Al Freeman, Jr., Performer of Stage and Screen, Dies at 78
By Robert Simonson
Al Freeman, Jr., and actor of dignity and range who rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s, when opportunities for African-American stage actors expanded greatly, died Aug. 9. He was 78.
Though slight of build, Mr. Freeman was a commanding presence on stage, effortlessly infusing his performances with a thoughtful gravitas. He made his Broadway debut in 1960, in the short-lived The Long Dream, directed by Lloyd Richards. Joshua Logan cast him in the 1962 play about black life in New Orleans, Tiger Tiger Burning Bright, in which he played alongside Claudia McNeil, Alvin Ailey, Roscoe Lee Browne, Diana Sands and Cicely Tyson.
He played a lynching victim in the 1964 production of Blues for Mr. Charlie, James Baldwin's incendiary play about race relations in the South. Set to close prematurely due to poor attendance, the play became a cause célèbre within the acting community, members of which took out large ads in the newspapers in support of the play. The publicity, along with monetary contributions from two daughters of Nelson Rockefeller, kept the show running for 148 performances.
Off-Broadway, he was a preacher in the 1963 Off-Broadway hit Trumpets of the Lord, Vinette Carroll's gospel-infused musical adaptation of James Weldon Johnson's "God's Trombone." He was also in the 1964 double bill of LeRoi Jones one-acts, Slave/Toilet, at the St. Marks Playhouse. The following year, Joe Papp, long an advocate of non-traditional casting, hired him for an early Central Park staging of Troilus and Cressida.
Further Broadway efforts included Conversation at Midnight (1964); The Dozens, with a young Morgan Freeman (1969); the Sammy Kahn-Jule Styne musical adaptation of the Sidney Portier film "Lilies of the Field," Look to the Lilies (1970), in which he co-starred with Shirley Booth ; and the 1973 Irene Papas production of Medea, where Mr. Freeman played The Messenger.
When Geraldine Fitzgerald asked actress Gloria Foster to play Mary Tyrone in a 1981 all-black production of Long Day's Journey Into Night at St. Peter's Church, Foster requested that Mr. Freeman play her rebellious son Jamie. The production was an unexpected critical and popular hit, moving to the New York Shakespeare Festival, where it played an additional 12 weeks.
"Mr. Freeman, an excellent actor seen too infrequently on the New York stage," wrote Mel Gussow in the New York Times, "is a potent and abrasive Jamie, his soul as well as his voice whiskied over by too many nights of self-indulgence, taunting his father and tempting his sibling, and in the cold light of dawn confessing that he is a man not to be trusted." The play would be Mr. Freeman's last significant stage credit.
Throughout a long stretch of his career, from 1972 to 1987, Mr. Freeman played Police Captain Ed Hall on the TV serial "One Life to Live." In 1978, he became the first African-American actor to win a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor. He also directed episodes of the soap opera. In film, he was best known for playing Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam leader and Malcolm X's mentor, in Spike Lee's epic 1992 biopic "Malcolm X." At the time of its release, journalists who had known Muhammad well commented on Mr. Freeman's eerie resemblance to the man he played. "When we came to the set, he was great," Lee recalled recently. "What was I going to tell him? He's one of the great actors of all time."
Thirteen years earlier, he had played Malcolm X in "Roots: The Next Generation," for which he was nominated for an Emmy Award. He also starred in the 1967 film version of LeRoi Jones' Dutchman, a play he had acted in in both New York and Los Angeles.
Albert Cornelius Freeman, Jr. was born March 21, 1934, in San Antonio, Texas, the son of Lottie Brisette (née Coleman) and Albert Cornelius Freeman, a jazz pianist. In addition to performing, he also taught acting at Howard University for 16 years. He retired last May. In recent years, he lived on a sailboat that was moored in a DC-area marina.
He married Sevara E. Clemon in 1960. They separated 1986.
Send questions and comments to the Webmaster
Copyright © 2014 Playbill, Inc. All Rights Reserved.