People all around the world know the voice of James Earl Jones. From Star Wars fans listening to the voice of Darth Vader to news junkies who hear a voice that dramatically intones “This is CNN” just before all the cable network’s station breaks to children who hear the stately voice of the majestic Mufasa, the king of the jungle in Walt Disney Pictures” animated The Lion King – people know this deep harmonious voice belongs to this consummate actor of stage and screen.
James Earl Jones was born January 17th, 1931, in Arkabutala Township, Mississippi. His natural parents, Ruth and Robert Earl, moved away to the Mississippi Delta when he was an infant. Raised for the rest of his young life by his maternal grandparents, James Earl developed a close relationship with the Connollys. “Maggie and John Henry were always there, day by day, and they became for me, once and for all, my mama and my papa” (18) .
Less than three years later, the Connollys moved to Dublin Michigan where James Earl and his >brother’ Randy grew up in a remodelled chicken barn. His early school life had a great impact on his style of speech and diction. “On my first day at school, I could not believe my ears,” recalls Jones, “They called me James Earrrrl instead of James Uhl, as it had sounded in the South”(40).
After the initial shock of hearing Northern dialect, Jones “quickly absorbed this different rhythm and style” and embarked on the first half of a long vocal journey leading to his distinctive speaking style. Until he was 14 years old, James Earl Jones rarely spoke mostly due to shyness, preferring silence to the sound of his own voice.
Around the age of 10, James Earl Jones witnessed his brother, Randy, having an epileptic seizure. His grandmother applied the only remedy she knew – a thimbleful of bluing dye – and told James Earl to run for help. After travelling a mile through a Michigan blizzard and recalling the sight of his brother on the floor with Ablue liquid spilled out of his mouth,” Jones’ epic battle with stuttering began. At a local store, Jones panicked and couldn’t speak. After a time, he “finally calmed down and the words came. The doctor was called. Randy recovered. But the stuttering – that stayed.”(42)
The same year his brother almost died, Jones was sexually assaulted by the minister of a church he attended. The incident scarred him for life. Jones recalls, “I was afraid and very confused. I was on my guard from then on…I had no need for words”(54).
The “turning point” in Jones’ ability to cope with stuttering came in Professor Donald Crouch’s English classroom in high school. After falling in love with Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha,”James Earl was inspired to write a poem about his love for grapefruit. He patterned his work after Longfellow’s cadence and rhyme scheme. When Professor Crouch accused Jones of plagiarism Jones was forced to recite his work from memory in front of the class (63).
Considering his honour of greater value than the teasing of his classmates James Earl approached the front of the room to avoid academic disgrace: “I was shaking as I stood up, cursing myself. I strained to get the words out, pushing from the bottom of my soul. I opened my mouth — and to my astonishment, the words flowed out smoothly, every one of them. There was no stutter. All of us were amazed, not so much by the poem as by the performance”(66).
The voice of James Earl Jones was a new sound to himself and everyone around him. “My voice had changed, almost without my awareness, so in addition to the novelty of being able to speak, I could now speak in a deep, strong voice”(67). Crouch and Jones became inseparable for the remaining three years of high school, resurrecting the powers of speech in the young lad through public speaking, debating, orating and acting.
The training he received from Crouch enabled Jones to win a public speaking championship and a college scholarship to the University of Michigan. In 1947, he enrolled intending to pursue a medical degree. He worked several jobs and enrolled in US Army Reserve Officers Training Corps to support his college career. But science took its toll on Jones, and he changed majors to the study of drama but “technically, because there was not an official degree in drama then at the university, (his) degree had to be in English”(75).
James Earl Jones’ first introduction to the semi-professional theatre was a casting call for a campus production of The Birds by Aristophanes. Intending to read for one of the minor parts, Jones was surprised when he was asked to audition for, and was later cast as the lead role of Epops, the King of the Birds. Less than a year later Jones was cast in his first professional theatre production, as Verges in Much Ado About Nothing.
Robert Earl Jones moved away when his son, James Earl, was an infant. James Earl was not allowed to communicate with his father, who was considered no good since he was “off in New York with a new wife, trying to make it as an actor, instead of doing real work” (62). Later his career turned sour when he found himself “on the blacklist during the McCarthy days”(79).
