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Morgan Freeman back to memories

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Morgan Freeman is the go-to guy for gravitas, although the Academy Award winner has claimed he tires of the word being brought up during every interview. Whatever his own feeling on the moniker, Freeman is officially stuck with being the voice for weight, substance and trustworthiness.
Freeman may have started late in his big screen career but when it finally kicked in, people noticed his consistent and controlled performances that are matched by few of his contemporaries.

He may have played a stoic chauffeur in the 1989 film ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ but what drives the man who has played some of the biggest celluloid roles of the last 20 years?

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Freeman is the son of a school teacher and a barber who both took on extra shifts at the local hospital to make ends meet. Following the birth of their final and sixth child, (five boys, and one girl) both parents relocated in Chicago to find better paid work. Freeman and his siblings were then raised in Mississippi by their dedicated grandparents.

Freeman spent most of his childhood summers in Chicago with his parents. He would scrounge for empty bottles and redeem them for the deposit payment to buy tickets to the movies.

At school, Freeman loved attention and remembers wanting to act, even before hitting his teens. “I was 12 and there was this girl in school that I really liked; very well-dressed, beautiful curls. To get her attention, I pulled a chair out from under her when she was about to sit down. She fell on the floor and ran to our English teacher. I thought: Oh, Lord, that’s it. But instead of bringing me to the principal’s office, she took me to another class that needed performers for a school play. And for this performance I got my first acting award.’’

It would not be until the century had turned before he won his first Academy Award. Freeman received Oscar nominations for his roles in 1987's ‘Street Smart’, 1989's ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ and 1994's ‘The Shawshank Redemption’. He finally won his Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role in the heart-wrenching 2004 boxing drama ‘Million Dollar Baby’, directed by Clint Eastwood; his second role in an Eastwood-directed film.

Growing up, Freeman worshipped the silver screen stars and was particularly drawn to war films featuring airplanes; an attraction that continued through his teens and led to him joining the United States Air Force at the age of 18. Freeman worked as a mechanic in the Air Force and later considered joining as a fighter pilot but opted to give acting a whirl instead. He later trained for his own private pilot’s license. Freeman was not the only one of his siblings to give the military a go: all but the youngest, became military men.

Penniless in the late 1950s, Freeman moved to Los Angeles to follow his acting dream. He picked up a job at the Los Angeles City College where he was allowed free dancing, singing, and acting classes. He struggled during these years waiting for his big break.

“I went to Hollywood straight away. I got a good running start but the wall was brick. So when I bounced, I bounced all the way to New York and got onto the stage and stayed there.’’

Freeman said the move to New York was a blessing in disguise as he was treading the boards, avoiding the period in the 1970s when black exploitation films started.

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“All the New York actors were going to Hollywood, starring in it [Blaxploitation], making $40,000. I said to my agent whose name was Jeff Hunter, and who picked me up from the first stage play I did in New York: ‘Everybody's going out there and they're working. I'm sitting here languishing. I should go - don't you think I should go out to Hollywood?’"

“I don't think so. When they want you, they'll send for you," said Hunter. It worked. Though they didn't want me for a long time.’’

Freeman worked the theatre for decades. Then, in 1966, he made his movie debut with a tiny role in the drama ‘A Man Called Adam’, starring Sammy Davis Jr. and Louis Armstrong, and directed by Leo Penn (father of Chris, Michael, and Sean Penn). The following year Freeman married Jeanette Adair Bradshaw. They had two sons together, Alfonso and Saifoulaye, but the pair divorced in 1979.

Then came a 1970s television role playing the Easy Reader and several other roles on ‘The Electric Company’, a children’s educational show. Freeman later took a supporting role in the film ‘Brubaker’ but things cooled off after that.

Freeman says the phone stopped ringing for him in the 1980s. He came close to applying for his taxi driver’s license when new offers started to roll in. Fed up with the lower wages of theatre and having two children to support Freeman auditioned for, and won, the role of a doctor in the daytime soap-opera, ‘Another World’. He kept the regular work for two years before leaving to take a role in the film, ‘Harry and Son’.

In 1984, Freeman remarried a costume designer, Myrna Colley-Lee, with whom he raised two daughters: Deena (adopted with Colley-Lee) and Morgana.

Once production ended for Harry and Son, Morgan again found himself out of work so he returned to Broadway where he was making a name for himself. It was back on Broadway that Freeman landed his Obie award-winning role in the stage version of ‘Driving Miss Daisy’.

