FROM WIRE REPORTS
The man who played Elijah Muhammad in Spike Lee’s epic film, “Malcolm X,” Al Freeman Jr., has died. He was 78.
Freeman also was the first African-American to win a Daytime Emmy Award.
Howard University confirmed his death on Aug. 10. Freeman taught acting there for years and served as chairman and artistic director of its theater arts department.
“He was a brilliant professor, a renowned actor and a master director who made his mark in the classroom as well as on stage, screen and television. … He has mentored and taught scores of outstanding actors. He was a resounding voice of Howard and will be missed,” university spokeswoman Kerry-Ann Hamilton said in a statement.
Freeman’s performance in “Malcolm X’’ won him an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Motion Picture.
Raised between San Antonio, Texas, and Cleveland, Ohio, 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 theater.
First Black to direct soap
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.
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. He won the Daytime Emmy seven years later. During his 15 year-run with the series, Freeman also became the first Black to direct a soap opera.
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.
After numerous auditions, Spike 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.”
A report from Ebony magazine was used in compiling this report.