There are a couple of facts that might surprise moviegoers about Morgan Freeman's acting career. The first is that he hasn't been a big name for all that long. The second is that he almost didn't become an actor at all -- he began his career in the U.S. Air Force.
Freeman, recipient of the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award, didn't get his first big break until age 49. This came in 1986, when he was cast in the film "Street Smart." Since then, he's made more than 50 films.
"It didn't have to happen at all," he told AFI in 2011. "I'm very lucky and very grateful that I had a career ... if it happens right away, it's gonna stop right away and that's a foregone conclusion."
As a young man living with his grandparents in Mississippi, Freeman was enthusiastic about drama and acting. He performed in a number of school plays in his youth and, at age 14, won a statewide drama competition. He was even offered a scholarship to Jackson State University to study drama. He turned it down, however, because he had another love: flying.
Part of his interest in acting in those days came from Hollywood's war movies, especially those about planes and fighter pilots. He would spend his summers in Chicago with his parents, where he would scrounge for change to go to the movies. Those movies kindled a desire to learn to fly, so when he graduated from high school in 1955, he joined the Air Force instead.
In fact, three of his four brothers also joined the military.
Freeman became a radar repairman in the Air Force while waiting for a chance to become a pilot. He worked on tracking radar stations that would align radar antennae toward an incoming target, such as a missile or aircraft. He spent more than a year sitting at a desk before he got the chance to audition for a pilot's slot.
When he finally sat behind the stick of an Air Force fighter plane, a feeling of disillusionment came over him. This dream wasn't going to be what he thought it would.
"When I was getting close to being accepted for pilot training, I was allowed to get in a jet airplane," he told AARP Magazine. "I sat there looking at all those switches and dials, and I got the distinct feeling that I was sitting in the nose of a bomb. You are not in love with this; you are in love with the idea of this."
After nearly four years of service, Freeman left the Air Force to pursue his other passion, the one we know him for today: acting. It would be a long road, but one he would pursue with much more zeal and patience.
His next stop was Los Angeles, where he studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse and learned to dance in San Francisco. He worked as a relatively unknown actor on stage and television for more than 20 years before landing his breakout role in the acclaimed Christopher Reeve film, "Street Smart." From there, he was cast in a string of critically acclaimed films that would lead him to prominence: "Lean On Me," "Driving Miss Daisy" and the Civil War drama "Glory."
It was a wise career move, not only for the notoriety, fame and financial security of being a celebrated Hollywood actor. His tracking radar repair skills would become obsolete by the 1990s with the rise of GPS-guided munitions.
-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.
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