“Get busy living or get busy dying.” Got that right, Mr. Freeman.
As one of the most versatile and well-respected actors in Hollywood, Morgan Freeman is known for his many iconic film roles. And at the age of 79, he’s showing no sign of slowing down.
Read on to learn a few facts about one of the enduring good guys of Hollywood.
32. Baby of the family
Born June 1, 1937, in Memphis, Tenn., Morgan Porterfield Freeman, Jr. was the baby in a family of five siblings. His father was a barber and his mother, Mayme Edna, was a schoolteacher.
31. Humble beginnings
Not long after he was born, Morgan’s parents relocated to Chicago. While his parents struggled to find work, Freeman stayed with his maternal grandmother in Charleston, Mississippi until he was six years old. After his grandmother’s death, Freeman moved to live with his mother, who had separated from her husband.
30. Early influences
As a child, Freeman spent tons of time scraping together money to go to the movies; he has said some of his earliest matinee idols were actors like Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier, the first African-American to win an Oscar for Best Actor.
29. The chair that changed a life
When Freeman was in junior high school, he pulled a chair from underneath a girl he had a crush on. As punishment, he was ordered to take part in his school’s drama competition. To his surprise (and probably his teachers), the 12-year-old was a natural on stage, taking top honors in the program.
28. The wild blue yonder
After graduating from school, Freeman attended Los Angeles City College and then joined the U.S. Air Force in 1955, hoping it would lead to a career in the skies. But after four years of working as a mechanic, he decided not to re-enlist. “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.” He left the Air Force and moved to Hollywood to pursue his dream of acting.
27. His first big break
Freeman’s first big break came in 1967, when he joined the cast in the first all-African American stage production of Hello, Dolly!, a musical in which he starred alongside such greats as Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway and Ernestine Jackson. That was a good year for him; Freeman also married Jeanette Adair Bradshaw, his first wife, that same year.
26. “Hey, you guyyyyyyyyys!”
Freeman’s first credited film appearance was in 1971’s Who Says I Can’t Ride a Rainbow, but his first real exposure to national audiences was his time as part of The Electric Company (1971-77), a children’s TV show made by the same people who created Sesame Street. For six seasons and 780 episodes, Freeman and the rest of the cast sang and performed comedy skits to encourage younger students to read. Among his regular characters were disc jockey Mel Mounds, Count Dracula and Easy Reader (“a first-class, genuine reading freak”).
25. Paying his dues
While The Electric Company was steady work, Freeman was hoping to break into films, and his career caught a break when he landed a part as a prison inmate in the 1980 Robert Redford film Brubaker. But the film work he hoped would follow did not materialize, and Freeman retreated to television, appearing on the soap operas Ryan’s Hope and Another World, and in TV movies such as Death of a Prophet (in which he played slain civil-rights leaders Malcolm X).
24. Chatting with the insane
While on the set of Brubaker, Morgan Freeman had some interesting interactions with the inmates. “When we were doing Brubaker, we were in a prison for the criminally insane. They said, don’t talk to the inmates. Well, what do you do if a guy accused of butchering his family comes up and speaks to you? You don’t refuse to talk to him.”
23. A star is born
As the 1980s rolled on, Freeman started getting recognized for roles in which he played mentors and people in positions of authority (something that would become a theme for him as the years went on). But the role he says was his favorite was that of Fast Black, a vicious pimp in 1987’s Street Smart. “That one was about as far away from me as I can get,” he once said. That role earned him his first Oscar nomination (for Best Supporting Actor) and a glowing review from film critic Pauline Kael, who went so far as to ask the world: “Is Morgan Freeman the greatest American actor?”
22. Dress for success and make someone else pay for it!
“The first real role I had in a movie I played a pimp [in Street Smart] – this was in the late ‘80s – and the costume designer at the time said, ‘So, how do you see yourself?’ And at the time, all the pimps in the movies were wearing platform shoes, crushed velvet, robes, this and that. I said, ‘None of that.’ And she said, ‘Armani?’ I said yes, so she actually wiped out her costume budget buying me an Armani (suit).”
21. We’re starting to see a pattern here…
Freeman followed up Street Smart with head-turning roles in Clean and Sober (as a tough but supportive drug rehabilitation counselor), Lean on Me (as a tough but supportive high school principal) and Glory (as a tough but supportive officer in the U.S. Civil War’s first all-black volunteer company). But it was his role as Hoke, the kindly chauffeur hired to drive Miss Daisy in 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy, that propelled him into the Hollywood A-list and earned him his first Golden Globe Award for Best Actor (and first Oscar nomination for Best Actor).
20. “Get busy living or get busy dying”
The 1990s were very good years for Freeman. After a fun role as one of Robin’s Merry Men in 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Freeman delivered powerful performances in such films as Se7en, Unforgiven, Amistad and Deep Impact. But the movie Freeman has cited as his favorite, 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption, almost didn’t include him: in the story on which the film is based, his character, Red, was a middle-aged Irishman, and major-league actors like Clint Eastwod, Harrison Ford and Robert Redford were considered for the part. But director Frank Darabont has maintained he always had Morgan Freeman in mind for the role because of his authoritative presence, calm demeanor and deep voice.
19. Commitment to his craft
In The Shawshank Redemption, the scene in which Andy (Tim Robbins) and Red chat in the prison yard while Red is pitching a baseball took nine hours to shoot. Freeman pitched that baseball for the entire nine hours without a word of complaint. He showed up for work the next day with his arm in a sling.
18. Are you there, God? Oh… hi, Morgan!
Speaking of authoritative presences, it probably surprised no one when Freeman was cast to play God in the 2003 comedy Bruce Almighty, in which Jim Carrey’s everyman character is literally given the power of God. Jack Nicholson was originally approached for the role, but he passed on it.
