James Earl Jones

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James Earl Jones
James Earl Jones (8516667383).jpg
Jones in 2013
Born (1931-01-17) January 17, 1931 (age 89)
Alma materUniversity of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance
Years active1953–present
m. 1968; div. 1972)
m. 1982; died 2016)
Parent(s)Robert Earl Jones
Ruth Connolly

James Earl Jones (born January 17, 1931) is an American actor. His career spans more than seven decades and he has been described as "one of America's most distinguished and versatile" actors known for his performance in film, theater and television,[4] and "one of the greatest actors in American history".[5]

Throughout his acting career, Jones has won three Tony Awards (out of five nominations), a Grammy Award, and two Primetime Emmy Awards. In 1985, he was Inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame. In 1992, Jones was presented with the National Medal of the Arts by President George H.W. Bush. In 2002, he received the Kennedy Center Honor. In 2009, Jones was invited by President Barack Obama to perform Shakespeare at the White House Evening for Poetry.[6] That same year he also received the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award.[7] On November 12, 2011, he received an Honorary Academy Award.[5] On May 25, 2017, he received an Honorary Doctor of Arts degree from Harvard University.[8] In 2017, Jones was honored with a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre.[9]

In 1964 Jones made his film debut in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. After working steadily in the theater, in 1968, Jones won his first Tony Award for his role in The Great White Hope. In 1970, he also starred in the film adaptation of The Great White Hope which also earned him an Academy Award and Golden Globe Award nominations. In 1974, James starred alongside Diahann Carroll in the acclaimed romantic comedy-drama film Claudine for which he received a Golden Globe Award nomination. In 1987 he won his second Tony Award for his role in August Wilson's Fences. Throughout the 1980s Jones starred in a number of successful films including, Matewan (1987), Coming to America (1988), Field of Dreams (1989), The Hunt for Red October (1990). He is also known for his voice roles as Darth Vader in Star Wars and Mufasa in The Lion King. Throughout the 21st century, Jones's work has continued steadily in the theater. In 2012 he starred alongside Angela Lansbury in Gore Vidal's The Best Man (2012), and in an Australian tour of Driving Miss Daisy (2013). In 2014, he appeared in You Can't Take it With You with Annaleigh Ashford. In 2015 through 2016 he starred The Gin Game alongside Cicely Tyson.

Jones has been said to possess "one of the best-known voices in show business, a stirring basso profondo that has lent gravel and gravitas" to his projects, including live-action acting, voice acting, and commercial voice-overs.[10][11] Jones has a stutter which was more pronounced in his youth. In his episode of Biography, he said it was helped by poetry, public speaking, and acting. A pre-med major in college, he went on to serve in the United States Army during the Korean War before pursuing a career in acting. Since his Broadway debut in 1957, he has had various roles in the theater ranging from the works of Shakespeare including Othello, Hamlet, Coriolanus and King Lear.[12]

Early life and education[edit]

Jones's father, Robert Earl Jones, in promotional still for the Langston Hughes play Don't You Want to Be Free? (1938)

James Earl Jones was born in Arkabutla, Mississippi, on January 17, 1931,[13] to Ruth (Williams) Jones (1911–1986), a teacher and maid, and Robert Earl Jones (1910–2006), a boxer, butler, and chauffeur. His father left the family shortly after James Earl's birth, and later became a stage and screen actor in New York and Hollywood.[14][15] Jones and his father did not get to know each other until the 1950s, but became reconciled then. He has said in interviews that his parents were both of mixed African-American, Irish and Native American ancestry.[16][17]

From the age of five, Jones was raised by his maternal grandparents, John Henry and Maggie Williams,[13] on their farm in Jackson, Michigan; they had moved from Mississippi in the Great Migration.[18] Jones found the transition to living with his grandparents in Michigan traumatic, and developed a stutter so severe that he refused to speak. When his family moved to the more rural Brethren, Michigan, a teacher helped him overcome his stutter. He remained functionally mute for eight years until he entered high school.

He credits his English teacher, Donald Crouch, who discovered he had a gift for writing poetry, with helping him end his silence.[15] Crouch urged him to challenge his reluctance to speak.[19] "I was a stutterer. I couldn't talk. So my first year of school was my first mute year, and then those mute years continued until I got to high school."[18]

Jones was educated at the Browning School for boys in his high school years and graduated as vice president of his class from Dickson Rural Agricultural School (now Brethren High School) in Brethren, Michigan. He attended the University of Michigan, where he was initially a pre-med major.[15] He joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps and excelled. He felt comfortable within the structure of the military environment and enjoyed the camaraderie of his fellow cadets in the Pershing Rifles Drill Team and Scabbard and Blade Honor Society.[20] During the course of his studies, Jones discovered he was not cut out to be a doctor.