His role as the dignified chauffeur assisting a moody pensioner gave him much publicity and it was not long before he landed a role opposite Christopher Reeve in ‘Street Smart’. By this time, 1987, Freeman was 50 and winning praise for his characterisation of a menacing pimp. He also won his first Oscar nomination for the part.

Two years later, he was nominated for another Oscar for playing Hoke Colburn, the chauffeur in the film version of ‘Driving Miss Daisy’, opposite Jessica Tandy.

He was nominated a third time for Stephen King's ‘Shawshank Redemption’ in 1994. The film, an adaptation of a Stephen King novel, was a slow-burner at the box office but has topped DVD sales and rentals and often appears in Top 100 film lists voted by both critics and viewers.

However, according to Freeman, no-one seems to get the film’s name right.

“Everywhere I go, people say, 'I love your movies. Shawshank Redemption' or they say `Shooshunk’ or `Shankshout is the best movie I ever saw.' It opened the same year that Dumb and Dumber opened. Shawshank made $35m at the box office - domestic. Dumb and Dumber made $110m. Duu-uh.’’

In 2000, as a 63-year-old, Freeman kissed Renée Zellweger in ‘Nurse Betty’; it was his first on-screen kiss.

Freeman has hobbies outside of his work. He is an avid pilot, sailor and co-owns a blues club and a restaurant. However he will never shake being one of the world’s most recognisable actors with his striking wearisome eyes, smattering of freckles and mop of salt and pepper hair.

Preferring his home town to the La-La Land of Hollywood, Freeman decided to move back to Clarksville, Mississippi, a town with a population of about 20,000 and no red carpet events.

“When I started going home to visit my parents as an adult, I began to realise how much I felt associated with the state. I was raised there and had a lot of friends in Mississippi. In addition, I could spend a third of the money that I would in Los Angeles and get 10 times the amount of land with my next neighbour miles away. I feel very comfortable there. I am in a place that I’ve always loved.”

Explaining why he moved back to his home town, Freeman continues: “I did it because I live in Mississippi and having traveled around the country, the world, particularly the country, I have discovered that there was no place to go to hide from racism. If it's a problem for you, it's a problem for you. You just find it wherever you are.’’

Freeman may have played the role of a black president, and a black God twice, but he says dividing roles into black or white is pointless in the film industry.

“It’s no longer a question. Anybody who says anything to the contrary is looking for excuses. This business has learned in the 70s that the issue isn’t race but money. The bosses don’t care what colour you are, but whether or not you have a following and if that following will pay for you. If it will, you will get the best offers; no matter who you look like.’’

In 2005, Freeman labeled the concept of a month, dedicated to black history in America, as “ridiculous’’. He told a ‘60 Minutes’ reporter: “You're going to relegate my history to a month? I don't want a black history month. Black history is American history.’’

Freeman’s biggest triumph came in the 2004 Clint Eastwood-directed film ‘Million Dollar Baby’. In it, he played Scrap, a former fighter who wiled away his days as the manager of a run-down gym called the Hit Pit.

He may have punched the air in triumph of winning the gold statue but claims acting-boxing is more difficult than carrying the air of gravitas.

“Have you ever thrown a punch at anybody that you weren't going to connect with? Try it sometime. You're just throwing as hard as you can through the air, and not just once but a lot of times. And when you get done, you can hardly raise your arm.’’

The movie garnered critical acclaim, earning him his first Academy Award as a best supporting actor. He also collected an Italian Online Movie Award for Best Supporting Actor and Screen Actors Guild and Vancouver Film Critics Circle gongs.

Having achieved the recognition, he went on to appear in a variety of roles in movies including ‘Batman Begins’, ‘Lucky Number Slevin’ and ‘Evan Almighty’ in which he reprised his Bruce Almighty role of God. Freeman then starred in the Ben Affleck-directed movie ‘Gone Baby Gone’ in 2008 before teaming up with Angelina Jolie and James McAvoy for action film ‘Wanted’, which was a commercial success.

In 2009, Freeman took on a role many fans would have loved to see him portray when he appeared as Nelson Mandela in a biographical drama film directed by Clint Eastwood. Based on a book by John Carlin entitled ‘Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation’, the movie garnered rave reviews and earned him more award nominations. These included an Academy Award for Best Actor nomination, as well as Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nods.

Always busy and never shy to engage in some action, 2010 saw Freeman join a star-studded cast including Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren and Richard Dreyfuss in ‘Red’. He followed this with 2012's ‘The Dark Knight Rises’. His latest films include 'Lucy' (2014), 'Life Itself' (2014) and 'Transcendence' (2014)