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He has played a US president, a freed slave, an ex-boxer, Nelson Mandela, and God (twice). Those roles just begin to hint at the versatility actor Morgan Freeman has brought to the stage and screen in a career spanning 5 decades and more than 70 films. Along the way, he has received nearly every award imaginable, among them the 2005 Academy Award for best supporting actor (one of five Academy Award nominations), a New York Film Critics Award, a Los Angeles Film Critics Award, and a Golden Globe, as well as honors from the National Society of Film Critics, the American Film Institute, and the National Board of Review.
On Sunday, May 19, the 75-year-old actor will receive yet another honor, when Boston University presents him with a Doctor of Humane Letters at the University’s 140th Commencement ceremony.
“I am most proud to receive this honorary degree from Boston University,” says Freeman. “However,” he adds, “we must never lose sight that there is no such thing as an honorary education.”
Other honorary degree recipients are Wendy Kopp, the founder and current board chair of Teach for America, Doctor of Humane Letters; chemical engineer and biotechnology pioneer Robert S. Langer, Doctor of Science; and United Methodist Church Bishop Peter D. Weaver (STH’75), Doctor of Humane Letters. Kopp will deliver the Commencement address and Weaver will give the Baccalaureate speech on Commencement morning in Marsh Chapel.
Freeman was bitten by the acting bug as a young boy in Mississippi. At age 12, he won a statewide drama competition, and as a high school student, he appeared on a radio show broadcast out of Nashville. But desperate to get out of the segregated South, he turned down a scholarship to study acting at Jackson State University to join the US Air Force, working as a radar technician for four years. He then moved to California and studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse and Los Angeles Community College, before moving to San Francisco, where he appeared with local theater companies.
In the mid 1960s, Freeman moved to New York and took a series of odd jobs, including a stint as a dancer at the 1964 World’s Fair. He quickly found work off-Broadway, winning Obie Awards for his performances in productions of Coriolanus, The Gospel at Colonus, and the stage production of Driving Miss Daisy. He made his Broadway debut in an all-black revival of Hello, Dolly! starring Pearl Bailey.
It was a series of recurring roles on a PBS children’s television show that brought Freeman his first widespread recognition. For five years, he starred as Mel Mounds the DJ, Vincent the Vegetable Vampire, and most notably, Easy Reader on The Electric Company.
It wasn’t until 1987, when he was 50 years old, that Hollywood started to take notice of his considerable talent. That year, he earned his first Oscar nomination, as a fast-talking pimp in Street Smart, starring Christopher Reeve. Two years later, Freeman secured his reputation as one of the industry’s most versatile actors by taking on three back-to-back, vastly different roles: a freed slave in the Civil War drama Glory, real-life high school principal Joe Clark in Lean on Me, and the dignified chauffeur Hoke Colburn opposite Jessica Tandy in the film version of Driving Miss Daisy. That performance earned Freeman a second Oscar nomination and critical raves. Reviewing the film for the New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Though the character never appears to be tough, it is a tough performance…the work of an actor who has gone through all of the possibilities, stripped away all the extraneous details, and arrived at an essence.”
Freeman has worked with some of Hollywood’s most accomplished directors, including Steven Spielberg (Hon.’09), Clint Eastwood, and Rob Reiner, balancing Hollywood blockbusters (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Almighty), with more serious fare (The Shawshank Redemption, Amistad, Gone Baby Gone). He garnered his third Oscar nomination for The Shawshank Redemption.
His best supporting actor Academy Award came for his performance as former boxer Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris in Eastwood’s 2004 film Million Dollar Baby. His performance as Nelson Mandela in another Eastwood-directed film, Invictus, in 2009 brought his fifth Oscar nomination.
Within the film industry, Freeman is known as a consummate professional, less interested in star billing than in working with talented people. “It’s true, most of the time I’m second banana,” Freeman told Bruce Weber in a 2008 New York Times profile. “But you know, that’s a choice. Eastwood, Hackman, Nicholson, Judd—name them. All these are people I wanted to work with. There’s always a big deal about who gets to be on the left side of the billing, but I’m not really invested in that.”
Freeman has also produced several films through his production company, Revelations Entertainment. His distinctive voice can be heard on Ken Burns’ Emmy-winning series The Civil War and as narrator for the Oscar-nominated documentaries March of the Penguins and The Long Way Home. More recently, he has served as host and co–executive producer of the Science Channel documentary series Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, a show the New York Times calls “the best pop-science TV show since Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Journey—a whirlwind tour of the fourth dimension with a sense of wonder and a sense of humor.”
All of which makes Freeman an ideal candidate to receive a Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.
More information about Commencement can be found on the Commencement website.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Freeman starred in the film Stand by Me. He starred in the film Lean on Me.