The Kennedy Center

James Earl Jones


James Earl Jones
(actor, born January 17, 1931, in Arkabutla, Mississippi)

James Earl Jones possesses one of the most instantly recognizable voices in entertainment history: a commanding basso profundo with a built-in echo chamber that is the very sound of authority. Jones' great range as a performer has made him a legendary American artist. He is a major classical stage actor-his performances as Lear and Othello are towering achievements-but as the voice of Darth Vader, he is evil incarnate to the billions of Star Wars fanatics. At once he is recognized by theatergoers as one of the foremost interpreters of great contemporary playwrights such as August Wilson and Athol Fugard, and loved and respected by a generation of youngsters as the lion patriarch Mufasa in Disney's animated film, The Lion King. A giant of a man physically, Jones' reputation as an actor is of roughly the same proportions. In The Washington Post, theater writer David Richards wrote: "It's not just his physical size that is imposing, what clinches the impression is the elemental force he brings to his roles. Jones' resonant voice is capable of moving in seconds from boyish ingenuousness to near-biblical rage and somehow suggesting all the gradations in between."

Surprisingly, Jones suffered from a severe stutter as a child, which left him virtually mute. The remedy he found for his affliction was acting. As a child, he was estranged from his prizefighter father and raised by his grandparents on a farm in Michigan. His early years were lonely; he was quiet around other children, self conscious about his speech problem. At the University of Michigan, where he went to study medicine, he began to develop his voice with acting lessons. His rapid improvement gave him an appetite for further theatrical experiences, and soon he quit medicine to devote his attentions to the theater.

Following military service, he moved to New York, where he attended the American Theatre Wing and supported himself as a janitor. In 1957, he made his Broadway debut, and during the subsequent decade, became one of the theater's most in-demand actors. In one two-year period alone, he appeared in 19 plays, leading to his triumphs in works by Fugard, particularly Boesman and Lena, his first Othello for the New York Shakespeare Festival, and his 1969 Tony Award for his breakthrough role as boxer Jack Johnson in the Broadway hit, The Great White Hope (which also garnered him a nomination for an Academy Award in the 1970 film adaptation). He won a second Tony Award in 1987 in Wilson's Fences, playing a former baseball player who finds it difficult to communicate with his son. In 1981, Jones again starred as Othello opposite Christopher Plummer, and Mel Gussow in The New York Times claimed that "Jones has earned the right to share the title of America's Othello with Paul Robeson"). Coincidentally, Robeson provided Jones with one of his finest stage triumphs when he performed his controversial one-man portrait of the legendary actor. Later returning once again to Fugard, he stunned audiences throughout the country in the national tour of "Master Harold"…and the boys.

In the 1960s, Jones was one of the first African American actors to appear regularly in daytime soap operas (playing a doctor in both "The Guiding Light" and "As the World Turns"), and he made his film debut in '64 in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. Jones continued to work on screen throughout the '70s appearing in everything from documentaries about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Diahann Carroll romantic drama Claudine to film adaptations of King Lear and The River Niger. In 1977, a day of uncredited voiceover work for the character of Darth Vader in Star Wars led to screen immortality.

His finest film performances of the 1980s included his work as the oppressed coal miner in John Sayles' Matewan and as the embittered writer in Field of Dreams, while the '90s found him in the thick of the Tom Clancy blockbuster trilogy-The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger-as well as giving one of his finest and most honored film performances in Cry, the Beloved Country.

On television, he played Alex Haley in Roots: The Next Generation, one of the three Wise Men in Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth, and a great number of guest roles in series ranging from "The Defenders" and "Dr. Kildare" to "Touched by an Angel" and "Homicide: Life on the Streets."

In addition to the many awards he has received as an actor-two Tonys, four Emmys, a Golden Globe, two Cable ACEs, two OBIEs, five Drama Desks, and a Grammy- Jones has been honored with an NAACP Image Award as well as the National Medal of Arts in 1992.

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