Listening to James Earl Jones’ voice—recognized around the world—one would never guess that he spent his childhood as a virtual mute due to a severe stuttering problem. With the help of an extraordinary high school teacher, Jones overcame his stutter and transformed his weakness into his greatest strength.
Today, Jones’ voice is known by people of all ages and walks of life, from Star Wars fans who know him as the voice of Darth Vader to children who know him as Mufasa from Disney’s The Lion King.
Born in Mississippi and raised in Michigan, James Earl Jones moved to New York City after graduating from the University of Michigan and serving in the military. Supporting himself by working as a janitor, he struggled to make it as an actor and made his Broadway debut in 1957.
Renowned Broadway producer Joseph Papp gave Jones one of his first major breakthroughs, casting him as Michael Williams in Shakespeare’s Henry V. A true visionary, Papp was credited with injecting a “dash of social conscience” into the performance by casting an African-American in the role. This marked the beginning of Jones’ long affiliation with the New York Shakespeare Festival, eventually counting the title roles of Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear among his many distinguished performances for the company.
Based on his success in the theater, he began to be cast in small television roles. 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 1964 in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.
In 1969, Jones won a Tony Award for his breakthrough role as boxer Jack Johnson in the Broadway hit, The Great White Hope (which also garnered him an Oscar nomination for the 1970 film adaptation). He won a second Tony Award in 1987 for August Wilson’s Fences, in which he played a former baseball player who finds it difficult to communicate with his son.
Although he was cast in numerous leading roles in films in the 1970s, including The Man (1972), Claudine (1974), The River Niger (1975) and The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (1976), Jones continued to make his biggest impression on stage. In addition to his celebrated Shakespearian work, he began a long-standing collaboration with South African playwright Athol Fugard, acting in The Blood Knot, Boseman and Lena, and the critically acclaimed Master Harold…and the Boys, among others.
His film performances of the 1980s included his work as the oppressed coal miner in John Sayles’ Matewan(1987) and as the embittered writer in Field of Dreams (1989), 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 in the film version of the Alan Paton classic Cry, the Beloved Country (1995).
His career also includes a wide range of television work. He played Alex Haley in Roots: The Next Generation (1979), Junius Johnson (an Emmy-winning performance) in Heat Wave, the 1990 TNT drama about the 1965 riots in Watts, and a great number of guest roles in series ranging from The Defenders and Dr. Kildare to more recently, Two and a Half Men and House. He also earned an Emmy as Gabriel Bird, a disgraced cop turned private investigator, in the 1990-92 series Gabriel’s Fire.
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 the National Medal of Arts in 1992 and the John F. Kennedy Center Honor in December 2002. He also was honored by the Screen Actors Guild with the Lifetime Achievement Award in January of 2009.
In the spring of 2005, James Earl Jones starred on Broadway in a critically acclaimed revival of On Golden Pond for which he was nominated for a Tony Award. In 2006, he also starred as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the production of Thurgood at the Westport County Playhouse and in spring of 2008 portrayed “Big Daddy” in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway with cast members Terrance Howard, Anika Noni Rose and Phylicia Rashad. James Earl Jones also enjoyed a second run of Cat on Hot Tin Roof on stage in London with Adrian Lester, Sanaa Lathan, and again Phylicia Rashad. The production won an Olivier Award for “Best Revival” and Mr. Jones was nominated for an Olivier in the Best Actor category. In 2011, Mr. Jones starred in the Broadway and London productions of Driving Miss Daisy with Vanessa Redgrave and Boyd Gaines and is now starring in the Broadway production of The Best Man, along with Angela Lansbury, John Larroquette, Candace Bergen, Eric McCormack, and Kerry Butler.
In November 2011, The Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented Mr. Jones with an Honorary Oscar in recognition of his long and distinguished career.
For more information on James Earl Jones’s life and career, please see his autobiography, Voices and Silences, available through bookstores and online retailers.