invictus. His choice of roles, as well as his off-the-screen demeanor, have earned him respect from even those not used to pouring out praise for their interview subjects.
“He’s a delightful man,” says Mike Wallace, who interviewed the actor for a 2006 piece on 60 Minutes. “He’s a thoughtful man. He’s in no sense a bitter man. He’s still exploring his life and times. I have immense respect for Morgan Freeman.”