WASHINGTON — Al Freeman Jr., an Emmy Award-winning actor and professor at Howard University in Washington who played Elijah Muhammad in the 1992 Spike Lee film “Malcolm X,” died Aug. 9, according to a Howard spokeswoman, Kerry-Ann Hamilton. He was 78. The cause and location of his death were not disclosed.
Mr. Freeman was an established actor on Broadway, in films and on television long before he came to Howard in the late 1980s. He won a daytime Emmy Award in 1979 for his long-running role as Ed Hall, a police captain on the ABC soap opera “One Life to Live.”
Earlier in his career, Mr. Freeman had acted in the original Broadway productions of “Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright,” alongside Cicely Tyson, and in James Baldwin’s “Blues for Mister Charlie.” He appeared in more than a dozen films and was nominated for an Emmy Award for his portrayal of Malcolm X in the 1979 miniseries “Roots: The Next Generations.”
But it was a different character that cemented Mr. Freeman’s reputation. After auditioning three times for Lee, Mr. Freeman won the part of Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam leader who had a contentious relationship with Malcolm (played in the film by Denzel Washington).
Mr. Freeman prepared for the role by listening to Elijah’s speeches and by raising the pitch of his deep baritone voice.
“I had never seen Elijah alive, but I had heard him on the radio,” Mr. Freeman told The Washington Post in 1992. “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.”
When he appeared for the first read-through of the script, other cast members were astonished by his preparation and by the realistic intensity he brought to the role.
“When we came to the set, he was great,” Lee said Saturday in an interview. “What was I going to tell him? He’s one of the great actors of all time.”
Film critic Gene Siskel told Ebony magazine in 1993 that “more than one person who was very familiar with what the real Elijah Muhammad looked like . . . wondered if they were watching documentary footage of him, somehow taken in color.”
After the film was released, Mr. Freeman became something of an overnight star on the Howard campus.
“Now, he can’t walk to class without students stopping to tell him how great he was or ask him for his autograph,” a student told Ebony. “There really is a whole new spirit of appreciation for him.”
Albert Cornelius Freeman Jr. was born March 21, 1934, in San Antonio. He grew up there and in Columbus, Ohio, where his father, a jazz pianist, settled after a divorce.
In the early 1950s, Mr. Freeman attended Los Angeles City College, where he became interested in acting. After serving in the Air Force, he began to appear in television and theatrical productions. He was affiliated with the Actor’s Studio in New York for many years and later received a master’s degree in education from the University of Massachusetts.
His first major Broadway role came in 1962 in “Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright,” a family drama set in New Orleans. Two years later, he gained acclaim in Baldwin’s “Blues for Mister Charlie” as Richard Henry, a lynching victim loosely based on Emmett Till, who was killed in Mississippi in 1955.
Mr. Freeman also appeared in “The Slave” and “Dutchman,” two plays by LeRoi Jones (now known as Amiri Baraka), as well as several of Joseph Papp’s Shakespeare-in-the-park productions.
His movie roles included playing a police detective opposite Frank Sinatra in the socially conscious 1968 film “The Detective.” He also had a part in Fred Astaire’s last musical, “Finian’s Rainbow” (1968), directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
Over the years, Mr. Freeman made frequent appearances on network TV series, including guest spots on “The Mod Squad,” “Kojak,” “Maude” and “The Cosby Show.”
After appearing on “One Life to Live” for 15 years, Mr. Freeman came to Howard in 1988 as a visiting artist-in-residence. He joined the faculty full time in 1991 and spent six years as chairman of the theater department. He retired in May.
Mr. Freeman occasionally directed productions at Howard and at the Vineyard Playhouse on Martha’s Vineyard.
His marriage to Sevara Clemon ended in divorce. Complete information about survivors was not available.
Mr. Freeman lived for many years on a sailboat at the Washington Marina. He planned to sail to the Caribbean but “never got farther south than Washington” — in part, he said, because of his attachment to his students.
“This will sound corny,” he told Ebony, “but these little twerps are the most important people in my life. I get more from them than they get from me. Teaching really has renewed me.”