The world has lost yet another Black legend. Actor, director and educator Al Freeman, Jr. passed away last week at the age of 78. Perhaps best known for his role as the Honorable Elijah Muhammad in Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X, Freeman was an accomplished star of stage and screen, both small and large. He was also a beloved professor at my alma mater, Howard University.
Raised between San Antonio, TX and Cleveland, OH, Freeman was the son of a jazz musician and actor who raised him in part as a single father after a divorce. He went on to study at Los Angeles City College, where his love of acting developed. Soon thereafter, he relocated to New York to pursue a career in theatre.
Freeman’s first big Broadway role came in 1962, when he appeared opposite Cicely Tyson in “Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright.” Two years later, he gained acclaim in James Baldwin’s “Blues for Mister Charlie,” where he played a lynching victim based loosely on Emmitt Till. He performed in the film adaptation of Amiri Baraka’s (then LeRoi Jones) “The Dutchman” in 1967. Like many Howard students, I had a big “OMG, that’s Professor Freeman” moment when the film was screened in my African-American literature class.
In 1972, he became one of the first African-American soap opera stars when he joined the cast of One Life to Live as police captain Ed Hall (a role that was often mentioned by moms and grandmothers visiting the Howard University campus); seven years later, he was the first African American and the first OLTL cast member to win the Daytime Emmy for “Best Actor.” During his 15 year run with the series, Freeman also became the first African American to direct a soap opera.
In interesting contrast to his role in Lee’s film, Freeman played Malcolm X in the 1979 miniseries “Roots: The Next Generations,” garnering another Emmy nomination. Of his many television guest appearances, Freeman’s 1985 role as Heathcliff Huxtable’s former college track coach is perhaps the best known.
Freeman came to Howard University’s Department of Theatre Arts as an artist-in-residence in 1988 and became a full-time professor just three years later. He served as the Department’s chair for six years and retired from teaching just this May.
After numerous auditions, Lee chose Freeman as the pivotal role of Elijah Muhammad, a casting that was widely praised. Freeman told the Washington Post in 1992 “I had never seen Elijah alive, but I had heard him on the radio. His voice was an octave higher than mine and he put sentences together in an odd way. The difficult part was not to imitate but to give an essence.”
In an interview following Freeman’s passing, Lee stated “When we came to the set, he was great. What was I going to tell him? He’s one of the great actors of all time.”
A 1993 EBONY interview cited by the Post quotes a Howard student on Freeman’s increased notoriety on campus after the release of the film: “Now, he can’t walk to class without students stopping to tell him how great he was or ask him for his autograph. There really is a whole new spirit of appreciation for him.”
Freeman had planned to head to the Caribbean to retire, but never left Washington due to his love for his students. He told EBONY “This will sound corny, but these little twerps are the most important people in my life. I get more from them than they get from me. Teaching really has renewed me.”
As someone who had the privilege of being one of those “twerps,” I will not soon forget the wisdom Al Freeman, Jr. shared with me. Though he denied my request to take me on as an adopted grandchild (“You don’t want me as a grandfather, trust me”) and ignored my many queries about the Washington Marina-based sailboat on which he resided (“Surely, Miss Lemieux, you understood that I was asking if the class had questions about the assignment, not about my home”), I felt the love that he had for his students, for the craft of acting and for the tradition of Black greatness for which we were being prepared.
Rest well, Mr. Freeman. You have earned it and we will never forget you.
Jamilah Lemieux is the News and Lifestyle Editor for EBONY.com