A Street Smart Start

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic


A Street Smart Start

Morgan Freeman's career-starting role as a pimp named Fast Black


There was nothing particularly unusual about the seemingly calm and collected pimp sauntering down the street.  Nothing, that is, until you noticed that as he strolled, he was thumping on a girl's head, which he firmly clasped under his arm."And he did it as easy as you please, never raising his voice," a passerby later recalled.  "He could have been carrying groceries home."  The shocking scene the onlooker witnessed would later help him envision a character at a movie audition. 

Then fifty-years-old, Morgan Freeman was trying out for the role of a pimp named Fast Black for the 1987 film, "Street Smart."  As he waited for the opportunity to nab his first major movie role, Freeman could hear the competing actors nearly shouting the character's menacing lines.  They were clearly giving the role all the dramatic energy they had, which is usually a logical approach.  From his previous experience observing the real live pimp, however, Freeman knew something the other actors weren't aware of.  Real pimps can instill fear with silent actions and whispered threats.

Striding into the audition with a confidence developed from learning the acting trade from the ground up, Freeman began to quietly voice his lines to his audition partner – casting director, Joy Todd.  "So, how'd you do last night," he coolly inquired of her prostitute character, Punchy.  Following the script, she reminded his character, Fast Black, that she had given him $450 from her evening's earnings.  Clearly he thought she was holding back some money.  To emphasize his point, Freeman broke a make believe bottle and held it to her face. 

Fast Black then enlightened Punchy that she needed to give him everything she made and he would later dole out her salary as he saw fit.  Along with this clarification of his business model, he warned her that going into business for herself would be a perfect way to end up dead.  Grabbing the surprised casting director by the neck, Morgan continued.  "I take the bread – the whole loaf.  You understand?"  Following the script, she begged him not to cut her face.  Again, Morgan moderated Fast Black's response into a menacing whisper.  Her face, he informed her, was no longer her face.  Along with the rest of her body, it was now his face.

Freeman's seemingly under-acted performance snagged the role.  Although the movie wasn't a financial success, "Street Smart" opened the gates for Morgan Freeman's movie career.  Two years later, in 1989, he scored roles in Driving Miss Daisy, Glory, and Lean on Me.  Seemingly overnight, he transformed from a Hollywood newcomer into a top-tier actor able to choose from the best roles in Hollywood.  The fact that his movie success didn't come along until his fiftieth year only seemed to make the taste of his victory sweeter.  "Success comes when it comes," he reflected.  "I'm probably lucky that I wasn't a wild success early on.  I could have very easily burned out."

Although movie studios didn't beckon him early on, the acting field did.  As early as the third grade, the gangly Mississippi youngster walked onto the stage of his little school production to realize he was apparently a natural actor.  While his fellow students fought jangled nerves and butterflies, he strolled across the stage like a professional, later saying he was so relaxed on stage he could have fallen asleep.  "I was a show-off," he chuckled.

His showing off wasn't confined to the stage.  In junior high school he once pulled a chair out from under a girl he had a secret crush on.  As punishment for his prank, he was ordered to participate in the school's drama competition to keep him occupied and out of mischief.  That punishment, it turned out, opened a door to an exciting new world.  As with his earlier stage experience, the twelve-year-old felt totally comfortable performing and soon took top honors for his acting. 

Even though the acting bug had latched onto him with a firm bite, another interest pulled him away from that path.  For years, he had dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot in the Air Force.  In fact, he turned down a partial drama scholarship to follow the siren call of the wild blue yonder.In 1955, he joined the force, but was assigned to ground-based jobs including a mechanic and radar technician.  Despite the potential of one day flying their jets, he also began to realize he was not really interested in shooting down other people.  Four years after joining, Freeman left the Air Force.  "I had a very clear epiphany," he later explained.  "You are not in love with this; you are in love with the idea of this."

That epiphany pointed him back toward a potential future he was indeed in love with – acting.  Movie acting especially called to him.  As a child, he had collected empty soda bottles to finance his growing movie addiction.  After he left the Air Force, he moved to Los Angeles and took acting and dance lessons.  Unfortunately, as he pounded the L. A. pavement, looking for his big break, it didn't appear.  After about a year, he headed to New York and later San Francisco, still searching for Lady Luck.  Sadly, she was apparently not searching for him.  Freeman's already lanky frame dropped to 137 pounds, from skipped lunches and Baby Ruth candy-bar dinners.

Although he washed cars, sold ads, and worked part-time in the post office to keep body and soul together, Morgan wasn't interested in finding an alternate career he could rely on if his acting dreams didn't materialize.  "I deliberately left myself with nothing to fall back on," he explained.  "If you've got a cushion – where you land, you stay." Fully aware of the thin chances of becoming a top-ranked actor, he activated a resilience and persistence he had developed during his youth.  Once, when his mother informed him she couldn't afford to buy him a bicycle, he simply set to work building his own.  "It was the best bicycle in town," he later enthused.

Like the gears and spokes of his bike, Freeman patiently obtained and fit together the pieces needed for his new project.  He enrolled in acting school, took more dance lessons and studied speech techniques.  Eventually his preparation slowly began to pay off.Hitting San Francisco again, he snagged bit parts in local plays.  Later, he again headed to the Big Apple, this time to work as a dancer at the 1964/5 World's Fair.  Staying in New York, Freeman got several Off-Broadway roles and then debuted on Broadway in the 1968 all-black version of Hello Dolly! headed up by Pearly Bailey and Cab Calloway.

Television beckoned him as the 1970's began, with a four-year gig on the PBS children's show, The Electric Company.  Throughout the next fifteen years, Morgan landed enough work in television, movies, and plays to crack open the door to his Hollywood dreams.  But it would take his Fast Black role to bust that door wide open.  Once he did, the name of Morgan Freeman would grace movie posters across the world.  Since then, he has proven his acting skills many times over in memorable depictions including a president, a soldier, a high school principle, a cowboy, a chauffeur, a boxer, and even God.

"Someone asked me once," Freeman recalled, " 'If you didn't make it as an actor, what would you do?' "  His answer validated the epiphany, which had directed him from the Air Force into a field he truly loved. He speculated he might be driving a cab or working in someone's yard.  "Whatever I'm doing," he added, "I'm going to belong to somebody's little theater group.  I will act, 'cause I'll die if I don't" 

Submitted: December 25, 2020

© Copyright 2021 Dennis L. Goodwin. All rights reserved.

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Add Your Comments:



A very well-written vignette.

Fri, December 25th, 2020 5:53pm


Thanks a lot Adam. Glad you liked it.

Have a great holiday season,

Fri, December 25th, 2020 12:59pm

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