White market for black actors
By Jacqueline Trescott
September 17, 1979
NEW YORK -- In the anonymity of his dressing room, Al Freeman Jr. reads his fan mail.
Surrounded by the bottles of Guinness Stout, coffee beans and sheet music by Sergio Mendes and Stevie Wonder, he reads a letter from a woman in Canada. She is writing about his role as a policeman on the soap opera ONE LIFE TO LIVE. In contrast to the other characters, she says, "you are a gentleman."
Freeman, an intense wisp of a man in casual blue and beige, smiles. Fan mail is the paper upper for any actor. But the kind of mail he's getting in his mid-40s underscores the irony that confronts many actors who -- after years of reputable theater work -- get their recognition and awards from bread-and-butter serial work.
Freeman has seared the stage as an angry militant in such landmark black productions as James Baldwin's "Blues for Mr. Charlie" and infused public figures such as Malcolm X in Roots II with reality. Now he plays a cop on daytime TV.
Here in the cool basement of ABC television studios, he tries to balance it all out. On the one hand, there is fan mail and steady work from ONE LIFE and an Emmy Award earlier this year for his soap character. On the other, there is his reputation for dozens of substantial roles during the '60s, an Emmy nomination for his role in the Roots sequel, but no exciting new offers.
"The Emmys," he repeats, looking askance and releasing a horror show chuckle, "You watch these kind of awards and you see some guy get it, and you say 'How did that -- get it.' And all of a sudden they call out your name and you realize you are the next --."
He stops, a blend of boyish self-satisfaction and actor's pragmatism surfacing. "When they call out your name, you are thrilled. It's nice to get and it's one of those moments -- people cheering and applauding -- but beyond that, things still go on."
But the second nomination for an Emmy, which he did not win last week, he says, is "a lot more gratifying."
His equanimity comes from years of pruning away anticipation. A 20-year veteran of stage, films and television, Freeman has clocked the tides of his own popularity and watched the boom and recession of black theater, whose ascent is historically tied to politics and cash registers.
And although he can receive some satisfaction when ABC tells him that he is the first actor ever nominated for a daytime and evening Emmy in the same year, he still feels that he is underused.
That's the rub. Freeman represents the group of actors, particularly black actors and actresses, who want to work but find the pickings slim. These are people who don't want to play bucks and butlers, mammies and madams. The legitimate, respectable roles are events, not work, and those who have filmed them -- like Al Freeman, Cicely Tyson, Clarence Williams III, Glorie Foster, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee -- made the contemporary theater world cognizant of the worth of the black actor. But now those roles are few; and everyone, in Freeman's view, shares the blame for the current depression.
Freeman, like the scores of other actors and actresses who received wild praise for their work in Roots, has not seen any direct employment profit.
It doesn't work that way for black actors, at least not for me. There is really not continuity, at least, in that sense. A white actor can have a hit in film or a television show and there are offers. It doesn't work that way for us," he says.
Frustrations have mounted after two periods of raised hopes: the serious theater movement of the early 1960s and the Roots explosion. Freeman, who appeared in several movies in the 1960s -- including Finians' Rainbow with Fred Astaire and The Detective with Frank Sinatra, both in 1968 -- chose to sit out the in-between period of blaxploitation movies.
"I was a little bewildered by that period," he says. "It was still very firmly in the hands of Hollywood. They kept making the same kind of picture over and over again, so that no real serious films ever came out of that whole thing.
"Fred Williamson makes picture after pictures, all the same junk. I don't know what he learns. Ron O'Neal with Superfly 2 tries to do something. It didn't come off -- where is he now? I think that's an indication of what the movie was -- to get in and really make some bucks, not to build an institution, not to say something about the black experience. It's the only conclusion I can draw. It's not around any more."