Oscar Hopeful Morgan Freeman Knows Better Than Anyone That Sometimes Genius Isn't Enough

updated 04/04/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/04/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In 1978, when Morgan Freeman opened on Broadway in The Mighty Gents, he earned spectacular reviews and a Tony nomination. The play closed after nine performances. In 1987, when Freeman appeared onscreen in Street Smart, he earned spectacular reviews and an Oscar nomination. The movie folded in 14 days. Last month Freeman packed up his off-Broadway raves and the 1984 Obie award he won for The Gospel at Colonus and moved with the newly reopened musical to Broadway. The last time he looked, the production was still there.

Even if the oracle who convinced him that this gospel version of the Oedipus saga would be "huge" proves mistaken, Freeman isn't likely to slip back into the two-year depression that hit him a decade ago. His performance as Street Smart's cruel and mercurial pimp, Fast Black, has already won four major critics' awards, and Freeman hopes to pick up a Best Supporting Actor award on April 11. Last month he signed to play controversial, bat-toting New Jersey high school principal Joe Clark in Lean on Me, a movie some Hollywood insiders regard as the year's hottest property. Suddenly, at 50, Morgan Freeman is indisputably a star.

Nonetheless, the face beneath the battered hat is none too happy this day. He has shown up at the right time but the wrong place, forcing his interviewer to race first uptown and then downtown through Manhattan's wind and rain. "You hungry?" It's not a question. "I owe you somethin' "

Faster than the sky unleashes its next downpour, though, the city's cabbies are flicking on their Off Duty signs. Caught at a light, one hack shakes his head and then, taking pity, nods. As Freeman climbs in, the driver grins. "If I'd seen it was you, I would a took you right away. Easy Reader."

"Easy Reader," says a Russian Tea Room waiter. Freeman winces. Though he played that hiply literate character from 1971 to 1976 on public television's The Electric Company, he finds no joy in being remembered for it. "It's like being known as Captain Kangaroo," he mutters. And another thing: "It irks me when I meet people who are parents now who talk about how they grew up with me."

Yet one way or another, recalling one performance or the next, people are talking about Freeman. Here's Alfred Uhry, author of the off-Broadway hit Driving Miss Daisy, turning up to say hello. Freeman won another Obie for Daisy, originating the part of the crotchety old lady's slyly submissive chauffeur. ("Excuse me," says Morgan, abandoning his meal to chat up a filmmaker at a nearby table, "but this is what this place is good for.") He has, Uhry says later, "a deep and abiding sense of humor. Especially about the fact that this year, he's hot. He's not about to forget the dark years."

There is too much to forget. The fourth child of May me Edna and Morgan Freeman, a barber who drank, Freeman spent his earliest days with his paternal grandmother near Greenwood, Miss. "I walked out the door, there was cotton," he remembers. But his grandmother died when he was 6, and Morgan and his sister joined their mother in Chicago, where he quickly learned to survive the South Side. "I stole, I conned, I passed the tests," he says.

"But I was scared. I'm not the violent type." What he liked was school and showing off, and at age 8, he was cast in a school play.

Looking back, it seems there was a certain inevitability to Freeman's career. "When I was a kid, it cost 12 cents to go to the movies," he says. "If you could find a milk bottle, you could sell it for a nickel. Soda and beer bottles were worth 2 cents. If you were diligent, you could come up with movie money every day."

Curiously, he never connected the movies to his own acting skill. Instead, he looked at the screen and stole another dream. By high school, he wanted to be a fighter pilot. "My value system was put in place by the movies," Morgan explains. "I believed what I saw." He also believed the Air Force would give him his chance. It did not. Despite high test scores, he says, he was given a job as a mechanic. "I don't know what else it could have been but race," he insists, still bitter.

Leaving the Air Force in 1959, he headed for Hollywood with no money, no car and no notion of what was in store. "I thought I'd just present myself and be hired," he says. Eventually he did land a job—as a dancer at the 1964 World's Fair. Not until two years later, when he was touring with The Royal Hunt of the Sun, did Freeman get his shot at drama. "It was so easy," he recalls. "I thought, this is what I do."

New York producers agreed, particularly Joseph Papp, who cast him in Mother Courage and Coriolanus. "Morgan's mind is never a blank," says Papp, "and you see that onstage. It's as if he's had 1,000 years of living experience. But also, he has the good speech required for Shakespeare." Gloria Foster, who starred with Freeman in both productions, puts it more bluntly: "Next to James Earl Jones, he's got the best voice in the business."

It's a voice that's having its share of trouble now, as Freeman struggles to be heard above the pounding jack-hammers outside the restaurant. Boarding another cab, he takes the interview home—to his warm, cluttered apartment in a grand old West Side building where he and his second wife, costume designer Myrna Colley-Lee, 47, took on the back-breaking task of removing the layers of paint that concealed wooden moldings.

The couple met in 1976, when both were working off-Broadway. "He was very aloof, alone," she says. "It turned out he was separating from his wife, so he was very melancholy." Freeman had met his first wife, Jeanette Bradshaw, when they worked in a New York travel agency. In 1971 they had a daughter, Morgana, and Morgan adopted Jeanette's daughter Deena, now 25. The personal life he calls "convoluted" also includes two sons, Alphonso, now 28, and Saifoulaye, now 27, by women he did not marry. Freeman remains close to all four children.

When Morgan and Myrna first connected, his moodiness might also have been traced to alcohol. "I don't know how you slide into these things," he muses. "But I found myself lying face down in the hall one morning. I quit drinking." Says Myrna: "Thinking about his father made him stop."

When Myrna and Morgan married in 1984, she says, "I was hysterical to have a baby. But Morgan didn't want another." The solution came in the form of Morgan's granddaughter, E'Dena Hines, now 6. "His daughter Deena was having a hard time, so I asked for E'Dena to live with us," Myrna explains. "Morgan functions more like a grandfather, but he's happy I got this chance at parenting."

Glasses pushed halfway down his nose, a small smile crossing his face, Freeman reaches up for a framed photo of E'Dena and Myrna's sister, Donna Lee, 26, a writer who also lives with them. A broader smile appears with a picture of what he calls "my estate"—44 acres in Charleston, Miss. Walking down the hall, he points to a picture of his 30-foot sloop; someday he plans to sail around the world. His other passion is the history of blacks in the West. He still hopes to be the screen's first black cowboy star.

"I've always been impressed by how completely Morgan becomes a character," says Myrna, "and how little he takes away." Christopher Reeve, who played the desperate journalist to Freeman's evil pimp in Street Smart, agrees. With a chuckle, Reeve recalls a scene in which Morgan threatened him by holding a broken bottle to his neck. "On one take, he drew blood," Chris says. "He kept acting, didn't stop, because he's too good for that. But afterwards it took me a half hour to calm him down. He kept saying, 'Oh my God, I cut you,' and apologizing, and I had to laugh. All this sensitivity from a crazed street pimp!"

What Reeve calls Freeman's "basic decency" may find expression in his role in the film Clean and Sober, scheduled for release this fall. In that one, Michael Keaton plays a hotshot real estate agent addicted to cocaine, Morgan the recovering addict-drug counselor who treats him. "I discovered cocaine in the early '80s, when I started making movies," says Freeman. "I stopped." What pulled him back, he believes, is the simple fact that "I'm not a kid. I've got lots more control over myself."

Since then, he swears, "I've been clean and sober for years." Sober enough to raise an eyebrow and remark of his current close encounter with fame, "You know, I've gotten this kind of attention before." Sober enough to say that since television "never takes the time to do something well," he'd never do a TV series. Sober enough to take that back. "I want a new boat," he admits.

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