Fear isn’t something that comes to mind when most people think of children’s programming, but then again, most of us aren’t struggling actors trying to make a name for ourselves. In the early days of his career, Morgan Freeman struggled with the idea of being stuck as a children’s performer for the rest of his life. While the Shawshank Redemption actor has certainly found his stride, it was a long, winding road he walked to establish himself as a serious actor.
Long before he was using his velvety tones to narrate documentaries or deliver emotionally charged monologues, Freeman was a founding cast member of a little-known 1970s children’s program called The Electric Company. The show was funded by PBS and filmed in the same studio that housed the early education television series Sesame Street. Despite the overlap, the two series were entirely separate from one another, and Freeman claims there was no sense of competition between the programs. The Electric Company used only human actors and taught kids grammar, comprehension, and reading skills, like much of PBS’ children’s’ programming. But The Electric Company stood apart from the competition by teaching through sketch comedy-like skits for kids between the ages of 5 and 10.
Geared at an older crowd than Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, The Electric Company worked more tongue-in-cheek-style gags into its routines, leaving space for parents to enjoy the many skits the series offered. While the entire cast embodied the comedic and groovy vibes, there was something incredibly inviting about the lanky Freeman, and his silky dulcet tones and laid-back demeanor.
As a core member of the cast, Freeman had a number of roles: Vincent the Vegetable Vampire, a debonair vegetarian vampire who taught viewers the importance of eating their vegetables all while emphasizing V words; DJ Mel Mounds! a rhyming, smooth-talking DJ who ran a radio station that parodied popular songs; and his most popular character, Easy Reader, a free-spirited hippie who enjoyed reading to an extreme degree, just to name a few. Each of his roles taught kids specific sounds and word recognition while embodying the groovy style of the ‘70s. While fans remember his tenure on the show fondly, the glory was short-lived for Freeman, who admits in this interview with Rich Eisen that his stint on the show was less than ideal, confessing “[it] terrified me.”
It wasn’t the kids or his vampire impression that filled Freeman with dread, rather it was the idea that he could get stuck like so many other actors in children’s programming. Once he was pegged as Easy Reader, there was a chance he could never escape the profile that viewers saw him in daily. Freeman was already in his 30s when he landed the gig, and according to producer Joan Ganz Cooney, “it was a very unhappy period in his life.”
Morgan continues, “You get identified with that and I really was afraid of becoming… Not typecast. Cast! Like being there. If that show had kept going, I might still be there.”
Freeman’s fear wasn’t unfounded. Though The Electric Company only ran from 1971 to 1977, its sister series, Sesame Street, is still going strong. One of its original cast members and a core recurring character, Big Bird, only recently changed hands, with the puppet being worked by the same man, Caroll Spinney, for nearly 50 years.
Freeman has shared anecdotes about the rigors of having a fan base so young. From freezing parade appearances to fans discarding autographs minutes after obtaining them, being a performer for children was a mostly thankless job. But what can you expect when your audience demographic is between 4 and 10?
Despite his prominent role in the series, it would be almost ten years before Freeman would get his big Hollywood break. He finally hit the big time in 1989, with his roles in Glory and Driving Miss Daisy. It may have taken the Unforgiven actor nearly a decade to shake the memory of Easy Rider and his time on The Electric Company, but the same dulcet tones that captured the attention of children for more than five years have served him well. Morgan Freeman may have little love for his first television appearances, but the clear diction he demonstrated while teaching thousands of kids across the world how to read certainly prepared him for the plethora of documentaries he has since loaned his velvety voice to.
With most of his original fans well into their 40s at this point, there is little doubt that some of Freeman’s success comes from the legion of fans he gained in his early appearances as Easy Reader, DJ Mel Mounds, and Vincent the Vegetable Vampire.