Monday, September 24, 2012

The Passing Parade 2: Deceased Artiste Al Freeman, Jr.

Staying with thoughts of characters actors, I turn to Al Freeman Jr., who died a few weeks back at 78, after having had a long career on the stage and in movies and television. I talk a lot about the “high” and “low” on the Funhouse TV, and Freeman’s career embraced both aspects of show business, as some of his greatest triumphs were in important Broadway and off-Broadway productions of the Sixties, but he was seen by the largest number of people playing a regular role as a police detective on One Life to Live.

Freeman’s Broadway work included his debut in 1960 (The Long Dream, a play based on a Richard Wright novel) and the 1965 production of James Baldwin’s Blues for Mr. Charlie. His first important movie role was in the wildly undershown film version of Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman (1967). At least that film has had a DVD release — the interesting-sounding features that Freeman directed (A Fable, 1971, scripted by Baraka) and wrote (the Ossie Davis film Cool Red) have never been released in any home-entertainment format.

While appearing in pioneering works of theater, he dabbled in the mainstream with parts in TV episodes, in series including The Millionaire, The Defenders, and The Trials of O’Brien with Peter Falk. He later had supporting roles in the Hollywood features Finian’s Rainbow (a mess of a musical directed by Coppola) and the Frank Sinatra vehicle The Detective (both 1968).

In 1988, Freeman basically quit acting to teach theater at Howard University. He did appear in a few more TV episodes and films, most notably Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, where he had the plum supporting role of Elijah Muhammad. This was an interesting casting decision, not only because he was excellent in the role, but because he had played Malcolm X in the TV miniseries Roots: the Next Generation (1979).

On to the pieces of Freeman’s career that I was able to find in “public view” on YT. First there is a short slice of him directing students in a theater class. I’m not sure of the date of the class or its location, but it was uploaded earlier this year.

The network TV movies of the Seventies definitely have their own, very strong cults, and one that has a following is My Sweet Charlie (1970), a telefilm about a pregnant Southern girl (Patty Duke) and a NYC lawyer (Freeman) who meet and bond in Texas. The whole tearjerker can be found here (1970).

This has nothing to do with Al, but I also suggest you check out Patty’s Emmy acceptance speech for her role in the film. She’s a little… “off,” shall we say. (It’s wonderful.)

A segment from One Life to Live featuring Freeman as Captain Ed Hall. He was with the show for fifteen years (which is an eternity in daytime TV), won a Daytime Emmy for Best Actor (he was the first African-American to win that award), and directed episodes of the show. This sequence illustrates one of his best assets: a smooth voice that made the dialogue sound realistic (whereas it can often sound like it was phoned in from outer space):

As an ABC star he showed up in various places including an ABC promo ad (with a voiceover by Ernie “Ghoulardi” Anderson) and an appearance on “Soap Opera Showdown” week on Family Feud when it was hosted by Richard Dawson:

During the time that Freeman was teaching, he still did occasionally make appearances on TV and in the movies. His last movie role is one that was worthy of his talent, as the uncle in Maya Angelou’s directorial debut (curiously written by someone else), Down in the Delta (1998):

And I close out with a show that I have fond memories of, but which I haven’t seen since it initially aired (and I was quite young). Since it has surfaced nowhere, I’d need to make an expedition to the Paley Center to see if my memories of it as being very funny are accurate or just rose-colored nostalgia about a show that was deemed "dirty" at the time.

In my entry below about Norman Alden I talked about Norman Lear’s Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, which was a very offbeat show that became a massive hit for a short time in ’76-’77. The preceding year (1975) Lear did another sitcom that was controversial but never got the chance to find an audience. It was a VERY strange project — a TV sitcom version of Lanford Wilson’s play The Hot L Baltimore.

The show only aired for half a season, 13 episodes in total. The characters included a gay couple, two hookers, a con-artist preacher (Freeman), and a very strange unseen character who was an adult baby, cared for by his doting mother (Charlotte Rae). This is the only small bit from that show that has shown up on the Net:

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