Award-winning actor James Earl Jones (born 1931) has acted on television, stage, and screen. He is, perhaps, best known for his sonorous bass voice.
Some people know him as one of the nation's finest stage actors, an artist who tackles the works of such playwrights as William Shakespeare and Eugene O'Neill. Others know his sonorous bass voice as the most menacing aspect of the evil Darth Vader in the blockbuster film Star Wars. Still others recognize him as a television star who brings depths of humanity to cliched character parts. James Earl Jones fits all these descriptions, and more: for more than 30 years he has been one of the most esteemed actors in the United States.
Jones has worked steadily for decades in a market that supplies little hope to black performers. Having first established himself as a serious dramatic actor, he has never balked at the so-called "low brow" pursuits of television and popular film. His resume includes Othello as well as television episodes of Tarzan. He has been laden with Tony, Emmy, and Obie awards, and yet he can be heard as the voice announcing "This is CNN" for Cable News Network. With film appearances ranging from the classic Dr. Strangelove to the forgettable Conan, the Barbarian, Jones admitted in the Saturday Review that he takes roles to surprise people—including himself. "Because I have a varied career, and I've not typecast myself, nobody knows what I'm going to do next. They don't know if I'm going to drop 20 pounds and play an athlete. They don't know whether I'm ready to be a good guy or a bad guy."
Whatever Jones plays—villain or hero—he infuses each role with "enormous talent, range, courage, taste, [and] sensitivity," in the words of a Newsweek correspondent. During a career that began in the late 1950s, James Earl Jones has struggled to define himself not as a black actor, but simply as an actor. In an effort to resist stereotypes, he has opted for maximum variety, but each new part bears his particular, memorable stamp. In Newsweek, Jack Kroll called Jones "the embodiment of the living paradox that informs all great acting: his powerful persona is at once intimate and apart, friendly and heroic. He's right there in the room with you, but he's also in your mind, an electrifying double presence that only the strongest actors can create."
A Traumatic Boyhood
The only child of Robert Earl and Ruth Connolly Jones, James Earl Jones was born in Arkabutla, Mississippi, on his maternal grandfather's farm. Before his son's birth, James's father left the family to pursue a career as a prize fighter and later as an actor. Ruth Jones soon followed suit when she found tailoring work that kept her separated from her son for long periods of time. Born during the Great Depression, in 1931, Jones remarked in Newsweek that he realizes economic circumstances forced his parents apart. Still, he said, the abandonment hurt him deeply. "No matter how old the character I play," he concluded, "those deep childhood memories, those furies, will come out. I understand this."
Living on his grandparents' farm, Jones was afforded a measure of security. As a youngster he hunted, fished, and performed various farm chores. He also attended church, where he watched his grandmother's emotional displays of holy rapture. "There was a strong evangelistic aspect to her religion, and when she went to church and felt the spirit, she ended up behaving like a holy roller," Jones recalled in the Saturday Review. "There wasn't much touching in the family, but there was emotion."
Eventually Jones's grandparents formally adopted him, and took him north to rural Michigan. Jones acknowledged in Newsweek that the move north helped him to escape "a certain self-castration" common among Southern blacks at the time, but he did not adjust easily to his new surroundings. He developed a stutter and eventually found communication so difficult that at certain periods during grammar school he could talk only to himself or his immediate family. The problem followed him to high school, where one of his English teachers suggested he memorize speeches and enter oratorical contests. It seemed an unlikely way to cure a stutter, but it worked for Jones. Slowly, wrote Michelle Green in the Saturday Review, Jones "became such a skilled speaker that he began besting his voluble opponents."
Acting Beat out Other Careers
Jones attended the University of Michigan on a full scholarship, intending to study medicine. At first he took acting classes simply as a sideline, but he soon switched his major to theater. When he was 21 years old, and a junior at Michigan, he traveled east to New York City to meet his father. They had only spoken briefly on the telephone several times. The relationship was strained by the long years without communication, but Jones's father encouraged him to pursue a career in theater; James graduated from Michigan in 1953 with a bachelor's degree in drama.
The U.S. Army, specifically the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), recruited Jones in 1953 for two years of compulsory service. He spent much of his stint in a rigorous ranger training program in the Colorado mountains and was set to reenlist in 1955 when his commanding officer suggested that he taste civilian life before making a long-term commitment to the armed services. So Jones moved to New York City and enrolled in further acting classes. Two things helped ease his decision: he knew he could return to the army if he did not find success as an actor, and his tuition at the American Theater Wing was paid for by the Army's G.I. Bill.
Jones lived with his father for a time, and the two supplemented their meager acting incomes by polishing floors in Off-Broadway theaters. In 1957 the younger Jones earned his first professional role in an Off-Broadway production of Wedding in Japan. He was rarely out of work after that, but his salary during the last years of the 1950s averaged $45 a week. He made ends meet by renting a cold-water flat on the Lower East Side. Even as a journeyman actor, Jones proved willing to try any role, no matter how small. In 1959 he began a long tenure with the New York Shakespeare Festival, carrying a spear in Henry V. Before long he was given more prominent roles, culminating in his 1963 performance as the lead in Othello—one of a staggering 13 plays he appeared in that year.
Fame Assured by The Great White Hope
Othello ran for a year Off-Broadway with Jones in the lead. The actor also found time to do television spots and to make one film appearance—as the bombardier in Stanley Kubrick's dark comedy Dr. Strangelove. In the mid-1960s Jones began augmenting his theater work with television parts. He took cameo roles in shows such as The Defenders and East Side/West Side, and he became the first black man to take a continuing role on a daytime serial when he portrayed a doctor on As The World Turns. The big break for Jones, though, came during a period when he was touring Europe as the lead in Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones.
