C-U native experiencing early success in Hollywood

CHAMPAIGN – Picture the ultimate Champaign-Urbana homecoming visit:

– Native son buys his grandmother new flat-screen television. While he's installing it, he appears on screen.

– Same returnee takes his grandfather, who used to work the gates, to the Illinois-Michigan football game. Illini win.

David McKinley Freeman II seems to be surrounded by a magical aura since he went all Hollywood five years ago:

– The former local school student – King, Yankee Ridge, Urbana Middle School, Champaign Central High School – now takes acting classes in California.

– A basketball player for Parkland College and the University of Illinois, he currently works out to stay in shape.

– A telemarketer for The News-Gazette who got a master's degree in business administration from the UI gave up a steady paycheck to audition and get roles in commercials, television and movies.

Ruth Williams, Freeman's grandmother, who is watching "General Hospital," calls out to her grandson, "You're comin' through, with the police and wearing a purpley tie."

Freeman was a detective on four episodes of "General Hospital" in October and November.

"My friends and family get a kick out of it, but I'm uncomfortable watching myself on TV," he said while sitting in his grandparents' Champaign living room.

Freeman's most recent roles have been as a Marine sergeant on the CBS show "NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service)" starring Mark Harmon; a struggling actor on "Look," a Showtime program with a pilot to be shown in January; a former professional football player in a movie called "10 Years Later" that has not been released; and a man proposing marriage in a commercial for Zales jewelry.

Now 33, Freeman says he can play characters as young as 25.

"When I shave, they really can't tell how old I am," he said.

Back in 2003, Freeman was in Atlanta working for WebSphere Business Development, part of IBM. Friends encouraged him to enter the ABC's "All My Children" daytime show contest to find The Sexiest Man in America.

Out of more than 2,000 applicants, he came in second.

"It's funny: Growing up, my older sister (Stephanie) was a model and my younger sister (Toni) was Miss this and that," Freeman said. "I was just the ugly basketball player. They talk about tall, dark and handsome and I guess two out of three is a good start."

His success in the ABC contest led to connections with entertainment executives in California and screen tests in New York.

Freeman, who now uses just "McKinley Freeman" because "it's distinguishable," rented out his Atlanta house and moved to Los Angeles in 2004.

"I brought my (IBM) job with me to L.A.," he explained. "I was on the phone at 3:30 a.m. talking to Bangalore, India, about marketing."

"It's funny how things just fall into place," he said. "I met a guy in New York in that contest, he was from Iowa and we rented a place together (in L.A). I started teaching myself piano and taking acting classes."

"When you make decisions and peace follows, you know you've made a good decision."

He calls most successful actors genuine. He has had a conversation with Denzel Washington about boxing and was in an acting class with Eva Mendes.

When the recession and job layoffs hit last winter, Freeman told his manager back in Atlanta, "If it comes down to it, I can leave. I'm single."

"Other people on my team had mortgages and families and one had been diagnosed with cancer," he explained.

Freeman left the IBM company in February.

"It was a good job, but I felt whatever they were paying me, it was holding me back from something bigger," Freeman said. "I'm a full-time actor and model now."

"I love it in L.A.," he said. "If I have to sell mangoes on the beach, I'll be the best mango seller in California."

He said a week of daytime show roles pays in the thousands of dollars.

It costs hundreds of dollars for his acting lessons, updated photographs, Screen Actors Guild and AFTAA dues.

In California, Freeman treats Monday through Friday as his work week.

"I've still got that Midwest mentality," he said. "I read plays, work out, do research on actors."

"Since I didn't have this desire to be an actor early, I haven't seen a lot of the classic movies," he said. "I'm just a big sponge. I was watching 'Dr. Strangelove' and Peter Sellers had three roles in that. I learned he was bipolar, but comfortable with his imperfections."

Acting is a lot like basketball for Freeman.

"When I was shooting baskets at Hessel Park four to five hours a day and doing drills, I did not know if I'd get to play in games," he said. "Now, I take classes and audition and work at it, not knowing if I'll get a part.

"Competition is stiff," he said. "Actors with extensive resumes on the shelf are looking for work.

"Going into an audition, I treat it like a basketball game; I'm focused," Freeman said. "I'm not there to chat or make friends with the others.

"Sometimes you hear they want an African-American or an Asian for a certain role and actors who aren't might not show up. But I learned that the brother in 'Everybody Loves Raymond' was supposed to be very short, but the tall guy (6-foot, 8-inch Brad Garrett) got the role."

Freeman has an agent for modeling and a manager for acting who get percentages of his pay.

The acting manager recommends acting teachers and promotes him for parts.

Freeman said his manager might call him at 5 p.m. and e-mail him 130 pages to read for a 10 a.m. audition.

"I think I've been successful because I'm laid back, easy to get along with, considerate and respectful," Freeman said. "And, it doesn't hurt to be in shape. You need to make casting directors confident you can do what's asked of you."

"I want to develop a strong brand as a leading man," Freeman said. "So, I'm not going to do commercials where I'm dancing around a hamburger."

His current dreams: "I want to win an Oscar, get some movies I've written made and start a film program for high schools."

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