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Free Citizen

This writer espouses individual liberty, free markets, and limited government.

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Location: Jackson, Mississippi, United States

Monday, April 18, 2005

Mississippi's Morgan Freeman: A True Class Act

[The Clarion-Ledger ran this article by Cori Bolger on February 28, 2005.]

Jackson, Miss.-- Even the Oscars didn't stop Morgan Freeman from keeping a promise.

So three days before his appearance at the Academy Awards, Freeman flew his own plane from Clarksdale to Jackson to fulfill one he made more than a year ago.

The visit surprised and delighted some 200 English professors, who were gathered at the Hilton Hotel for a yearly educational conference.

In his signature smooth-as-butter voice, Freeman spoke about the relationship between literature and film and posed for photos with squealing female fans.

"He immediately agreed and never canceled and that says a lot," said Laura Hammons, the conference's meeting coordinator.

Freeman then made a flawless transition from County Line Road to Hollywood's red carpet.

On Sunday [February 27], the Charleston resident and four-time Oscar nominee finally nabbed the coveted golden statue for Best Supporting Actor for his role as half-blind ex-boxer Eddie "Scrap Iron" Dupris in Million Dollar Baby.

Freeman, who was critics' top pick, beat out Alan Alda in The Aviator, Thomas Haden Church in Sideways, Jamie Foxx in Collateral, and Clive Owen in Closer.

During his time in Jackson, Freeman shrugged nonchalantly when asked how much he would value the win, especially after three prior close calls.

"I've been getting them all my life, so they go with the territory," he said. "It's nice to get accolades, though."

In 1987, Freeman was nominated for his role as a pimp in Street Smart, followed by a Best Actor nomination for Driving Miss Daisy two years later ["I'm tryin' to drive you to the sto'!"]. Then, in 1994, he scored another Best Actor nomination for The Shawshank Redemption.

"He doesn't take any of this too seriously, frankly," said close friend and Clarksdale attorney Bill Luckett, referring to Freeman's celebrity status. "He does his job and enjoys the benefits of doing a good job, but he is a fun person to be with and he's very intellectual and well read."

Tim Hedgepeth, executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, called Freeman's three previous Oscar-worthy roles a "trinity of great performances" and predicted this would be Freeman's year to get the recognition he's deserved.

"Personally, I think he's one of our greatest living American actors," Hedgepeth said. "He makes it look so easy. You're always aware that there's a master actor at work."

Sunday's Oscar win is not the first highlight of the year for Freeman. Two weeks ago, he won the Screen Actor's Guild award for Supporting Actor in Million Dollar Baby.

Freeman paid respect to fellow contender James Garner by singing a verse from the theme song of Garner's old TV western, Maverick, and covered all his bases by adding, "I want to thank everybody I ever met."

Between takes, he's been in and out of Mississippi, popping up in Clarksdale at Ground Zero and Madidi, a juke joint-inspired blues venue and a fine dining restaurant he co-owns with Luckett and Howard Stovall.

The trio are in the process of extending their business north to Memphis, where they hope to open another Ground Zero in the Beale Street District by the end of the year.

"We were asked (to look at Farish Street in Jackson) but we're trying to take it one step at a time," Luckett said.

Freeman, who grew up in Greenwood, also finds solace riding horses on his 44-acre farm in Charleston, where he lives with his wife, Myrna Colley-Lee, a costume designer. The couple has four grown children.

When strangers ask Freeman why an internationally famous movie star would choose to live in Mississippi, he's known to reply, "Because I can live anywhere I want."

During his first appearance on The Tonight Show on February 11, Freeman further explained why he decided to stay in Mississippi.

"One thing that's great about Mississippi and small towns is that you're in a friendly place," he said. "Our history has sort of clamped down on us and I don't know why ... We're digging our way out of that now so y'all come down and visit us." [bold added]

Back at home, Luckett said that the reaction from tourists who run into Freeman has gotten "pretty intense" in the past five years.

"I kind of feel for him a bit," Luckett said.

On one occasion, Freeman stopped at Ground Zero to say hello to his friend, bluesman James "Super Chikan" Johnson.

"He quickly snuck back to the stage and everybody saw him," Johnson said. "They were waiting for him when he came down."

Luckett described Freeman as "laid back and self effacing," a graceful man who would rather chat with fans than sign his name.

Three years ago, the two men were sitting at dinner when Freeman suddenly announced, "I'm ready."

"I said, 'Are you ready to leave? Ready for the check? Ready for what?'" Luckett said with a chuckle.

After more prying, Luckett discovered that Freeman wanted to chase a pilot dream he had during his Air Force years before he left to pursue theater.

During the next few weeks, Luckett taught Freeman how to fly a twin engine plane and eventually referred him to a licensed instructor.

"He would go (flying) on location and at any spare moment or on the weekends he would be out at the airport," Luckett said. "He even flew into the Czech Republic once."

Tom Howorth, an Oxford [Miss.] architect who's known the Freeman family for 10 years, said Freeman's warm personality is what makes him attractive on and off the big screen.

"Naturally, people would hope that he's that way in real life and he is every bit that way in real life," Howorth said. "Mississippi is fortunate to have people like Morgan, who choose to spend their time here. It speaks highly of Morgan, but it also speaks highly of Mississippi."

Besides acting, Freeman is passionate about several causes, including education, Howorth said. He's previously donated money to Jackson libraries and Charleston public schools and lent his sonorous voice to several number public service announcements.

"My feeling is that we need more than anything to educate our children," Freeman said during a 1999 interview with The Clarion-Ledger. "That's the most important step forward for our state, and I'm all for promoting Mississippi."

He plans to join other homestate celebrities, including Faith Hill and B. B. King, on a panel dedicated to establishing the new Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Center in Meridian.

"He's the man, no doubt about it," said John Maxwell, a Jackson-area actor and playwright. "I was lucky enough (to see him in Oxford) and I can remember looking at him and saying, 'This is a guy who carries himself with dignity.' ... I just know he is a classy, classy person."

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