Morgan Freeman on Working While Aspiring to Be an Actor

November 20, 2017

“I was always ambitious. I always wanted to be more than I was…. I always wanted to be a movie actor.” –Morgan Freeman

Beloved actor, producer, and narrator Morgan Freeman is celebrated for his prominent career along with his distinctive, rich, warm, authoritative voice. He won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor with his performance in Million Dollar Baby and has received four other Oscar nominations for his work in Street Smart, Driving Miss Daisy, The Shawshank Redemption, and Invictus. Now 80 years old, the star’s prolific career seems to have enfolded effortlessly over the years–much like his easygoing personal style. But truth be told, his acting career might very well have fallen by the wayside if it were not for his determination and courage. In fact, he struggled for years, taking on various jobs to pay the bills as he aspired to become a working actor.

Born the youngest of five children in Memphis, Tennessee, Morgan’s family scraped to get by financially. But after performing in the lead role in some school plays, it was clear he exhibited exceptional talent–even winning a statewide drama competition at the age of 12. But he really aspired to fly airplanes after graduating, so he joined the Air Force and indeed rose to the rank of Airman 1st Class. But Freeman changed his mind and left the Air Force when the idea of killing others became too real.

Looking to make ends meet as a young man, Freeman said:

“To collect unemployment, you have to go out and hunt for employment. And you have a code, and mine was a clerk typist, so you go out and look for work as a clek typist. And one day, I just can’t keep being forced to be a clerk typist. So I went to the employment office and I asked to see the supervisor. And I was led into this office, and this pretty little lady, red head whose name was Mrs. Lipton [asked], ‘What can I do for you?’ And I said, ‘You’re forcing me to be something I’m not. I have to go out and work as a clerk typist. I’m not a clerk typist; I’m an actor. So I can’t just keep doing it this way.’ She took this thing and stamped my employment book, and said, ‘You got six months. Go be an actor.'”

Indeed, Freeman believed he wasn’t good at anything other than acting.

When he started getting work as an off-Broadway actor in 1967, he earned $70 per week and never returned to typing again. But, the actor says, “I had some real lean times in-between. But I didn’t have to go to work for anybody else. I didn’t have to wash dishes, I didn’t have to wait tables, I didn’t have to drive a cab or wash cars. I deliberately left myself nothing to fall back on. If you’ve got a cushion, where you land, you stay. You can’t climb a mountain with a net. If you’ve got the net, you’ll let go.”

Freeman started to become more well known from 1971 through 1976, when he was cast on the PBS children’s show called The Electric Company. The job helped him pay the bills, however, Freeman doesn’t look back fondly at those years employed with the show. “It was my idea to just do ‘The Electric Company’ for a couple of years and go on. But you get trapped by that money thing. It’s golden handcuffs. It gets a lot of people including soap opera actors and commerical actors. Then, they don’t want to see you in serious work. That was going to be me, having people come up to me saying, ‘My kids love you!’ I was there three years too long.”

After several more years of building his career from the ground up, he was cast in the film Street Smart in 1987. In fact, Freeman earned an Oscar nomination, and became a sought-after, respected actor from there on out.

For people who aspire to be working actors, he advises, “Act. Work. Someone asked me once … ‘What would you do if you weren’t an actor? If you didn’t make it as an actor, what would you do?’ I have no idea. I would act somewhere. Maybe I’d be driving a cab, working in someone’s yard, whatever I’m doing, I’m going to belong to somebody’s little theater group. I will act. ‘Cause I’ll die if I don’t.”

Freeman is now ranked fourth highest box-office star with over $4.3 billion total box-office gross. Now the star says, “I don’t have to work. I could stop and never have to worry about paying rent. I’m working for the joy of doing it.”