The Poignant Reason Behind Morgan Freeman's Famous Hoop Earrings

An actor can count on having made their name if their physical and vocal traits become touchstones in pop culture. In recent years, Morgan Freeman has seen multiple characteristics of his being so honored. His voice is in high demand for narration, and when he's not available, impersonators will do — though Freeman's been known to parody his own eloquent descriptions, as he did on "The Graham Norton Show." His voice and his distinctive freckles have also become fodder for comedians and cartoonists, and "South Park" even spoofed both at once.

Less commented on in parodies and references are Freeman's golden hoop earrings, though they are a regular part of his ensemble. But if they aren't often spoofed, he said in a 2019 Instagram post that he's often asked about them in his private life. According to Freeman himself in an interview with Fox News, he was first inspired to get them when he saw Burt Lancaster in a pirate movie (probably 1952's "The Crimson Pirate"). "I thought that was sexy," said Freeman.

But while the earrings started out as a fashion statement, Freeman had another reason for getting them, one he's shared several times since that 2010 interview. "The truth is," he wrote on Instagram in 2019, "These are worth just enough for someone to buy me a coffin if I die in a strange place. That's why sailors used to wear them and that's why I do."

Sailors may really have paid for their funerals with their earrings

Morgan Freeman's notion that earrings would pay for a funeral is an oft-repeated nugget of pirate lore, one with some basis in fact. According to Atlas Obscura, sailors of all kinds wore hoop earrings of gold or silver, universally accepted currency in the Age of Sail. If they died away from home, the story goes, the earrings would guarantee a burial service.

Payment for burial is a popular myth explaining the earring fashion among sailors, a practice with no clear start date. But if that was why honest seamen wore the earrings, pirates couldn't count on the same service in death. As historian Gail Selinger told Atlas Obscura, thieves of any kind wouldn't be given burials. For them, the earrings could have been a way to display their wealth and keep it close — out of easy reach of other thieves — or a way of defying sumptuary laws that restricted the dress of the lower classes in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Another theory, repeated in the San Diego Reader, is that pirates and sailors thought that gold earrings would improve their eyesight. But all these theories assume that pirates really dressed as we often picture them — in flamboyant hats and coats, colorful bandanas, and earrings. Some historians believe this depiction is the invention of 19th-century illustrators. 

Morgan Freeman is a sailor himself

In the 2010 Fox News interview where Morgan Freeman explained why he wears his earrings, he connected his youthful appreciation of Burt Lancaster and the legend of sailor's earrings with his own hobbies. "I'm a sailor," he said. Learning the story of earrings paying for sailors' funerals in strange lands was what clinched his decision to wear them himself.

But it wasn't pirate stories or Burt Lancaster that made Freeman take up sailing. In an interview with OWN, he explained that reading "Moby Dick" as a boy drew him to the sea early in life. He first got the chance to get on a boat in 1967, when he and two female friends were spending time together in Stowe, Vermont. When considering options for a day outing — horseback riding with one horse for the three of them or sailing a small boat around — Freeman and company jumped at the latter, despite having no experience.

Instruction was minimal, but after just one day manning the ship, Freeman was hooked for life. He spent that summer learning the finer points of sailing and bought his first ship in 1971 (per Shannon Yachts). He's gone through several since, and not even a near-disaster from a 1979 storm put him off the hobby. "Being at sea is just a magic thing for me," Freeman told "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert." "You learn something about yourself, I promise you," he later added.