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Actor Morgan Freeman to Receive Honorary Degree

Oscar winner will be awarded Doctor of Humane Letters

Boston University BU, commencement, Honorary Degree Recipient Morgan Freeman

Morgan Freeman is known as a consummate professional, less interested in star billing than in working with talented people.

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.”

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.

John O'Rourke, Editor of BU Today at Boston University
John O’Rourke

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

20 Comments on Actor Morgan Freeman to Receive Honorary Degree

  • Steve on 05.15.2013 at 5:18 am

    He is one of my favorite actors. So excited to see him!

  • Susan Perrine MD on 05.15.2013 at 7:08 am

    When Mr. Freeman plays the President, we know th eearth will be saved!
    How can one contact Mr Freeman to consider advocating to develop sickle cell anemia medicines?
    We in sickle cell medical research now have many effective therapies that need advocacy.
    Susan Perrine

  • Robin on 05.15.2013 at 9:18 am

    I like that he said, “we must never lose sight that there is no such thing as an honorary education.”

  • Steven on 05.15.2013 at 10:16 am

    He has distinctive voice and master performance!

  • Jack on 05.15.2013 at 12:41 pm

    that’s really cool!

  • SigmaChi on 05.15.2013 at 1:29 pm

    uhhhhh so why not let the dude SPEAK IF HES SO COOL THEN!! for pete’s sake we want morgan freeman for the speaker!

    • Real_SigmaChi on 05.15.2013 at 1:39 pm

      *This view does not represent Sigma Chi fraternity in it’s entirety and should not be associated with Greek Life. We applaud BU’s choice in speaker and think that this award is great.

    • God on 05.15.2013 at 1:43 pm

      Because BU already chose a speaker. Wendy. Get over it.

      • RhettTerrier on 05.15.2013 at 10:01 pm

        Real mature. You could’ve said that in a nicer tone.
        But yes, BU has already chosen Wendy from TFA and it will be scrumptious. Morgan Freeman has an excellent voice, but I don’t think he could prepare a speech upon such short notice. Wendy on the other hand is on summer vacation because her school is out, so I think she is perfect for the task at hand. Also, how rude of you to use the name of our Lord in vain. #BostonStrong #BU #seniors13 #summer

  • Jspoinolrty on 05.15.2013 at 1:50 pm

    OMGGGG!!!! Morgan Freedman’s associated with Boston University. He’s so great!!!

  • Moe on 05.15.2013 at 3:38 pm

    Does this mean he’ll be present at the ceremony? Would so cool to see him in person!

    • Leslie on 05.15.2013 at 5:25 pm

      Yes, it does. He’ll walk with other honored guests and sit on stage throughout the entire ceremony.

    • LarryO on 05.16.2013 at 8:38 am

      Seriously? Moe, I hope you’re a 1st year student and not a graduating senior! ;)

      p.s. I case you don’t get the joke, OF COURSE he’ll be here!

      • Moe on 05.16.2013 at 1:19 pm

        Indeed I didn’t get the joke, and I am a freshman. But I’ll consider coming to the ceremony, as I already miss West Campus and my room’s view of Nickerson and the Charles.

        I just thought he might be too high profile to come; glad I was wrong :p

  • Andrew Host on 05.19.2013 at 3:10 pm

    He deserves all the credit for what he did for the film industry and what he does on the Discovery Channel. He`s one of the most complete individuals who is legit to inspire young generation! Long live Morgan Freeman!

  • Stephanie Boger on 05.19.2013 at 4:08 pm


  • Gertrude Simmons on 05.19.2013 at 5:33 pm

    You are so deserving. The best to you as you continue your “Journey”.

  • Nespoulous on 05.19.2013 at 6:50 pm


  • Akhil on 05.21.2013 at 12:07 am

    That only shows that age is just a number. I seriously honor this man he’s awesome. I like his endeavor.

  • Barry Wiles on 02.01.2014 at 6:25 pm

    Morgan Freeman for President!

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