The Mother Brain Files Duel Careers Special: James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman

The Mother Brain Files Duel Careers Special: James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman
By Mother Brain

Since I started the Underrated Actors Special late last year, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. While that may continue on, I’m starting on a new special that spotlights the parallel careers of two world-renown actors (and also musicians down the road). It’s not a question of who is the better entertainer but really to see how similar their careers are and finding interesting trivia along the way.

The first blog of this new special spotlights the careers of two of Hollywood’s most successful and respected African-American actors, James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman. Last October, Jones started a Broadway run in Driving Miss Daisy. Jones plays the character of black chauffeur, Hoke Colburn, the very role that made Freeman a star in a 1989 film adaptation that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Taking on that particular role brings both of their careers full circle.
Jones and Freeman were born and raised in the south. While Freeman caught the acting bug at age 9 appearing in school plays and eventually winning drama competitions, Jones had to battle a stuttering problem throughout his youth until high school when his high school teacher discovered his talent for writing poetry and utilized those talents by having him do public speaking in class every day. Jones only got into drama after he lost interest in pre-med during his college years. Both actors would also serve the military as Jones joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps during the Korean War while Freeman worked as a mechanic for the U.S. Air Force.


Both actors enjoyed a wonderful career on the stage early on. Jones was an actor and stage manage at the Ramsdell Theatre in Manistee, Michigan during the late 50s and played his first in several portrayals of the title role of William Shakespeare’s Othello. Freeman performed everywhere throughout the 60s in productions of The Royal Hunt of the Sun, The Nigger Lovers, and Hello, Dolly! He also worked as a dancer at the 1964 World’s Fair while living in New York. Both Jones and Freeman would also start their film careers playing small roles in Hollywood classics: Jones in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Freeman in The Pawnbroker. They also started their television careers on educational kids shows. Jones took part in the original test films for what would become Sesame Street. Freeman would star in the ensemble of another PBS series, The Electric Company.
Jones became a breakout star in his late 30s when he portrayed the role of boxer Jack Jefferson in the late 60s production of The Great White Hope which he not only won a Tony Award but also won the lead role in the film adaptation and earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination. But Jones really didn’t get the attention of black audiences until he portrayed a troubled garbage man who finds love in the form of a single mother portrayed by Diahann Carroll in the highly underrated 1974 romantic drama, Claudine. Freeman also was a late blooming star during the 1980s. After taking on supporting roles in films such as Brubaker, Eyewitness, and Teachers, Freeman caught Hollywood’s attention at age 50 as New York City pimp, Fast Black, in the Christopher Reeve crime drama, Street Smart. Freeman’s surreal and powerful performance overshadowed Reeve as the film’s star and he earned a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for it. From then on, Freeman became the go-to black actor who lifts everyone’s spirits in films such as Clean and Sober and Lean on Me as well as cinematic masterpieces like Glory and Driving Miss Daisy.
In comparing both actors, it’s difficult to not overlook their voiceover credits. Jones became an icon when he performed the voice of Darth Vader in the Star Wars saga. That defining role alone with the deep, brooding bass voice of Jones made it the phenomenon it is today and made Jones himself highly in-demand as a voiceover actor.  He would also strike lighting twice as the voice of Mufasa in Disney’s The Lion King and he would also be popular in doing the infamous “This is CNN” tagline for the cable news network. Freeman also became popular as a voiceover actor because of his more calmer but righteous tone. He would best be known for his narration of the hit documentary, March of the Penguins, and also provided narration for Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. More recently, Freeman narrates the Discovery Channel series, Through the Wormhole, as well as the introduction to the CBS Evening News.
Another interesting parallel in their careers is the number of film franchises they have appeared in, almost making them a good luck charm for any Hollywood blockbuster. Aside from Star Wars, Jones took part in several major film franchises such as The Exorcist, Conan the Barbarian (as the man-snake Thulsa Doom), The Sandlot, and the Jack Ryan film series as CIA Vice Admiral Greer in The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger. Ironically enough, Freeman would take on the similar role of CIA director Cabot in the most recent Jack Ryan flick, The Sum of All Fears. In addition, Freeman would enjoy a number of popular franchises including the most recent entries to the Batman films as Lucius Fox, the inevitable role of God in Bruce Almighty and it’s sequel Evan Almighty, and my personal favorite the two Alex Cross movies based on the James Patterson novels.

Perhaps the best way to conclude this spotlight is to say that what makes these two actors special is the quality of their work on the stage and screen. Both Freeman and Jones have the ability to play good-natured, righteous men as well as manipulative villains. They’re both inspiring to watch because of their presence alone and working on a consistent basis in film and television. God willing, I would love to see a film collaboration between the two. Watching those two together on screen would more then top notch acting. It would be as dynamic as DeNiro and Pacino in Heat.

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