17. What do you think he charges for voicemail messages?
Freeman’s calm, authoritative voice makes him a big “get” for documentary filmmakers looking for the right narrator for their projects. In 2005, Freeman narrated March of the Penguins, the Oscar-winning nature documentary that went on to earn more at the box office than all of the Best Picture nominees that year. Freeman recorded all the narration for the 80-minute documentary in one day.
16. Best. Year. Ever.
2005 was a huge year for Freeman. Aside from his work on March of the Penguins, his team-up with Clint Eastwood on 2004’s Million Dollar Baby (in which he plays an ex-prize fighter helping to hone the skills of a young female boxer) earned him his first Oscar at the 2005 Academy Awards. He also narrated Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) and appeared in Batman Begins (2005) as Lucius Fox, Bruce Wayne’s technical support and ally in his war against crime – a role Freeman would reprise twice more in the film trilogy.
In 2008, the TV series African American Lives 2 revealed that his Caucasian great-great-grandfather had lived with, and was buried beside, his African-American great-great-grandmother (the two could not legally marry at the time, in the segregated South).
14. That must keep him pretty “buzzy.”
Freeman is a beekeeper with more than two dozen hives. After hearing about the decline of honeybees and its impact on the environment, in 2014 Freeman turned his 124-acre ranch in Mississippi into a beekeeping sanctuary.
13. How he chooses his film roles
“I like being eclectic,” 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.”
12. Nice guy onscreen, nice guy off screen
When he’s not busy being the good guy in his movies, Freeman is being a nice guy in the real world. Through Rock River Foundation, an organization he started, Freeman has donated millions to educational programs. He has also raised money for victims of Hurricane Katrina, and in 2004 he helped organize relief funds for hurricane victims in Grenada.
11. Actor, philanthropist, beekeeper… blues lover?
In May 2001, Freeman teamed up with two Memphis businessmen to open Ground Zero, a blues club in Clarksdale, MS, not far from his place in Charleston, MS. It got its name from the fact Clarksdale has been historically referred to as “ground zero” for the blues.
10. It pays to plan ahead
In 1998, a friend built Freeman a special cabinet with an area reserved for an Academy Award, complete with a plaque that said “No Parking. Reserved for Oscar.” Freeman finally got the chance to fill that spot when he took home the statue in 2005 for his role in Million Dollar Baby.
9. Like a class reunion, only with Lego
Freeman continues to gain fans with his work, showing no signs of slowing down. In 2014’s The Lego Movie, he lent his voice to Vitruvius, the wise old man who believes in Emmett. It was Morgan’s first time acting in an animated role, but it was like old home week for him and the rest of the cast: he had previously worked with Liam Neeson in Batman Returns, he and Dave Franco (Wally) worked together in 2013’s Now You See Me, and he and Chris Pratt (Emmett) both appeared in 2008’s Wanted.
8. Awards? Build a bigger cabinet.
Aside from his Oscar… and his Golden Globe wins… and his Cecil B. DeMille Award… and his AFI Life Achievement Award… in 2016 U.S. President Barack Obama presented Freeman with a National Medal of Arts. During the ceremony, Obama said Freeman was being honored for his outstanding work as an actor, director and narrator: “His iconic stage and screen performances have brought to life characters from the whole spectrum of the human experience, moving audiences around the world, and influencing countless young artists.”
7. That’s Dr. Freeman, thank you very much.
Perhaps because they can’t wait to hear his voice at their commencement ceremonies, Freeman has amassed a fine collection of honorary degrees from educational institutions, including Rhodes College, Brown University and Boston University.
6. Talkin’ ‘Bout My Veneration…
In 2008, Freeman became a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, earning his medal alongside Barbra Streisand, George Jones, choreographer Twyla Tharp and the members of The Who.
5. Not a fan of his own movies for one simple reason.
“I find it difficult to watch myself… I find it boring,” he once told an interviewer. Lucky for the rest of us, then, he’s in the minority on that opinion.
4. Don’t bet money against him in a golf game.
Morgan Freeman is the first American to record a par on the “Extreme 19th” hole at Legend Golf & Safari Resort in Limpopo, South Africa. It’s the highest and longest par 3 hole in the world.
3. Well-Earned recognition
Morgan Freeman was presented with the Chaplin Award in 2016, at 78 years old, to applaud his enduring commitment to cinema. You can check out the video below.
2. How he really feels about being the good guy
Freeman takes a positive approach to the idea that he has spent a lot of his career typecast as good guys and father figures: “As an actor, you like to be well rounded. But the industry puts you in a niche. I don’t think Sidney [Poitier] ever successfully played a bad part. Fonda did once in Once Upon a Time in the West, but it was the only time he played a really bad guy. Gary Cooper never did. Clark Gable never did. So you’re in good company when you get packaged as Mr. Good Guy.”
1. A stay in jail, with honor
A man of honor and loyalty, Morgan Freeman was put in jail while serving in the Air Force because he insisted on sticking with his friend. “Have you ever been in jail? I have. I was a kid. I was in the Air Force and I’d gone with a friend of mine to Los Angeles. When we left the base, he left his Class-A pass sitting on the table. We were hitchhiking because he was out of money. I had a little money, but I didn’t want to take the bus and leave him. The police stopped us on the freeway. He asked both of us for ID and I had mine and my friend didn’t have his. The cop said, ‘Well, we’re gonna have to call the shore patrol because we don’t know if you’re AWOL.’ He told me, ‘You got money–you take a bus.’ I said, ‘I’m with him.’ So I went to jail for four days.