James Earl Jones: A Voice In The Crowd Essay, Research Paper
James Earl Jones: A Voice in the Crowd
March 19, 1996
People all around the world know the voice of James Earl Jones. From
Star Wars fans listening to the voice of Darth Vader to news junkies who hear a
voice that dramatically intones AThis is CNN@ just before all the cable network=
s station breaks to children who hear the stately voice of the majestic Mufasa,
the king of the jungle in Walt Disney Pictures= animated The Lion King – people
know this deep harmonious voice belongs to this consummate actor of stage and
James Earl Jones was born January 17th, 1931, in Arkabutala Township,
Mississippi. His natural parents, Ruth and Robert Earl, moved away to the
Mississippi Delta when he was an infant. Raised for the rest of his young life
by his maternal grandparents, James Earl developed a close relationship with the
Connollys. AMaggie and John Henry were always there, day by day, and they became
for me, once and for all, my mama and my papa@ (18) .
Less than three years later, the Connollys moved to Dublin Michigan
where James Earl and his >brother= Randy grew up in a remodelled chicken barn.
His early school life had a great impact on his style of speech and diction. AOn
my first day at school, I could not believe my ears,@ recalls Jones, AThey
called me James Earrrrl instead of James Uhl, as it had sounded in the
After the initial shock of hearing Northern dialect, Jones Aquickly
absorbed this different rhythm and style@ and embarked on the first half of a
long vocal journey leading to his distinctive speaking style. Until he was 14
years old, James Earl Jones rarely spoke mostly due to shyness, preferring
silence to the sound of his own voice.
Around the age of 10, James Earl Jones witnessed his brother, Randy,
having an epileptic seizure. His grandmother applied the only remedy she knew -
a thimbleful of bluing dye – and told James Earl to run for help. After
travelling a mile through a Michigan blizzard and recalling the sight of his
brother on the floor with Ablue liquid spilled out of his mouth,@ Jones= epic
battle with stuttering began. At a local store, Jones panicked and couldn=t
speak. After a time, he Afinally calmed down and the words came. The doctor was
called. Randy recovered. But the stuttering – that stayed.@(42)
The same year his brother almost died, Jones was sexually assaulted by
the minister of a church he attended. The incident scarred him for life. Jones
recalls, AI was afraid and very confused. I was on my guard from then on…I had
no need for words@(54).
The Aturning point@ in Jones= ability to cope with stuttering
came in Professor Donald Crouch=s English classroom in high school. After
falling in love with Longfellow=s AThe Song of Hiawatha,@James Earl was inspired
to write a poem about his love for grapefruit. He patterned his work after
Longfellow=s cadence and rhyme scheme. When Professor Crouch accused Jones of
plagiarism Jones was forced to recite his work from memory in front of the class
Considering his honour of greater value than the teasing of his
classmates James Earl approached the front of the room to avoid academic
disgrace: AI was shaking as I stood up, cursing myself. I strained to get the
words out, pushing from the bottom of my soul. I opened my mouth — and to my
astonishment, the words flowed out smoothly, every one of them. There was no
stutter. All of us were amazed, not so much by the poem as by the
The voice of James Earl Jones was a new sound to himself and everyone
around him. AMy voice had changed, almost without my awareness, so in addition
to the novelty of being able to speak, I could now speak in a deep, strong
voice@(67). Crouch and Jones became inseparable for the remaining three years
of high school, resurrecting the powers of speech in the young lad through
public speaking, debating, orating and acting.
The training he received from Crouch enabled Jones to win a public
speaking championship and a college scholarship to the University of Michigan.
In 1947, he enrolled intending to pursue a medical degree. He worked several
jobs and enrolled in US Army Reserve Officers Training Corps to support his
college career. But science took its toll on Jones, and he changed majors to
the study of drama but Atechnically, because there was not an official degree in
drama then at the university, (his) degree had to be in English@(75).
James Earl Jones= first introduction to the semi-professional theatre
was a casting call for a campus production of The Birds by Aristophanes.
