Time was when the silver screen was awash with dignity. Film-makers needing a hero of high moral standing could choose from a wide array of stars. Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, John Wayne brought gravitas and stern-but-tolerant manhood to many roles. In these confusing times, though, such eminently trustworthy figures are few and far between. Indeed, perhaps there’s only one. He was the strong, forgiving chauffeur breaking down the race-divide in Driving Miss Daisy: he was the studious, determined detective, loathing but understanding killer Kevin Spacey in Seven: Tim Robbins’ faithful, sympathetic mentor, finding hope in Hell in The Shawshank Redemption. He is, of course, Morgan Freeman, cinema’s one true Face Of Human Decency. But there’s so much more to him than a caring glance and benevolent smile. He’s lived a hard and full life and did, after all, gain his first Oscar nomination as a suave and vicious pimp.
Morgan Freeman was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on the 1st of June, 1937. These were harsh years, with the Wall Street Crash leading through to the Dust Bowl and then the war in Europe. His father, Morgan Sr, was a barber, his mother Mayme a cleaner struggling to maintain a family that eventually included six children, five boys and one girl, Morgan being the fourth-born. When Morgan was very young, like so many other workers in the South, his mum and dad migrated to Chicago, seeking work in the factories. Morgan lived with his grandparents in Charleston, Mississippi, where his earliest memories were formed and where he still owns a home.
History has it that life was a nightmare for blacks in the South in the Forties. But Morgan does not recall feeling any real pain. He says they had “second-hand equipment but first-class teachers. Things didn’t seem all that detrimental” at school. Yet, for a while, he didn’t take to school. He was no athlete and didn’t enjoy academics. Eventually, though, his imagination was caught by extra-curricular subjects, in particular music and theatre. He’d appear in many school plays and, at 14, win a State-wide drama competition. This new interest led him to become a “serious” student, and he began to excel. He humbly admits to enjoying the attention his academic exploits brought.
Morgan would spend his summers with his parents in Chicago. This is where he discovered another great love – the cinema. There was no money for such frivolities, so each day, he’d scour the streets looking for empties to cash in for their deposits. Twelve cents would gain admission – being two coke bottles and a beer bottle. The first movie he remembers was King Kong. Then came a hero-worship of Saturday cowboy stars like Jay Maynard, John MacBrown, and Jimmy Wakely. Later, there was Cagney and Bogart, Cooper and Peck.
For some reason, Morgan loved war films with airplanes; they filled him with special excitement. It was an attraction that continued through his teens and led to him joining the Air Force at 18. (All the Freeman boys, bar the youngest, became military men. When still a teenager, one brother drowned while serving with the Marine Corps at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina). Morgan spent a year and a half sitting behind a desk, increasingly disillusioned. Then came his turn to train as a pilot, his dream. But, when first sitting in a jet fighter, he was suddenly seized by the reality of dealing death from the skies and had the “distinct feeling I was sitting in the nose of a bomb.” He realized he’d been enamored of the MOVIE version of this life, not the real thing. The acting was his vocation, so, after three years, eight months, and ten days, he bailed out…”