The Shawshank Redemption, Million Dollar Baby, Driving Miss Daisy, Se7en, March of the Penguins, Invictus, Deep Impact, Bruce Almighty, Street Smart—the list could go on and on; after all, it’s as good as endless, and as good as it gets. Morgan Freeman is one of the first names any Hollywood director pencils in for a potential blockbuster. He’s also the first name President Bill Clinton penciled in for the Humana Challenge pro-celebrity golf tournament down in La Quinta, California, this January.
What a voice! What an actor! What a great guy to play alongside in a fund-raising golf tournament! From Nelson Mandela to a colony of South Pole penguins to the Almighty himself, Morgan Freeman has been the go-to man for the movie industry for the best part of a quarter of a century. The go-to man for everything, come to think of it, including golf.
Now aged 74, the obvious question to ask is, “where was he when he was in his prime?” Well, of course, he’s very much in his prime right now, if not necessarily the first flush of youth. As they say in Hollywood, “it takes a lifetime to become an overnight sensation.”
In his case, though, it didn’t take anything like a lifetime and he isn’t an overnight sensation. He’s appeared in films with pretty much all the A-listers of our time—Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Tim Robbins, Jack Nicholson and Matt Damon, to name but a few. He’s even been in the same corner as Clint Eastwood and Hilary Swank (in Million Dollar Baby), and the same car as Jessica Tandy (in Driving Miss Daisy).
Charming, urbane and endlessly polite, despite living in the fast lane in more senses than one, Freeman, who was born in Memphis, Tennessee, the son of a teacher and a barber, and raised predominantly in Chicago, is the movie industry’s gold standard, its comfort zone, its omniscient, everyman narrator.
Indeed, he has the most distinctive voice of anyone performing right now in any medium, more so even than President Barack Obama. So much so, in fact, that an impersonator has made a fortune for himself providing the soundtrack to an advertisement for an online insurance comparison site in the UK called “More Than” (or More Th>n, as they like to style themselves). “I’m More Than Freeman” has become a mantra for British channel hoppers, convinced they’re listening to the great man himself, even though the voice belongs to a 37-year-old white man called Josh Robert Thompson, formerly from Cleveland, Ohio, now a resident of Los Angeles.
By coincidence, Los Angeles is the city that inevitably commands most of the real Morgan Freeman’s attention as well. Do Morgan and Josh meet up occasionally for voice checks and cocktails? Don’t even ask. All we know is that during his week down in the Coachella Valley in January, the real Morgan Freeman, who also has homes in Charleston, Mississippi, and in New York City, kept hopping back and forth to Los Angeles on business, by helicopter or plane, often at short notice.
Specially for the 2012 Humana Challenge in January, which supported the William J. Cli nton Foundation to promote healthy living, Kingdom’s editor and his trusty sidekick (the perpetrator of this article, no less) came calling. Earlier that week, Freeman had just picked up the Cecil B. DeMille award at the 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards for his outstanding contribution to the world of entertainment. He was filming at the time as well, yet he still managed to squeeze in some golf—to entertain the fans, to honor President Clinton and support his charity, and to fulfill his commitment to a tournament that was, on this occasion, surprisingly denuded of its usual parade of big-name supporters.
All this while only able to play one-handed! Pardon, one-handed? Yes, one-handed. This dates back to a high-speed automobile accident that Freeman, a natural left-hander, had near Ruleville, Mississippi, in August 2008 when he suffered severe injuries to his left arm. He required four hours of surgery to repair nerve damage and to this day he often wears a compression glove to protect against blood pooling due to non-movement.
“I suffered nerve damage and it hasn’t gotten better,” Freeman says. “I can’t move it. If you don’t move your hand, it will swell up. Do you know you move your hand about a million times a day? But did you know, despite my injury I can still drive the ball 180 yards?”
He still has problems with the injury, and when he does he plays golf one-handed—right-handed, that is. But what a spectacle this is! On the first two days of the Humana Challenge, Freeman defied his injury because he wanted to engage the galleries and give value to the tournament. Even though he didn’t improve his professional partner’s score very much, he still managed a sensational bunker shot to within a few feet from an awkwardly positioned trap beside the 18th green on the Palmer Private Course on day one.
He was doing his very best, and respecting the game of golf, which was of the utmost importance to him, and to everyone else following his progress.
Freeman admits he took the game up late in life, almost as late as the memorable films he’s made, but his philosophical words summarize his commitment to the game. “Golf marks a major turning point for me, because I felt like I needed a change. But I never expected golf to be its own religion, a kind of spiritual journey. When you’re aiming at the golf ball, it’s the only thing in the universe of any importance. You’re totally alone on the green. Yet it’s not a lonely experience, because the game of golf is a journey that you take with your friends.
