Thursday, February 9, 2006

Apple #147: James Earl Jones

The other day I read in a book that James Earl Jones used to have a terrible stutter when he was a kid. Stutter? I thought, James Earl Jones? How could this be? He has The Voice!

First, let's list some of his more notable achievements, all of which require, almost entirely or in large part, his ability to speak well and clearly:

  • Obie Award for best actor in Off-Broadway Theater for performances in Bertolt Brecht's Baal and Shakespeare's Othello. (could you imagine, an Othello who stutters?)
  • Tony Award for his portrayal of Jack Johnson in The Great White Hope in 1968 and an Oscar for his role in the film in 1970.
  • Golden Globe award for most promising male newcomer in 1971.
  • Tony award for his performance in August Wilson's drama Fences.
  • Screen debut in Dr. Strangelove in 1963.
  • First established celebrity to appear on Sesame Street.
  • Portrayed a South African minister condemned to death in Cry, the Beloved Country.
  • Played author Alex Haley in Roots miniseries.
  • Provides the voice of King Mufasa in The Lion King.
  • His is the voice that says, over and over every day, "This is . . . CNN."
  • Emmy award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, Gabriel's Fire.
  • Emmy award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Special, Heat Wave.
  • Daytime Emmy award for Outstanding Performer in a Children's Special, Summer's End.
  • National Medal of Arts award, for outstanding contributions to cultural life in the United States.
  • Perhaps most important of all, his is the voice of Darth Vader in Star Wars films. (and what if Darth Vader stuttered?)
  • Oh, and by the way, he declined to have his name listed in the credits for Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back because he thought he didn't contribute all that much. He agreed to let his name be listed in the credits for Return of the Jedi, though.
And it wasn't just a little stammer he used to have, either. It was a big-time stutter and lasted for years.

  • He was born in Mississippi and raised by his grandparents on a farm that had been in the family since post-Civil War Reconstruction.
  • But then, when he was nearly 5, his family moved from Mississippi to Dublin, Michigan. The abrupt change in everything he had known freaked him out, essentially, and he developed an incapacitating stutter.
  • For years, he barely spoke more than a few words, even to his family. At school, he didn't speak at all and let people think he was mute. He communicated only by writing.
  • However, secretly he was also writing poetry as a way to let out what he was holding back. In high school, a teacher of his, Donald Crouch, assigned everyone in the class to write a poem. Jones wrote his "Ode to Grapefruit," celebrating the citrus fruit distributed by the federal government during World War II (which was underway at the time). His poem was written in meter and was very impressive.
  • His teacher suspected that Jones could be drawn out of his shell and so pretended to think that Jones could not have written the poem himself. So he challenged Jones to prove it was his by reciting it before the class. "It's a shame you can't say those words out loud if you love them so much," is what he said to Jones. With the words already memorized, Jones spoke clearly, with no stutter.
  • He embarked on a rigorous program to help himself improve his speaking abilities, and his teacher also encouraged him to join his school debate team and compete in public speaking contests. He won one of those contests and also a scholarship to the University of Michigan.
  • Though he planned on studying medicine in college, he was drawn to the theater and that became his major.
  • After graduating, he served as an Army Ranger, and then moved to New York to pursue acting.
  • It took some rough years of scrubbing floors to earn the rent and lots of auditions before his first real break came in 1961 when he gave an intense, acclaimed performance in Jean Genet's absurdist play, The Blacks.
  • For the rest, see the list above.
He says he thinks of himself as a stutterer to this day, and that it is something he always has to overcome.

In this photo from Cal State Fullerton, he's holding the two Emmy Awards he won in 1991.

Now that I know something of his childhood, I can't help thinking that in this picture, he's smiling like a very happy boy, holding the two best ice cream cones in the world.

Academy of Achievement, James Earl Jones Biography and Profile, James Earl Jones, actor
IMDB, Awards for James Earl Jones and Biography for James Earl Jones
"James Earl Jones calls speech impediment 'ironic,'" CTV News, October 3, 2002.
"Art should be brave . . . it should transcend," interview with James Earl Jones, by Steve Hammer,
NUVO Newsweekly, January 11, 1996.

No comments:

Post a Comment

If you're a spammer, there's no point posting a comment. It will automatically get filtered out or deleted. Comments from real people, however, are always very welcome!