20 Facts About Morgan Freeman’s Long Road to Success
There’s a good reason Morgan Freeman played God. Twice.
It’s that voice. A rich, deep, authoritative voice that’s his calling card. But his ability to be the “Voice of God” is only a small part of Freeman’s story. His tall stature and calm demeanor, coupled with his majestic voice, have led to a wide range of roles and incredible success in movies and beyond. His movies have grossed more than $10 billion worldwide.
However, his journey to stardom had a rough beginning. Here’s how he persevered and became one of Hollywood’s most admired stars, as well as a force in business and philanthropy.
Freeman’s Early Years
Morgan Porterfield Freeman Jr., was born in Memphis, Tennessee on June 1, 1937, the youngest of five children. His father, Morgan Porterfield Freeman Sr., was a barber, and his mother, Mayme Edna Freeman, taught school.
The elder Freemans struggled with the racial segregation laws in the south and finally took to the road. Not long after Morgan Jr. was born, his family moved to Chicago, but he went to live with his grandmother in Mississippi. She died when he was six, and he rejoined his family in Chicago.
At that time, his mother had separated from his father. Later she and her children moved to Tennessee and eventually returned to Mississippi.
A Regular Movie Buff
Freeman discovered a love for movies in grade school. Admission to the theater was 12 cents at the time, and he earned money for tickets by turning in used milk bottles (5 cents) and beer and soda bottles (2 cents). He was especially inspired by movies starring Gary Cooper.
High School Stirred Up His Dramatic Leanings
Going to all those movies wasn’t the turning point for Freeman to pursue an acting career; instead a disciplinary action he received at Broad Street High School in Mississippi encouraged the performer in him. To get the attention of a girl he liked, he pulled her chair out from under her. As punishment he was required to appear in his school’s drama competition. He aced the role and won the competition.
College vs. the Military
Upon graduating from high school in 1955, Freeman refused a partial drama scholarship from Jackson State University in Mississippi because he wanted to be a fighter pilot. Those war films he watched as a child had him yearning for a flying career. So he signed up for the U.S. Air Force. He worked as a mechanic from 1955 to 1959. He was offered pilot training, but the first time he sat in a cockpit, he knew it wasn’t for him. The whole fighter pilot image had only been a romantic notion.
He Learned How to Act in California
After his stint in the Air Force, Freeman moved to Los Angeles intent on becoming an actor. He took lessons at the Pasadena Playhouse and to increase his options for getting paid work, he also signed up for dancing lessons in San Francisco. To pay for expenses, he worked as a clerk at Los Angeles City College.
Freeman’s First Break
In the early ‘60s, he was on his way to Paris where he could learn, perform and observe professionals, when Freeman stopped off in New York. He never left.
He first performed as a dancer at the 1964 World’s Fair in the city. Working odd jobs and going to auditions filled his days. He eventually landed a role in an African-American stage version of “Hello, Dolly” in 1967. He reprised the role of Rudolph where he appeared on Broadway with Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway.
Twice Married, Twice Divorced
In 1967 Freeman also married Jeanette Adair Bradshaw. She stood by him through victories and defeats. During their 12-year marriage, a daughter named Morgana was born and Morgan also adopted Bradshaw’s daughter, Deena. But in 1979 the two called it quits and divorced. A second marriage to Myrna Colley-Lee had a good run from 1984 to 2010. He’s remained single to this day.
The Disappointments Add Up
Even though Freeman earned rave reviews and a Tony nomination for his role as an alcoholic ex-gang member in “The Mighty Gents” on Broadway in 1978, the play closed after only nine performances. He also earned great reviews — and an Oscar nomination — for “Street Smart” in 1987, but the movie left the big screen after just 14 days.
Success Strikes at Age 50
Even though “Street Smart” wasn’t a particularly good film, Freeman’s portrayal of a dangerous hustler got him noticed as an Oscar-worthy actor. Two years later, Freeman was nominated for his role as Hoke in “Driving Miss Daisy.” That same year, 1989, he appeared in “Lean on Me” and “Glory,” two successful and critically acclaimed films.
Freeman’s career had finally taken off.
He’s a Voice of Authority...
He exercised all his talents throughout the ‘90s. And his talents included being a voice of authority. He played God in "Bruce Almighty" and "Evan Almighty."
