An actor-director takes third role - historian
BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. — Thick February fog hovers over this usually sunny city, and actor Morgan Freeman would much rather curl up with his crossword puzzle than talk about himself.
But the 6-foot, 3-inch triple threat (actor-director-producer), who has starred in such diverse fare as "Seven," "Glory," and "Deep Impact," recognizes that he can't just do the part of the job he likes and turn up his nose at the rest.
"I feel a certain obligation to the business part of doing what I do," he muses, puzzle ready at his elbow should anything interrupt the conversation.
And so this thrice-Oscar nominated performer ruminates about the state of the industry as he appraises what he calls his mission to have a positive impact.
First TV movie as producer
"Your first line is to entertain," says the executive producer of a coming NBC movie, "Mutiny" (March 28, 9-11 p.m.), the story of black sailors who were court-martialed during World War II. "But within that," he adds, "you want to instruct, you want to inform."
Fittingly, Mr. Freeman has named his production company Revelations Entertainment. Its first TV movie, "Mutiny" is based on a historical incident: the explosion at California's Port Chicago during World War II in which 300 black sailors died.
A group of the surviving sailors, who felt that the accident was caused by Navy negligence, would not return to their jobs loading ammunition ships. They were tried and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
In line with Freeman's activist sensibilities, he harbors the hope that spotlighting this issue might help the remaining 11 survivors. A petition to Congress, which has its own Web site, is dedicated to clearing their names.
Freeman says this film, the first television project he has produced, fits into a larger life passion for him - an interest in history. The Mississippi-born actor refers to his own education in history as one-sided and inadequate.
"You learn history from one point of view, and it's a very neglectful point of view," he says. Now, Freeman says, he leaps at every opportunity to fill in the historical gaps. He intends to do that by highlighting "all the untold stories."
"These are the people whose input, whose effort, whose contribution has been ignored," adds the performer, who himself has portrayed presidents and sages, as well as pimps and murderers, over a 30-year career,
David Israel, co-executive producer of "Mutiny," points out that Freeman's trademark commitment to completing the historical record, as well as the actor's overall outlook, molded the storytelling in this film.
"[Morgan] doesn't want these people to be [seen as] victims," Mr. Israel points out. "They're not victims because they proceeded to live their lives with great dignity and refused to be bent by the powers of the government."
In an entertainment environment saturated with "witless violence and blood-drenched sidewalks," the 60-something actor says he feels an obligation to a young male audience that is being courted by blockbuster action films.
"If we get boys into the theater," he reflects, "we want to make them responsible citizens, not to go out thinking that you can do all this without any restitution, that the law won't get you for driving on the sidewalk."
The president and co-founder of Revelations Entertainment, Lori McCreary, says Freeman has the ability to make audiences connect with "a deeper humanity.... They see his humanity coming through all his characters."
This gives him an authority that touches and inspires them, says Ms. McCreary, who first met the actor during the filming of "Bopha!," which Freeman directed.
For the actor, whose first big screen break came in an edgy, small-budget film, "Street Smart" (of which critic Pauline Kael asked, "Is Morgan Freeman the greatest actor in America today?"), the biggest challenge to being able to make the contribution he wants to are "the suits at the top." Freeman says the industry is dominated by accountants who want to exercise creative control as well.
But he is not one to dwell on the problem. The promises hold more interest for him.
"I think we're moving into a fantastic time," he says.
"The entertainment industry has the opportunity to point the way," he says. While the world may not actually be as multicultural or integrated as TV or films portray it, "this whole generation is growing up watching it that way. And that's the vision they will start to create for themselves."
*Gloria Goodale's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org