Actor James Earl Jones was born on 17 January 1931 in Arkabutla, Mississippi. When he was very young, his mother, Ruth Connolly Jones, moved away, leaving him to be raised by her parents. When he was five, the family moved to Michigan, traumatizing the boy and causing him to develop a stutter. The problem was so severe that Jones resolved not to speak and lived as a mute until his high school years, when teacher Donald Crouch began challenging him with poems, debating, and speech contests. Jones is now widely known for his powerful, dignified voice.
Jones graduated from high school and attended the University of Michigan on a scholarship to study medicine. After appearing in several student theatrical productions, he abandoned medicine in favor of acting in his junior year. Jones never completed his degree because he expected to be called to active duty in the Korean War: “I’d be off to war and probably dead the same fall.”
Jones did serve in the US Army, though not in Korea, and after his discharge in 1955 he went to New York. He moved in with his father, Robert Earl Jones, a former prizefighter who had turned to acting. The younger Jones studied with drama coaches Lee Strasberg and Tad Danielewski and earned a diploma from the American Theatre Wing. In 1957 he had a role in an Off-Broadway production of Wedding in Japan. He continued to land roles in various productions and joined the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1960. In 1961 he played Oberon in the company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Lord Marshall in Richard II.
Jones made his film debut in Dr. Strangelove; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963) and made guest appearances on television series such as East Side/West Side, Channing, and The Defenders. In 1965 he received an Emmy Award for a performance in Beyond the Blues, a television documentary. His 1968 performance as Jack Jefferson in the Broadway hit The Great White Hope proved to be a major milestone in Jones’s career, earning him rave reviews as well as a Tony Award and a Drama Desk Award. He won a Grammy award in 1969 for his recording of the play and received an Academy Award nomination for the 1970 film version.
Jones continued to turn in well-received stage, television, and film performances. Even his most controversial work, the title role in Phillip Hayes Dean’s monodrama Paul Robeson (1978), won critical accolades. Jones uses his powerful acting skills and voice to portray characters who expect and demand respect. He has played an enormous array of roles—political, legal, and military characters as well as fathers and grandfathers.
Jones’s film credits include radical activist/baseball fan Terence Mann in Field of Dreams (1989); the 1990 thriller The Hunt for Red October and its two sequels, Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994); and Montgomery minister-activist Vernon Johns in The Vernon Johns Story (1994). More recently, he has appeared on such television shows as Everwood (2004), The L Word (2004), House M.D. (2009), and The Big Bang Theory (2014). But Jones is perhaps best known as the voice of Darth Vader in Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Return of the Jedi (1983), and other film and television productions. He has also loaned his rich bass to Mufasa in Disney’s The Lion King (1994), to various characters on The Simpsons, and to the CNN television network.
In 1985 Jones was elected to the Theatre Hall of Fame. In 1992 he received the National Medal of the Arts from Pres. George H. W. Bush. In 2011 he received an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement.
- Academy of Achievement Website, www.achievement.org
- David Bianculli, “James Earl Jones Discusses His Life and Career,” transcript of interview from Fresh Air, National Public Radio (1 October 2004)
- Rebecca Flint, in All Movie Guide (2005)
- Internet Movie Database website, www.imdb.com
- John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts website, www.kennedycenter.org