The Kennedy Center

Morgan Freeman


(Actor, born in Memphis, Tennessee, June 1, 1937)

For decades, the name Morgan Freeman has been synonymous with distinguished screen acting. He is one of the most respected performers currently making movies. His critically acclaimed work is universally regarded as authoritative yet serene; commanding, powerful, and dignified yet warm, graceful, and discreet. Even back in the late 1980s, when Freeman was just entering his period of artistic maturity and stardom with two Oscar nominations in three years for Street Smart (1987, best supporting actor) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989, best actor), the film authority Pauline Kael was already asking: “Is Morgan Freeman the greatest actor in America today?” An astonishing critical milestone in his career considering that most of his brilliant performances were still to come in movies such as Lean on Me (1989), Glory (1989), Unforgiven (1992, his first collaboration with Clint Eastwood), The Shawshank Redemption (1994 and another best actor Oscar nomination), Seven (1995), Amistad (1997), Deep Impact (1998, as the president of the United States), Nurse Betty (2000), The Sum of All Fear (2002), Long Walk to Freedom (2004, as Nelson Mandela), Batman Begins (2005), Gone Baby Gone (2007), and Million Dollar Baby (2004), in which, once again directed by Eastwood, Freeman gave a stunning, deeply moving performance that brought him the 2005 best supporting actor Academy Award. In a blaze of dazzling versatility proclaiming an artist at the top of his game, the year 2008 signaled Freeman’s eagerly anticipated return to the Broadway stage in the Mike Nichols production of The Country Girl as well as his resonant contributions to Hollywood summer blockbusters Batman: The Dark Knight and Wanted.

Many years after Kael asked that prophetic-rhetorical question, the Washington Post included Freeman in a master list of classic male actors, alongside Sidney Poitier, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Spencer Tracy, Robert Mitchum, and Paul Newman. “Presence is Freeman’s old-fashioned virtue,” explains the director and choreographer Debbie Allen, who worked with Freeman as one of Amistad’s producers. “I have never seen anyone so powerful.”

Shortly following his Million Dollar Baby Oscar victory, Morgan Freeman confessed that he had wanted to become a movie actor at age 15. "This is the fight I’ve been fighting all of my life."

That life began in the American South—in Tennessee, where he was born, and in Mississippi, where he was raised. In elementary school, he was the star of the school play. By age 12 he had won a statewide drama competition, and by the time he was in high school he was already performing on the radio in Nashville. Following a stint in the U.S. Air Force as a mechanic from 1955 to 1959, Freeman first went to Hollywood, but it was in New York City that his impressively varied acting career—spanning the theater, television, and eventually the movies—got started. The stage showcased his versatility right from the start. In 1968 he appeared on Broadway in the legendary all-black production of Hello, Dolly! That was followed by Purlie (1970-71); a best featured actor Tony Award nomination for The Mighty Gents (1978), Obie Awards for The Gospel at Colonus (1984) and Driving Miss Daisy (1987); acclaimed performances for the New York Shakespeare Festival as Coriolanus and as Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew.

National recognition first came to him on television and he became a beloved teacher-entertainer to America’s children when in 1971 he created the popular character Easy Reader on the highly praised public television show “The Electric Company.” Renee Zellweger, Freeman’s costar in Nurse Betty, recalls: “He’s one of the first faces in my memory. As far back as I can remember there’s been a Morgan Freeman, from ‘Electric Company.’ He taught me my first noun.” Throughout the ‘80s he complemented his stage work with performances in several landmark television movies: Attica (1980); The Marva Collins Story (1981) and The Atlanta Child Murders (1985), both with Cicely Tyson; and The Execution of Raymond Graham (1985).

Early feature film credits from this period include Brubaker (1980), Eyewitness (1981), Harry and Son (1984), and That Was Then…This Is Now (1985). Then Street Smart came out in 1987 and Morgan Freeman became a star. He won the Los Angeles, New York, and National Society of Film Critics awards for best supporting actor, and was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Oscar. In the following two years he appeared in Clean and Sober, Johnny Handsome and the film version of Driving Miss Daisy, which led to another Oscar nomination and more extraordinary reviews such and Vincent Canby’s rave in the New York Times: “Though the character never appears to be tough, it is a tough performance….the work of an actor who has gone through all of the possibilities, stripped away all of the extraneous details and arrived at an essence.” In other words, he has achieved what all great actors strive for and only the few accomplish. And in case that wasn’t enough to convince audiences, critics, directors and producers that Morgan Freeman was indeed a rare and awesome talent, that same year he gave one of his most affecting performances as a high school principal in Lean on Me and appeared opposite Denzel Washington and Matthew Broderick in the epic Civil War drama Glory.

"I like being eclectic, the more varied the better, the wider the range," Freeman explained to The Washington Post. "A good story and an interesting character is all I am looking for."  That sense of daring, that refusal to be typecast, that willingness to risk it all for the sake of his art marks his every choice of role and distinguishes his every performance.  Freeman’s work is inclusive of most genres; he is often cast in roles that were not specifically written as black characters—something still truly rare even today. Sidney Poitier, the first and arguably the greatest of all black film superstars, admits to being one of Morgan Freeman’s biggest fans. "I love his work. He is a gifted and extraordinarily well-trained actor. He works with the kind of discipline that captures reality."
Morgan Freeman