Robert Earl wanted to see his son for “a long, long time..and was hurt by the family’s constant refusal” to let him see his son(79). But when James Earl was 21, they were reunited in New York for a week as father showed son the sights on and off Broadway. Jones attributes his father, Robert Earl, with “the best acting advice..’Pay attention to the little things actors do”(Culhane 122).
After two years in the Army at Camp Hale near Aspen, Colorado, Jones decided to commit to acting. AThere was nothing to lose, I thought. I could use my GI Bill to go to acting school, and if it didn’t work out, I could step back into my Army career”(Jones 83).
Jones lived by the premise “Acting can never really be taught. It must be learned in a thousand ways, over and over again. Learning to act is ongoing, a lifelong process, and the responsibility rests with the actor”(89). Under this idea, Jones felt the only place to learn was in New York, and in 1955 he packed his bags.
Once they were reunited in New York, Robert Earl let his son move in and they pursued separate careers. Recalling a childhood nickname, Jones assumed the stage name of Todd Jones and, at the age of 24, was accepted by the American Theatre Wing. One year later, after an argument with his father, James Earl Jones rented his own “cold-water-flat” and went back to his full name. After receiving his diploma at the Theatre Wing in 1957, Jones auditioned for Tad Danielewski’s acting workshop, where he was accepted and set to work on scenes from three memorable plays: Othello, Of Mice and Men, and Miss Julie.
In October, Jones received his first chance to be in a Broadway production as an understudy for Lloyd Richards who played the role of Perry Hall in The Egghead, starring Karl Malden and directed by Hume Croyn at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. The understudy’s dream did not come true then , but three months later Jones received a speaking part on Broadway, playing the valet in Dore Schary’s Sunrise at Campobello, a drama about Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt, starring Ralph Bellamy (105).
With only three lines to deliver as Edward the valet, Jones’ “worst fear” came true one night on stage as he stuttered delivering the line “Mrs. Roosevelt, supper is served”(105). “Mary Fickett, the actress playing Mrs. Roosevelt, just stood there and (Jones) got through it…(he) recovered..and miraculously it never happened again”(106.)
Two teachers at the American Theatre Wing noticed Jones while he was a student: director Joseph Papp and acting teacher Lee Strasberg of the Actors Studio in New York. Jones auditioned seven years in a row and was never invited to become a member of the Actors Studio. But he did manage to come up with the funds to enroll in Strasberg’s private school. While he didn’t find Strasberg an “effective” director, he did find Strasberg to be a Agreat teacher”. Jones later learned that Strasberg, Cheryl Crawford and Elia Kazan “shared the consensus that there were actors such as (Jones) who, by following their own particular drumbeat, had already found an effective technique. Rather than pull (Jones) back and them the Method,” they decided to “let (him) go (his) own path.”(107.)
Papp gave Jones his first acting breakthrough opportunity as Micheal Williams in Shakespeare’s Henry V. Papp was credited with injecting a “dash of social conscience by casting Williams..as a negro (ably played by James Earl Jones)” (Gelb 23). Papp was a visionary who enjoyed bringing his productions to a different setting. Henry V was performed in Central Park with no admissions charge.
Before Henry V opened, Jones was also given a job as the leading role in Lionel “bel’s play The Pretender directed off Broadway by Herbert Machiz. Jones “fared better with the critics than the play did, but not by much. “One critic said Jones was “first rate,”(Jones 113) while others gave considerably less praise saying that Jones as the character of Jesse Prince, “plays the part of the novelist as well as anyone could.”(Atkinson 42).
In 1961, James Earl Jones moved into high gear and had what he termed a “breakthrough year” in 1961 (Jones 123). Papp again cast Jones in a production, this time as Oberon in Midsummer Night’s Dream at the New York Shakespeare Festival. Although his performance was not critically acclaimed, Jones began to get small parts on television with roles on “Playhouse 90,”‘ The Brighter Day,”A The Catholic Hour,”A Camera Three,” and the popular “Phil Silvers Show”(382).