Freeman’s velvety baritone voice resonates with audiences so he’s a sought-after narrator. Documentaries Freeman narrated included “American Experience” and “The True Story of Glory Continues.” He voiced Frederick Douglass in a TV mini-series documentary titled “The Civil War.”
He also narrates some of the films he acts in, like “War of the Worlds” and “The Bucket List,” not to mention “The Shawshank Redemption.” (More on that one soon.)
...and the Voice of Animals
Freeman often narrates animal documentaries, which has garnered him the title “Voice of the Animals.” His signature sound can be heard in films, documentaries and two of the documentaries he narrated — “The Long Way Home” (1997) and “March of the Penguins” (2005) — earned Academy Awards.
…and the Voice of Politicians
He’s waded into politics, both real and imagined. He played the President of the United States in “Deep Impact,” and in 2016 he narrated a video introduction for Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention.
His Best-Known Movie Bombed at the Box Office
For his Hollywood work, Freeman is best remembered for his depiction of Red in “The Shawshank Redemption.” Adapted from a Stephen King novella, this film relates the story of two prisoners, Andy (Tim Robbins) and Red (Freeman), the friendship they form and their money laundering scheme. Although the film didn’t do well in theaters, it quickly became a home video and cable blockbuster.
Did you know the roles of Andy and Red apparently almost went to Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford, respectively? IMDb probably wouldn’t have rated it their top-rated film of all time if that had happened. "Shawshank" spotlighted Freeman as an actor with a great range; he also received his third Oscar nomination for the role of Red.
He Turned to Directing
After being in the business for some time, actors often want to take creative control. That’s why they take up directing. In 1997, Freeman directed the coming-of-age drama “Hurricane Streets,” which won the Audience, Best Director and Best Cinematography Awards at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival. He then directed “Desert Blue” starring Kate Hudson, “American Psycho 2” starring Mila Kunis, the independent thriller “Homecoming” starring Mischa Barton and many more.
He Started His Own Production Company
To keep his hands in various investments, he co-founded a movie production company, Revelations Entertainment, with producer Lori McCreary in 1997. The goal of this company is to blend artistry with technology. Two of the company’s successes to date are an Emmy nomination for the science show, “Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman” and an Academy Award nomination for Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in “Invictus.”
He’s in the Food Business
With best friend Bill Luckett, Freeman opened the restaurant Madidi and nearby Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 2001. They wanted a place to go for good food and fine music and there wasn’t any. So they built one they’d like. Sadly, although the eatery, Madidi, drew blues aficionados, fine dining lovers and Freeman’s fans from all over the world, Luckett and Freeman closed the doors in 2012. Ground Zero Blues Club still perseveres.
He’s a Charitable Guy
He’s also very charitable but likes to keep that hush. Through his Rock River Foundation, Freeman supported the arts. Then the foundation’s name was changed to the Tallahatchie River Foundation, which provides education in Mississippi through training early childhood educators, resources for local school and childcare providers and parental support.
Hive Minds Think Alike
To help save the imperiled bee population, Freeman converted his 124-acre ranch in Mississippi into a wild bee sanctuary. Bee-friendly plants like fruit trees, clover, magnolia trees and lavender span the landscape. In 2014 while appearing on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” he told Fallon that he didn’t even need to wear a protective suit while taking care of the pollinators. The bees love him that much, or maybe it’s the voice of “God” that calms them.
He’s Won Heaps of Accolades
Freeman won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award in 2005 for “Million Dollar Baby.” A friend built him a special cabinet for this Oscar statuette and a plaque on the display says “No Parking. Reserved for Oscar.” He accepted a Golden Globe for his best supporting actor role in the film “Driving Miss Daisy.”
In 2012, he was honored by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association with the prestigious Cecil B. DeMille award for his contribution to the entertainment world.
Freeman shows no signs of slowing down even though he’s currently 81. He enjoys what he does and says he works about six months out of the year. This year he’ll start work on the production of a thriller titled “The Poison Rose,” co-starring with John Travolta. In October he’ll start work as the star in “The Manuscript.” Also, on his agenda, “Cold Warriors” with no current release date, where he plays a former CIA agent, and “Angel is Fallen” with Gerard Butler and Jada Pinkett Smith.