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SAG Life Achievement Honoree Morgan Freeman Proves Life Can Begin at 50

When Morgan Freeman receives the Screen Actors Guild’s Life Achievement Award on Jan. 21, the honor will feel triumphantly inevitable. At 80 years old, his impressive resume includes 84 films, two Golden Globes, and an Oscar. But there’s a difference between Freeman and past winners, including Elizabeth Taylor and Gene Kelly. Freeman didn’t get his Hollywood break until he was 50. He’s earned his statue in half the time.

Freeman was born to act. The first night he walked onstage, the then-third grader felt so at ease, he claims he could have fallen asleep. “I was a show-off,” he admitted. His mother, Mayme, joked she was going to take him to Hollywood, but with four kids and no money, he just kicked back and forth between relatives in Mississippi and Chicago. At 13, Freeman won his first acting award when his performance as a World War II soldier took top place in a statewide school drama competition. He spent high school reciting “The Canterbury Tales” and “Macbeth,” and by the time he graduated, the skinny 6-foot-2 kid was so locally renowned that his yearbook quote simply said: “Actor.”

“I was going to be an actor or a bum,” Freeman vowed. Not just an actor — a movie star. Freeman got hooked on Hollywood when he saw his first film, “King Kong,” which frightened him so much he hid under the seats. After school, he’d collect used soda bottles until he could afford his next movie ticket. (Burt Lancaster’s “The Crimson Pirate,” released when Freeman was 15, inspired his hoop earring.) What he lacked in money or connections, he made up for in persistence, like when he built his own bike because his mom couldn’t afford one. “When you want it, you can get it,” said Freeman. “It was the best bicycle in town.”

After he got out of the Air Force, 22-year-old Freeman bought a trench coat and a porkpie hat and went straight to Los Angeles. He marched up to the gates of Paramount Pictures and announced, “My name is Morgan Freeman.” That didn’t work. After a year of pounding the sidewalks and studying voice and dance, he tried New York, then San Francisco, where he was so broke, he’d eat a Baby Ruth candy bar for dinner, or skip meals entirely. His weight dropped to 137 pounds, a hungry man feeding off his ambition.

But even then, he had standards. “My value system was put in place by the movies,” said Freeman. They’d shaped his ideas of morality, history and race in ways he was still trying to understand and, when needed, undo. “I was hit hardest by the science-fiction movies, the future,” he recalled. “Up until the ‘60s and ‘70s, science fiction and fantasy totally left blacks out.” In an interview, he dropped his voice to mimic a fake trailer: “Earth has been devastated by an atomic explosion. There are only 30 people left in the world. They are all white.”

Freeman said: “I want to change people’s attitudes. About black people, about us as Americans. About America itself.” When Freeman landed a much-needed gig at the San Francisco Opera, he refused to play an ugly Native American stereotype — and got fired. So he washed cars, sold ads, worked at the post office, and kept at it. Back in New York, he danced in the 1964 World’s Fair, peddled hot dogs at Penn Station, and stood in the background of Sidney Lumet’s “The Pawnbroker,” his film debut, not that you can spot him.

Finally, he started to get small Broadway jobs. Hollywood remained his dream, but when blaxploitation films offered him a cheap entrance, Freeman refused to use it. “I had no intention of wearing crushed velvet jumpsuits, big hats, or high-heeled pumps,” he said. Instead, Freeman spent the first half of the ‘70s doing the exact opposite: he taught kids to read on “The Electric Company.” Sure, he was still a cool cat in a fringed vest, but he was motivational. And, more importantly, he was still Morgan Freeman. Even on children’s TV — even when he was drinking heavily to drown his creative boredom — he never got hammy. Only he could chant, “Top to bottom, left to right, reading stuff is out of sight,” and sound sincere.

With Christopher Reeve in “Street Smart,” top; “Bruce Almighty,” bottom left; and Angela Bassett in “Olympus Has Fallen.”

The drinking got worse. After he passed out in a snowbank, Freeman made himself quit the best-paying job he’d ever had — might ever have — to keep striving. He quit the booze, too, only to play a wino in Broadway’s “The Mighty Gents.” The New York Times called him, “spectacular,” but when he lost the Tony for lead actor, he vowed he’d never again let awards rule his self-esteem.

Every time Freeman’s resume would take a step forward, it’d stall out. His worst gig was playing Othello in Dallas, where someone in the crowd took in his skeletal frame and crown of hair and heckled, “Sing ‘Purple Haze!’” After that, he didn’t work for two years. He lost a role in the 1982 remake of “The Thing” when he pointed out in his audition that every scientist was white, while the black characters were a cook and a mechanic. Fine. He wouldn’t work with people who told him to “do it blacker,” or justified why the only black part in the film was an orderly. Once, he was so disgusted by a commercial call with parts like “The Jew,” he crumpled up the script and threw it at the director.

“Well,” thought Freeman. “Your mouth has shut your career down.” Then he read for the supporting part of a pimp named Fast Black in the 1987 Christopher Reeve vehicle “Street Smart.” Outside the audition, he could hear the other actors screaming their lines. “I knew that pimps never yell,” noted Freeman. “They talk very quietly.” When it was his turn, he grabbed his scene partner by her hair and politely threatened to dig out one of her eyes. He got the role, and when Pauline Kael reviewed the film, her first line asked: “Is Morgan Freeman the greatest American actor?” Not greatest black actor. Greatest American. He was 50 years old and he’d finally broken through.

Two years later, “Street Smart” and “Driving Miss Daisy” had made Freeman a two-time Oscar nominee. “When somebody says, ‘Now, you’ll be able to make choices,’” said Freeman shortly after, “You are always able to make choices.” He’s chosen to play the parts he wishes he could have seen as a boy in Mississippi: a cowboy, a general, two presidents, a historically accurate-enough black man in medieval England, and, of course, God.

“I was brought up on movies where the hero was the hero,” said Freeman. Yet his performances are more honest than heroic. He convinced his director that chauffeur Hoke Colburn wouldn’t dare exit through Miss Daisy’s front door, only the back — “I knew who that man was, how the whole song was sung” — and he filled his Nelson Mandela with human flaws. And he’s long hoped to play a James Bond villain. “Bad guys have all the fun.”

Now that “My name is Morgan Freeman” could get him through any studio gate, he’s both a mentor and jokester on set. If he wants to make sure a rising actor is fully present in a scene, he’ll swap his line for “What?” to make sure they’re listening. Then he’ll deflate his guru image with a quip. Fittingly, the best advice Freeman can give the Shrine Auditorium when he accepts his SAG award is his own difficult, dogged lifetime of achievements — even if he crammed that whole lifetime just into the last 30 years. His persistence is his greatest performance, or as Freeman once concluded, “I don’t think we are directed so much from without as from within.”

What: The 24th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards
When: 5 p.m. PT Jan. 21
Where: The Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, TNT/TBS
Web: sagawards.org

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