Intending to read for one of the minor parts, Jones was surprised when he was
asked to audition for, and was later cast as the lead role of Epops, the King of
the Birds. Less than a year later Jones was cast in his first professional
theatre production, as Verges in Much Ado About Nothing.
Robert Earl Jones moved away when his son, James Earl, was an infant.
James Earl was not allowed to communicate with his father, who was considered no
good since he was Aoff in New York with a new wife, trying to make it as an
actor, instead of doing real work@ (62). Later his career turned sour when he
found himself Aon the blacklist during the McCarthy days@(79).
Robert Earl wanted to see his son for Aa long, long time..and was hurt
by the family=s constant refusal@ to let him see his son(79). But when James
Earl was 21, they were reunited in New York for a week as father showed son the
sights on and off Broadway. Jones attributes his father, Robert Earl, with Athe
best acting advice..=Pay attention to the little things actors do=@(Culhane 122).
After two years in the Army at Camp Hale near Aspen, Colorado, Jones
decided to commit to acting. AThere was nothing to lose, I thought. I could use
my GI Bill to go to acting school, and if it didn=t work out, I could step back
into my Army career@(Jones 83).
Jones lived by the premise AActing can never really be taught. It must
be learned in a thousand ways, over and over again. Learning to act is ongoing,
a lifelong process, and the responsibility rests with the actor@(89). Under
this idea, Jones felt the only place to learn was in New York, and in 1955 he
packed his bags.
Once they were reunited in New York, Robert Earl let his son move in and
they pursued separate careers. Recalling a childhood nickname, Jones assumed the
stage name of Todd Jones and, at the age of 24, was accepted by the American
Theatre Wing. One year later, after an argument with his father, James Earl
Jones rented his own Acold-water-flat@ and went back to his full name. After
receiving his diploma at the Theatre Wing in 1957, Jones auditioned for Tad
Danielewski=s acting workshop, where he was accepted and set to work on scenes
from three memorable plays: Othello, Of Mice and Men, and Miss Julie.
In October, Jones received his first chance to be in a Broadway
production as an understudy for Lloyd Richards who played the role of Perry Hall
in The Egghead, starring Karl Malden and directed by Hume Croyn at the Ethel
Barrymore Theatre. The understudy=s dream did not come true then , but three
months later Jones received a speaking part on Broadway, playing the valet in
Dore Schary=s Sunrise at Campobello, a drama about Eleanor and Franklin D.
Roosevelt, starring Ralph Bellamy (105).
With only three lines to deliver as Edward the valet, Jones= Aworst
fear@ came true one night on stage as he stuttered delivering the line AMrs.
Roosevelt, supper is served@(105). AMary Fickett, the actress playing Mrs.
Roosevelt, just stood there and (Jones) got through it…(he) recovered..and
miraculously it never happened again@(106.)
Two teachers at the American Theatre Wing noticed Jones while he was a
student: director Joseph Papp and acting teacher Lee Strasberg of the Actors
Studio in New York. Jones auditioned seven years in a row and was never invited
to become a member of the Actors Studio. But he did manage to come up with the
funds to enroll in Strasberg=s private school. While he didn=t find Strasberg
an Aeffective@ director, he did find Strasberg to be a Agreat teacher@. Jones
later learned that Strasberg, Cheryl Crawford and Elia Kazan Ashared the
consensus that there were actors such as (Jones) who, by following their own
particular drumbeat, had already found an effective technique. Rather than pull
(Jones) back and them the Method,@ they decided to Alet (him) go (his) own
Papp gave Jones his first acting breakthrough opportunity as Micheal
Williams in Shakespeare=s Henry V. Papp was credited with injecting a Adash of
social conscience by casting Williams..as a negro (ably played by James Earl
Jones)@ (Gelb 23). Papp was a visionary who enjoyed bringing his productions to
a different setting. Henry V was performed in Central Park with no admissions
Before Henry V opened, Jones was also given a job as the leading role in
Lionel Abel=s play The Pretender directed off Broadway by Herbert Machiz. Jones
Afared better with the critics than the play did, but not by much. @One critic
said Jones was Afirst rate,@(Jones 113) while others gave considerably less
praise saying that Jones as the character of Jesse Prince, Aplays the part of
the novelist as well as anyone could.@(Atkinson 42).