“The bigger point here is that golf is a good metaphor for one’s life. The challenge of golf for me is trying to learn new rules. It’s something you always have to work at. You don’t get perfect at golf, it’s a never-ending quest for betterment.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in the world who would claim to have really mastered golf, or life. They’re both constantly changing on you. One day, you think you’ve got it all working. But the next day, it can all fall apart. Watching the pros—Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk, Phil Mickelson—can be encouraging, because the game frustrates them in the same ways as it frustrates the rest of us. Though, lucky for them, they’re not frustrated nearly as often.”
Freeman’s self-proclaimed, lifelong golfing ambition is to improve his handicap. “There are many things I want to do before I die, top of my list right now is getting my golf score down to anything below what it is. It’s about 103 now. One time I shot 114 and that was terrible.”
Freeman also insists he has no intention of quitting Hollywood, despite his advancing years, because of the joy acting brings him. “I don’t have to work,” he says. “I could stop and never have to worry about paying the rent again. I’m working for the joy of doing it.
“As you mature in your career and your life, you realize that you’re still in the game. But the game becomes different. I’m not aware of ageing in Hollywood. I’m mostly aware of movement. I’m moving on.”
“There are still challenging roles coming my way. I’m sometimes typecast to play father figures, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The people I admired when I was coming up in the business were typecast, too—Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Sidney Poitier.
“To transition into this new chapter in my life, I figured it would be best for me to decide the kind of game I wanted to play. My business partner, Bill Luckett, suggested golf. I travel a lot, and that’s hours of sitting in one position; I was no longer engaging in enough exercise.
“I worried about blood clots in my legs. After a few games, I quickly became a bona fide addict. I’ve lost many pounds since I started golfing. I get fresh air and I walk in wide open spaces.
“The thing I continue to learn is that you should really do what makes you happy. As a kid, I had always been interested in flying. I graduated from high school and entered the Air Force. I lost interest in flying when I didn’t become a fighter pilot. But I think now is a good time, a point of reflection for me, to go back and rediscover missed opportunities and different experiences.
“Recently, I started learning how to fly. Now I’m a licensed jet pilot. It’s hunky-dory. I can fly wherever I need to go. I have a new airplane on order that will even allow me to fly to Europe. It’s not a big airplane. It’s actually small. But it goes on long legs—and that’s all you really need in life.”
Since acquiring his pilot’s license, aged 65, Freeman has owned at least three private aircraft, including a Cessna Citation 501 jet and a Cessna 414 twin-engine prop. In 2007, he purchased an Emivest SJ30 long-range private jet, and took delivery in December 2009. Emivest’s assets are now owned by SyberJet and Freeman will shortly receive the first of the company’s upgraded SJ30s.
“As far as my career goes, I’ve learned to find things that interest and challenge me. You want a script that holds your attention. When you’re reading it, it should be like a good book. I’ve always had an inkling that, one day, somebody would ask me to play God. At the same time, you have to be careful: Christopher Reeve played Superman, and he could never escape from the role. I’ve played God in Bruce Almighty and now the sequel, Evan Almighty, because both movies are comedies. We take the work seriously, but we’re not taking ourselves too seriously. It’s also another example of the kind of new games that you can play as you become wiser with age.”
Freeman’s wisdom led him to a Golden Globe best actor award in 1990 for Driving Miss Daisy and a best supporting actor Oscar for Million Dollar Baby. He was nominated for Invictus and The Shawshank Redemption, but the gongs on both occasions proved elusive.
It’s a little-known fact that when Robert Redford was casting The Legend of Bagger Vance, he was going to cast himself and Freeman in the main roles, but in the end opted for the much younger Matt Damon and Will Smith.
Talking of Redford, it might be possible to trace Freeman’s emergence as a film star from a small part the great actor-director gave him in the 1980s prison movie Brubaker—a dummy run, so to speak, for his jailbird tour de force in The Shawshank Redemption.
In reality, Freeman has been acting all his life. He made his debut on stage at the age of nine in a school play, won a state-wide drama competition when he was 12, performed on a Nashville radio show while still in high school, danced at the 1964 World’s Fair and first appeared on screen in 1965 as an extra in The Pawnbroker.
Freeman co-owns and operates Madidi, a fine dining restaurant, and Ground Zero, a blues club, in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He’s an unashamed supporter of President Obama, and had his patriotism on full display in December 2010, when he flew to Switzerland to support President Clinton and leading U.S. soccer player Landon Donovan when they presented the United States’ bid to stage the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
He’s also a huge fan of the movies. He sees everything and has an opinion on every film, regardless of whether he’s involved or not. “Have you seen Anonymous?” he asked one interviewer recently. “Don’t miss that one. Do. Not. Miss. Anonymous.”
So, how does a man, who seemingly never stops working, find the time for so many extramural interests in his seventies, let alone his day job? And while we’re on the subject, how much longer does Morgan Freeman feel he has as one of the stellar lights in the movie industry?
“I’m getting a lot of end-of-career awards, that lifetime achievement stuff,” he says. “I’m beginning to feel like I’m being told, ‘OK, time to hang up your cleats and sit down.’ You have to get up when they give these things to you and say, ‘Now, wait a minute; I don’t consider myself done yet.’”