JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
Now, from Olympic legacies to Hollywood legacies, we want to take a moment to pay tribute to a pioneer actor and director, Al Freeman, Jr. Freeman is perhaps best known for his portrayal of Nation of Islam leader, Elijah Muhammad in Spike Lee's 1992 epic film "Malcolm X." Freeman's performance won him an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Motion Picture.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MALCOLM X")
AL FREEMAN, JR.: (As Elijah Muhammad) Islam is the only religion that addresses the needs and problems of the so-called negro in America.
LYDEN: There was a resemblance between Al Freeman, Jr. and Elijah Muhammad that surprised Spike Lee, the film's director. Here's Lee in a 2005 NPR interview.
SPIKE LEE: Al Freeman, Jr. is a wonderful - he's a great actor. Again, it was the soul of the performance, not just the resemblance.
LYDEN: Al Freeman, Jr. got his start on Broadway, earning critical acclaim for his performance in James Baldwin's "Blues for Mr. Charlie" and Al Freeman, Jr. was the first leading African-American male character on the soap opera, "One Life to Live." He won a Daytime Emmy for the role of Captain Ed Hall in 1979, the first black actor to do so. He also became the first African-American to direct a soap opera.
Freeman's other TV credits include "The Cosby Show," "Law and Order," "Homicide: Life On the Street," and "The Edge of the Night." Most recently, Al Freeman, Jr. taught theater at Howard University in Washington and served as chairman and artistic director of its theater arts department.
The veteran actor died at the age of 78 late Friday night. The cause of death hasn't been determined. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.