A copy of a play titled The Great White Hope landed in Jones's lap in 1967. A dramatization of the life of boxing champion Jack Johnson, The Great White Hope was slated for a possible Broadway run. Jones wanted the part desperately. He began to train at gymnasiums in order to build his muscles, working with boxing managers and watching old footage of Johnson's fights. He was ultimately awarded the part, and the show opened on Broadway on October 3, 1968.
The Great White Hope was a success, and its reception propelled Jones to stardom. "Fourteen years of good hard acting work, including more Shakespeare than most British actors attempt, have gone into the making of James Earl Jones," wrote a Newsweek reviewer who also concluded that "only an actor with the bigness and power of Jones" could make such a play work. Jones won a Tony Award for his contribution to The Great White Hope, and he was nominated for an Academy Award in 1970 when the play was made into a motion picture.
The instant celebrity brought Jones a new awareness of his limitations. The actor told TV Guide that his work in The Great White Hope did not prove to be the career boost he thought it would. "I thought with the Oscar nomination that several projects would be waiting for me immediately," he continued in TV Guide. "But then projects—very viable ones close to getting go-aheads—caved in under racism's insanity." One of those projects was a life story of civil rights activist Malcolm X, a version of which was finally scheduled for release by filmmaker Spike Lee in 1992.
Working for Love and Money
Jones returned to the stage, appearing in Hamlet in 1972, King Learin 1973, and Of Mice and Menin 1974. He also performed in a series of minor films, including The Man and The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings. Jones's most notable movie role of the 1970s and early 1980s, though, was one in which only his voice was used. He gave a memorable level of malevolence to the half-man, half-machine villain Darth Vader in all three Star Wars films.
In 1982 Jones appeared on Broadway as Othello to standing ovations. He also portrayed the villain in the film Conan, the Barbarian. To critics who faulted him for taking roles in substandard films, Jones had a simple reply: movies and television pay well, theater does not. "I can't afford to take a vacation unless I do some commercials when I'm in New York," he pointed out in the Saturday Review. "Money goes fast, and you can't get along doing only stage work. I've never minded doing commercials…. Commercials can be very exciting." In 1991 Jones lent himself to a string of TV ads for the Bell Atlantic Yellow Pages, his first on-air product endorsement.
Jones's work in the late 1980s and early 1990s was as varied as his early career. He played an enigmatic writer in the 1990 hit film Field of Dreams, a CIA chief in the 1992 screen adaptation of Tom Clancy's novel Patriot Games,, and a judge in the 1994 film Sommersby. On televison he starred as an ex-convict private investigator in the award-winning series Gabriel's Fire and, in 1995, as a widowed police officer in the series Under One Roof. Not neglecting his onstage work, he earned yet another Tony Award in 1988 for his portrayal of a disenchanted Negro League baseball player in August Wilson's play Fences. Jones explained in the Los Angeles Times that he has taken so many minor film roles and so much television work simply because he likes to work. "Just as, on stage, I waited years for a role like Jack [Johnson] in Great White Hope, or a role like Troy in Fences, you do the same thing in movies," he said. "Unless you are among that handful of exceptions, the stars who have projects lined up, you don't wait, at least I didn't want to wait… . I don't think I've done many films that counted. What I'm getting at, rather than waiting for that wonderful role in a movie, I take 'off' jobs."
To quote Los Angeles Times correspondent David Wallace, those "off jobs" are often "memorable only for [Jones's] commanding presence [or] for the brevity of his appearance." That situation would change, however; in 1990 Jones announced that his age and health were forcing him to curtail his work in live theater. "After six months in a play, the fatigue factor begins to affect the quality of a performance," the actor conceded in the Los Angeles Times. "The audiences might not know it, but I do. My thing is serious drama, and usually the lead character has a heavy load to carry. I find that after six months, if you get four out of eight shows a week that work perfectly the way you want, you're lucky." Jones stressed that he did not plan to retire from the theater completely, but rather to cut back his live work in favor of other projects.
A shelf full of awards to his credit and contributions to every sort of mass media notwithstanding, James Earl Jones remains a modest man with a sense of adventure about his career. He and his second wife, actress Cecilia Hart, have one son, and Jones told the Los Angeles Times that he guards against appearing heroic to his child. "When I go home nobody is saying, 'Hi, can I have your autograph?' I'm me, that's reality. I'm an actor. That's something you do, not something you are, and I want my son to have a sense of reality." Looking toward the future, Jones sees no lack of opportunities in show business. "There are lots of wonderful cameos and a lot of good lead roles out there," he concluded in the Los Angeles Times. "There are a lot of things I can do."
In 1995, Jones played Neb Langston in the CBS drama Under One Roof. Langston is a retired police officer who is raising a foster child. In early 1996, Jones starred opposite Richard Harris in the apartheid movie Cry, Beloved Country. Jones plays the role of a preacher whose son is arrested for the murder of a prominent white man.
Further Reading on James Earl Jones
Chicago Tribune, May 26, 1990; May 5, 1991.
Ebony, April 1965; June 1969.
Los Angeles Times, September 2, 1990; August 26, 1991; September 26, 1991.
Newsweek, October 21, 1968; April 6, 1987.
Saturday Review, February 1982.
Time, April 6, 1987.
TV Guide, October 27, 1990.
Variety, September 23, 1991.