In 1961, James Earl Jones moved into high gear and had what he termed a
Abreakthrough year@ in 1961 (Jones 123). Papp again cast Jones in a production,
this time as Oberon in Midsummer Night=s Dream at the New York Shakespeare
Festival. Although his performance was not critically acclaimed, Jones began to
get small parts on television with roles on APlayhouse 90,@” The Brighter Day,@A
The Catholic Hour,@A Camera Three,@ and the popular APhil Silvers Show@(382).
Jones left the cast of The Blacks in the fall of 1961 to play a featured
role in a new comedy by Josh Greenfield, Clandestine on the Morning Line. The
production opened in the Actors Playhouse to mixed reviews that generally agreed
that Asome likable characters (were) interrupted by a story@(Gelb 30). The show
had a short run and helped Jones land a role in another experimental drama, Jack
Gelber=s The Apple.
The production opened at the Living Theatre in December 1961 and was
billed as Experimental theatre with a vengeance@ (Taubman 31.) And for the next
several years, Jones struggled off Broadway Abulling his way to success@ where
Ain play after play Jones (was) never guilty of underplaying; he invariably
(came) on strong, and often effective@ (qtd in Jones).
Jones has a self-expressed passion for Othello. He has played Othello at
seven different time in his life in the theatre beginning at the age of 25 in
Michigan and ending at the age of 50 at the Winter Garden Theatre in new York in
The year 1964 produced two major Othello=s, one in London which cast Sir
Lawrence Olivier as the title role. The second major production cast James Earl
Jones as the moor and debuted in Central park with the Summer Shakespeare
festival and re-opened in October at the Martinique. Calling it Aunjustly
neglected,@ Life magazine compared Jones to Olivier and called Jones Aimmensely
moving,@ as a reminder of Acivil rights and race relations@ (qtd. in Jones).
Producer Joe Papp and director Gladys Vaughan fought over how Jones
should play the tragic stranger in service to the Duke of Venice. Jones recalls
AJoe wanted me to play Othello tough, because in time of racial tension, Othello
should be tough and militant@ (158). But Vaughan fought to give the character a
sensitivity and benevolence and Jones took her up on the idea. Critics loved it.
Believing Othello could fall into the trap set by Iago has never been easy, Abut
Mr. Jones succeeds in giving it credibility throughout. He is genuinely moving
in his deep affection for (his) wife… His disintegration into a man in whom
Iago has unloosed the furies is well prepared and pitiful to behold. Restrained
and soft in speech up to this moment, (Jones) has deep strength and force as he
propelled along his wrath and grief…@(Funke 48). For his work as Othello,
Jones was honoured with the Drama Desk-Vernon Rice Award.
When the production began to wane some 224 performances after opening
night in the Martinique, director Vaughan closed Othello and formed a repertory
company with the cast.
One of the turning points in the life of James Earl Jones came inside
the gloves of the first black heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson.
Playwright Howard Sackler wrote about Jack Johnson=s turbulent life and career
in The Great White Hope. For legal reasons Sackler named his boxer Jack
Director Edwin Sherin and playwright Sackler recruited Jones for the
lead, treating him as if they Ahad found a gold mine@(Jones 188). Using the
same trainer that brought Olivier into shape for Othello, Jones prepared for the
role with grueling roadwork and intellectual exploration he later compared to
basic training in the Army (189). After six weeks of rehearsal, The Great White
Hope opened on December 7 at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., for a seven
week run with Ed Sherin directing.