Jones left the cast of The Blacks in the fall of 1961 to play a featured role in a new comedy by Josh Greenfield, Clandestine on the Morning Line. The production opened in the “ctors Playhouse to mixed reviews that generally agreed that “some likable characters (were) interrupted by a story”(Gelb 30). The show had a short run and helped Jones land a role in another experimental drama, Jack Gelber’s The Apple.
The production opened at the Living Theatre in December 1961 and was billed as Experimental theatre with a vengeance” (Taubman 31.) And for the next several years, Jones struggled off Broadway “bulling his way to success” where “in play after play Jones (was) never guilty of underplaying; he invariably (came) on strong, and often effective” (qtd in Jones).
Jones has a self-expressed passion for Othello. He has played Othello at seven different time in his life in the theatre beginning at the age of 25 in Michigan and ending at the age of 50 at the Winter Garden Theatre in new York in 1981(377-381).
The year 1964 produced two major Othello’s, one in London which cast Sir Lawrence Olivier as the title role. The second major production cast James Earl Jones as the moor and debuted in Central park with the Summer Shakespeare festival and re-opened in October at the Martinique. Calling it “unjustly neglected,” Life magazine compared Jones to Olivier and called Jones “immensely moving,” as a reminder of “civil rights and race relations” (qtd. in Jones).
Producer Joe Papp and director Gladys Vaughan fought over how Jones should play the tragic stranger in service to the Duke of Venice. Jones recalls “Joe wanted me to play Othello tough, because in time of racial tension, Othello should be tough and militant” (158). But Vaughan fought to give the character a sensitivity and benevolence and Jones took her up on the idea. Critics loved it. Believing Othello could fall into the trap set by Iago has never been easy, “but Mr. Jones succeeds in giving it credibility throughout. He is genuinely moving in his deep affection for (his) wife… His disintegration into a man in whom Iago has unloosed the furies is well prepared and pitiful to behold. Restrained and soft in speech up to this moment, (Jones) has deep strength and force as he propelled along his wrath and grief…”(Funke 48). For his work as Othello, Jones was honoured with the Drama Desk-Vernon Rice Award.
When the production began to wane some 224 performances after opening night in the Martinique, director Vaughan closed Othello and formed a repertory company with the cast.
One of the turning points in the life of James Earl Jones came inside the gloves of the first black heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson. Playwright Howard Sackler wrote about Jack Johnson’s turbulent life and career in The Great White Hope. For legal reasons Sackler named his boxer Jack Jefferson.
Director Edwin Sherin and playwright Sackler recruited Jones for the lead, treating him as if they “had found
a gold mine”(Jones 188). Using the same trainer that brought Olivier into shape for Othello, Jones prepared for the role with grueling roadwork and intellectual exploration he later compared to basic training in the Army (189). After six weeks of rehearsal, The Great White Hope opened on December 7 at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., for a seven week run with Ed Sherin directing.
At the age of 37, Jones realized he was involved in a Asignificant theatre experience” but was “completely unprepared for the critical praise, the later fame, and the thunderous response of (the) audience” (192). Comparing his performance to that Marlon Brando’s in Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire, critics acclaimed Jones an “overnight success”(qtd in Jones). Calling it “immeasurably moving,”Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Times: “With head shaved, burly, huge, Mr. Jones stalks through the play like a black avenging angel. Even when corrupted by misery, his presence has an almost moral force to it, and his voice rasps out an agony nearly too personally painful in its nakedness” (Barnes 58).
In October the following year, The Great White Hope opened on Broadway at the Alvin Theatre. Catapulted into the limelight, “..Jones was receiving a standing ovation of the kind that makes Broadway history”(Barnes 58).
Since then Jones has gone on to become critically acclaimed film and television actor. He has appeared in over 200 films and even had his own weekly television show called, “Gabriel’s Fire.” Jones has journeyed far from the boy who never spoke a word to anyone who walked on two legs. James Earl Jones has delighted millions of people across the country with his body and voice, but for himself, life is nothing more that “Words, Words, Words” (Jones 190).