- The Washington Times - Friday, May 31, 2002

"Did you say you invited Michael?" an assistant asks as actor Morgan Freeman settles into an easy chair in a suite at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, preparing for another interview session on behalf of his new movie, "The Sum of All Fears."

Mr. Freeman answers with a question of his own: "Michael who?" Within seconds, the mystery clears up. "Oh, Michael Jordan. Naw, he's not in town."

Because Mr. Freeman is cast as the CIA director in "The Sum of All Fears" an adaptation of the 1991 Tom Clancy thriller about a terrorist attack on American soil and portrayed a U.S. president faced with a meteor collision in "Deep Impact" a few summers ago, curiosity arises about his circle of acquaintances in official Washington.

"Well," Mr. Freeman drawls, "it's strange. Celebrities of my ilk can come to Washington and be thought highly of. When I first came here, I fell in with Senator Alan Simpson and Congressman Ron Dellums, both retired now. And Colin Powell and Bill Clinton. Before Clinton, I could kind of call myself friendly with the Bushes.

"Barbara Bush had a mandate of her own about literacy. My connection with 'The Electric Company' (Mr. Freeman played a character called Easy Reader on the educational TV series from 1971 to 1976) prompted her to ask if I could come and help her campaign. I said, 'Of course.' She's earth mother anyway, you know. Who didn't I mention? Vernon Jordan. You sure he isn't the one with the restaurant [instead of Michael Jordan]?"

According to Mr. Freeman, he and the young actress Bridget Moynahan have been shouldering the burden of press appearances for two consecutive days, first in New York City and then in Washington, to help promote the movie. "I think everybody else is probably working," he says, wistfully.

As it transpires, James Cromwell, cast as a beleaguered president named Fowler, is in the hotel at that moment. Ben Affleck and Liev Schreiber, cast as CIA agents Jack Ryan and John Clark, respectively, arrive in time to attend an invitational screening at the Cineplex Odeon Uptown that evening.

"People think you must work all the time. Not true. I don't," Mr. Freeman says. "Last month, my agent and I were talking. He said, 'I have a whole pile of stuff here to wade through.' Well, it was time to start wading. When things seem to slow down, you ask, 'What happened to this project, project so-and-so?' That one fell through. And this other one? Can't make up their minds. What about something else? They haven't been able to contact so-and-so, the co-star they want. So time passes. It's the story of my life. My whole career has been like that."


Mr. Freeman turns 65 tomorrow. He finds this "very reassuring" and reminds himself to check with his business manager about the necessary paperwork for Social Security. "The house is in pretty good order. All the grandkids and their heirs will be able to do college. This'll be mad money. I can just cut loose," he says.

Born in Memphis, Tenn., Mr. Freeman grew up in a Mississippi farming family. His successful career allowed him to buy a horse ranch of his own in Mississippi.

He acknowledges a certain interest in the evolving Triple Crown saga of War Emblem, but thoroughbred racing in general leaves him cold. "The idea of racing a 2-year-old is criminal to me," he says.

A flurry of impressive titles at the end of the 1980s "Street Smart," "Driving Miss Daisy" and "Glory" made Mr. Freeman a stellar character actor. A long apprenticeship began in 1960, when he concluded a five-year stint in the Air Force and found himself in Los Angeles struggling for a foothold in the acting profession.

"I figured a school situation was the wisest thing. I had no money and no prospects for making any. Then I got a job with the board of education. A few weeks later, I learned that I could go to school at Los Angeles Community College free of charge. They also had a better theater department than the reigning school at the time, the Pasadena Playhouse. I couldn't afford tuition there and didn't have a car, anyway. So I enrolled in acting classes."

The hypnotic voice familiar to moviegoers was a refinement from acting classes. "My voice used to be much higher, and I spoke much faster," he says. "I also had a heavy, thick Southern accent. I think that sound has been totally effaced from the planet."

The lack of opportunities in Los Angeles convinced him he should try New York, which also proved unrewarding. Early in 1961, he returned to the West Coast, but to San Francisco, where he caught on with a repertory company called the Opera Ring, which specialized in musical revivals. "That's where things started to happen," he says.

Specifically, Mr. Freeman was "a warm body" in "Can-Can" and then Officer Krupke in "West Side Story." He enjoyed his first significant press notices while playing the Streetsinger in "Threepenny Opera." Cast as an Indian in "Little Mary Sunshine," he annoyed the company's director by refusing the role. "So I was out of a job," he recalls. "It was very depressing."


For a while, Mr. Freeman thought he was headed to Paris. A dance-class acquaintance from there planned to return home and start a chain of European dance studios.

"I got my passport, went to work at the post office for six months to earn my fare and was ready to go on to Paris when I reached New York," Mr. Freeman recalls. "That was in 1963. I never left."

Not until he had a sustainable career, anyway. A job as an extra in "The Pawnbroker" led to another in "A Man Called Adam" and other films. Stage performances began to add up, eventually leading to an 11-month tenure in the Pearl Bailey edition of "Hello, Dolly."

His first featured movie role was in "Who Says I Can't Ride a Rainbow?" Made in 1969, the film was a curious credit for a future horse owner. The plot revolves around several children trying to protect a pony named Rainbow from being sent to the glue factory.

Alluding to the title of his new movie, Mr. Freeman says he was apprehensive after the terrorist attacks of September 11.

"My greatest fear is that we would fall apart as a nation and start attacking each other, that we'd start profiling dark-skinned people with straight hair. I think that's still a possibility," he says.

"If we lose our inner tenacity, the job will be done. If we keep it, we'll be hard to hurt. But similar attacks will make it difficult for the political leadership. It'll get harder to resist drastic retaliation."

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