At the age of 37, Jones realized he was involved in a Asignificant
theatre experience@ but was Acompletely unprepared for the critical praise, the
later fame, and the thunderous response of (the) audience@ (192). Comparing his
performance to that Marlon Brando=s in Tennessee Williams= Streetcar Named
Desire, critics acclaimed Jones an Aovernight success@(qtd in Jones). Calling
it Aimmeasurably moving,@Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Times: AWith head
shaved, burly, huge, Mr. Jones stalks through the play like a black avenging
angel. Even when corrupted by misery, his presence has an almost moral force to
it, and his voice rasps out an agony nearly too personally painful in its
nakednessA (Barnes 58).
In October the following year, The Great White Hope opened on Broadway
at the Alvin Theatre. Catapulted into the limelight, A..Jones was receiving a
standing ovation of the kind that makes Broadway history@(Barnes 58).
Since then Jones has gone on to become critically acclaimed film and
television actor. He has appeared in over 200 films and even had his own weekly
television show called, AGabriel=s Fire.@ Jones has journeyed far from the boy
who never spoke a word to anyone who walked on two legs. James Earl Jones has
delighted millions of people across the country with his body and voice, but for
himself, life is nothing more that AWords, Words, Words@ (Jones 190).
Atkinson, Brooks.@The Pretender by Lionel Abel.@ New York Times 25 May
Barnes, Clive. White Hope: Tale of Modern Othello Opens in Capital.@ New
York Times 14 Dec. 1967 58:1.
Culhane, John. How james Earl Jones Found His Voice.@ Reader=s Digest
Nov, 1994: 51-53.
Funke, Lewis. Theatre: Fun and Frolic.@New York Times 3 Aug. 1961: 13:1
Theatre: Othello from the Park Festival Production is at the Martinique.@
New York Times 13 Oct. 1964: 48:1.
Gelb, Arthur. @A rousingly Paced >Henry V=.@ New York Times 30 Jun. 1960:
23:1. A Clandesting on the Morning Line Opens.@ New York Times 31
October 1961: 28:1.
Gilroy, Harry. Rain and Praise Shower on MacBeth.@ New York Times 29
Jun. 1966: 38:1.
Hughes, Allan. Theatre: Boston Festifal O=Neil=s Emperor Jones is revived
– 12 dancers act as scenery.@
New York Times 6 Aug. 1964: 20:4. Dancers Are Scenery in Emporer Jones.@
New York Times 16 Aug 1964: II,5:1.
Jones, James Earl., and Penelope Niven. James Earl Jones: Voices and
Silences. NY: Macmillan, 1993.
Kauffman, Stanley. Theatre: Bohikee Creek at Stage 73.@ New York Times
29 Apr. 1966: 39:1.
Kerr, Walter. You Can=t Just Watch.@New York Times 24 Dec. 1967: II,3:1.
Leahy, Michael. Gabriel’s Ire.@ TV Guide 27 Oct. 1990: 8-12.
MacKenzie, Robert. Review: Gabriel=s Fire.@ TV Guide 8 Dec. 1990: 48.
The Dynamo.@ Newsweek. 2 Dec. 1963.
Oliver, Edith. Interlude 1897: Fences.ANew Yorker 31 May 1993: 136.
Taubman, Howard. Jack Gelber’s The Apple.@ New York Times 8 Dec. 1961: 44.
Theatre: Man=s Solitude.@ New York Times 28 Nov. 1963: 69:2.
Theatre: A Penatrating Play.@New York Times 3 Mar. 1964: 30:2.
Othello= in the Park.@ New York Times 15 Jul. 1964: 29:1.
Theatre: Brechtian Tale of Decadence.@New York Times 07 May 1965: 33:2.
Theatre: Coriolanus in Central Park: Gladys Vaughn Gives Production Vigor.@
New York Times 15 Jul. 1965: 23:1.
Theatre: Danton=s Death at Beaumont.@ New York Times 22 Oct. 1965: 46:1.
Woolson, Jennifer Daack. James Earl Jones: A Voice of Hope.@ Vim & Vigor
Fall 1995: 14-18. ??
Prepared for Dr. Gene Muto
by Mike Sleeper