Freeman, Al Jr. 1934—

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Al Freeman, Jr. 1934

Actor, educator

At a Glance

Selected writings


Al Freeman, Jr. is a veteran of the stage and screen whose performing career spans four decades. Freeman made his stage debut as a college student in _ 1954, and has worked steadily ever since. His 1992 movie appearance as Elijah Muhammad; in the Spike Lee film MalcoIm X might have been the first exposure many film goers had to Freeman, but television buffs recognize him immediately for his long-running portrayal of Ed Hall on the daytime drama One Life To Live. An artist-in-residence at Howard University, the affable Freeman has been a respected working actor more years than his students have been alive.

Albert Cornelius Freeman, Jr. was born in San Antonio, Texas on March 21, 1934. His parents divorced when he was nine, and he rarely saw his jazz pianist father, who had moved to Columbus, Ohio. Freeman began studying acting at Los Angeles City College in 1951, but he took a hiatus from college to serve in the U.S. Air Force. After three years of military service, he returned to Los Angeles and enrolled in every speech, broadcasting, and drama class I could take, according to the actor in Ebony magazine. While still a student, he had his stage debut in a 1954 Ebony Showcase Theatre production of Detective Story.

Freeman moved to New York City in 1959, and won a role in I the 1960 Broadway play The P Long Dream, based on a novel í by Richard Wright. The show ; closed after only five performances, but the young actor ; soon found other work close at:hand. According to Laura B. Randolph inEbony, most of Freemans roles during the period were as an angry young militant. For Freeman, acting in such roles served as his way of demonstrating his commitment to the civil rights struggle and to the values in which he believed.

One of Freemans most important roles-and a personal favorite-was that of Richard Henry in the James Baldwin play Blues for Mister Charlie, a work loosely based on the circumstances surrounding the 1955 murder of Emmitt Till, a Chicago youth who was lynched while visiting family in the South. Freeman appeared in the first Broadway production of the play in 1964 as well as in the pieces London debut. He also took important parts in two dramas by LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka), The Slave and Dutchman. The late 1960s and early 1970s found the actor juggling stage and film credits,

At a Glance

Born AibertCornelius Freeman Jr., March 21, 1934, in San Antonio, TX; son of Albert Cornelius (a jazz pianist) and Lottie Smette (Coleman) Freeman; married Sevara E. Clemon, January 8, 1960 (divorced). Education: Attended Los Angeles City College, 1951, 1954-57; trained forthe stage with Jeff Corey, Harold Clifton, and Frank Silvera.

Actor, director, producer, screenwriter, and drama instructor. Stage debut, Detective Story, Los Angeles, CA, 1954; principal stage appearances include The Long Dream, 1960; Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, 1962; A Raisin in the Sun, 1962; Blues for Mister Charlie, 1964; The Slave, 1964; Dutchman, 1964; Measure for Measure, 1966; Camino Real, 1968; Are You Now or Have You Ever Been ..J,W 72;Long Days journey into Night, 1981 > Principal film work includes Torpedo Run, 1958; Dutchman, 1966; The Detective, 1968; Einians Rainbow, 1968; The Lost Man, 1969; Malcolm X, 1993; Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored, 1995. Principal television work includes My Sweet Charlie, 1970; One Life To Live, 1972-88; Roots: The Next Generations, 19 79; Assault at West Point, 1994. Howard University, Washington, DC, professor of drama, 1988-- Military service: U.S. Air Force, 1951-54.

Selected awards Emmy Award nomination, 1970, for My Sweet Charlie; Emmy Award, bestactor in adaytime drama, 1979, for One Life To Live; Russwurm Award; Golden Gate Award.

Address: Office-Aftist-in-Residence, Howard University, College of Fine Arts, Washington, DC 20059.

with roles in movies such as The Detective, The Lost Man, My Sweet Charlie, A Fable, and Finians Rainbow.

In 1972 Freeman accepted a small but continuing role as a police detective on the daytime drama One Life To Live. He stayed on that popular television show for 17 years, inhabiting a character whose importance to the plots became greater and greater over time. Freeman was awarded an Emmy Award in 1979, for his work as stoic police captain Ed Hall. That same year, he was chosen to portray Malcolm X in the mini-series Roots: The Next Generations. He earned a second Emmy nomination for that performance. Freeman toldEbony that as a successful young black artist he held enormous respect for Malcolm X. I remember him saying if a dog attacks you, whether its a four-legged dog or a two-legged dog, you kill that dog, he recalled. Thats what I wanted to hear. I wanted to hearstand up. Not go out and kill anybody butstcmd up and be a man. Dont take this crap from anybody. That, I suppose, is really what Malcolm means to me: manhood.

Freeman left One Life to Live in 1988 for a teaching position at Howard University. By 1990, he had semi-retired from performing, preferring primarily to teach and spend time on his 40-foot sailboat moored in the Potomac basin. He was lured back into film, however, when he received a telephone call from director Spike Lee, who was casting for a new movie about Malcolm X. This time Freeman was not considered for the title role, but rather for the important supporting character of Elijah Muhammad. Freeman auditioned for the role and was thrilled when he won it. I really didnt do the picture because of the money, he told Ebony. Certainly Spike didnt pay me that much. But that wasnt the point. The point was that it had to do with my life. It seemed to be coming around full circle. He added: I had gotten old enough to play Elijah, and that seemed to close the loop somehow.

The film Malcolm X was a critical and commercial success when it opened in 1993, and Freeman suddenly found himself back in the limelight. Where once he had conducted his classes at Howard in relative anonymity, he was now approached by enthusiastic students wherever he went on campus. Film critics, too, found much to praise in his performance, and several suggested he might win an Academy Award nomination. Film critic Gene Siskel told Ebony: I know of more than one person who was very familiar with what the real Elijah Muhammad looked like who wondered if they were watching documentary footage of him, somehow taken in color. Perhaps the most moving reaction to Freemans portrayal of Elijah Muhammad came from one of the granddaughters of the religious leader himself who, after seeing the film, sent Freeman a bouquet of flowers.

According to Ebony, with the single role of Elijah Muhammad, Freeman has captured the admiration and respect of a whole new generation that, until now, has been largely unfamiliar with his distinguished 35-year acting career. More recently, Freeman appeared in the 1994 made-for-TV movie Assault at West Point and also played the role of Poppa in the film entitled Once Upon a Time. .. When We Were Colored, that debuted in 1995. Once Upon a Time. .., based on the memoirs of writer Clifton L. Taulbert, chronicled the lives of African Americans in the rural south during the 1950s.

For his part, Freeman is content these days to take an occasional foray into acting while devoting most of his time to his students at Howard. This will sound corny, he said in Ebony, but these little twerps are the important people in my life. I get more from them than they get from me. Teaching really has renewed me.

Selected writings

A Fable (screenplay), MFR, 1971. (With Ossie Davis and others) Countdown at Kusini (screenplay), Columbia, 1976.



Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Vol urne 7, Gale Research, Inc., 1989.


Ebony, March 1993, pp. 84-90.

Jet, December 11, 1989, p. 24.

Time, December 20, 1993, p. 68.

USA Today, December 21, 1992, p. D-6.

USA Weekend, January 19-21, 1996, p. 10.

Washington Post, March 1, 1992, p. B-3.

Anne Janette Johnson