Instead, he focused on drama at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance with the thought of doing something he enjoyed, before, he assumed, he would have to go off to fight in the Korean War. After four years of college, Jones graduated from the university in 1955.[21]

Military service[edit]

With the war intensifying in Korea, Jones expected to be deployed as soon as he received his commission as a second lieutenant. As he waited for his orders, he worked as a part-time stage crew hand at the Ramsdell Theatre in Manistee, Michigan, where he had earlier performed. Jones was commissioned in mid-1953, after the Korean War's end, and reported to Fort Benning to attend the Infantry Officers Basic Course. He attended Ranger School and received his Ranger Tab. He was initially to report to Fort Leonard Wood, but his unit was instead sent to establish a cold weather training command at the former Camp Hale near Leadville, Colorado. His battalion became a training unit in the rugged terrain of the Rocky Mountains. Jones was promoted to first lieutenant prior to his discharge.[22]

He moved to New York, where he studied at the American Theatre Wing. He worked as a janitor to support himself.


External audio
James Earl Jones talks with Studs Terkel on WFMT; 1968/02, 49:25, Studs Terkel Radio Archive[23]

1950s: Early roles[edit]

Jones began his acting career at the Ramsdell Theatre in Manistee, Michigan. In 1953, he was a stage carpenter. During the 1955–57 seasons, he was an actor and stage manager. He performed his first portrayal of Shakespeare's Othello in this theater in 1955.[24] His early career also included an appearance in the ABC radio anthology series Theatre-Five.[25]

1960s: Theater work, film roles[edit]

Jones performs Othello's Act I, scene III monologue from Shakespeare's Othello at the White House Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word on May 12, 2009

During this early to mid 1960s Jones acted in various works of William Shakespeare becoming one the best known Shakespeareian actors of the time. He tackled roles such as Othello and King Lear, Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Abhorson in Measure for Measure, and Claudius in Hamlet.

Also during this time, Jones made his film debut in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) as the young Lt. Lothar Zogg, the B-52 bombardier. Jones would later play a surgeon and Haitian rebel leader in The Comedians, alongside Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Alec Guinness.

In December of 1967, Jones starred alongside Jane Alexander in Howard Sackler's play The Great White Hope at the Arena Stage in Washington D.C. Jones took the role of the talented but troubled boxer, Jack Johnson. The film was a huge success where it moved to Broadway on October 3, 1968. The play was well received, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Jones himself won the 1969 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play, and the Drama Desk Award for his performance.[26][27]

In 1969, Jones participated in making test films for the children's education series Sesame Street; these shorts, combined with animated segments, were shown to groups of children to gauge the effectiveness of the then-groundbreaking Sesame Street format. As cited by production notes included in the DVD release Sesame Street: Old School 1969–1974, the short that had the greatest impact with test audiences was one showing bald-headed Jones counting slowly to ten. This and other segments featuring Jones were eventually aired as part of the Sesame Street series itself when it debuted later in 1969 and Jones is often cited as the first celebrity guest on that series, although a segment with Carol Burnett was the first to actually be broadcast.[15]

1970s: Claudine, Star Wars[edit]

In 1973, Jones played Hickey on Broadway at the Circle in the Square Theater in a revival of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh. Jones played Lennie on Broadway in the 1974 Brooks Atkinson Theatre production of the adaptation of John Steinbeck's novella, Of Mice and Men, with Kevin Conway as George and Pamela Blair as Curley's Wife.

In 1970, Jones reunited with Jane Alexander in the film adaptation of the The Great White Hope. This would be Jones' first leading film role. Jones portrayed boxer Jack Johnson, a role he had previously originated on stage. His performance was acclaimed by critics and earned him an Academy Award Nomination for Best Actor. He was the second African-American male performer after Sidney Poitier to be nominated for this award.[15]

In The Man (1972), Jones starred as a senator who unexpectedly becomes the first African-American president of the United States. The film also starred Martin Balsam and Burgess Meredith.

In 1974, Jones co-starred with Diahann Carroll in the film Claudine, the story of a woman who raises her six children alone after two failed and two "almost" marriages. The film is a romantic comedy and drama, focusing on systemic racial disparities black families face. It was one of the first major films tackle themes such as welfare, economic inequality, and the typical marriage of men and women in the African American community during the 1970s. Jones, and Carroll received widespread critical acclaim which earned them Golden Globe Awards for their performances. Carroll was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.

In 1977, Jones became known for his iconic voiceover role as Darth Vader in the George Lucas's science fiction blockbuster film Star Wars: A New Hope and its sequels The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983). Darth Vader was portrayed in costume by David Prowse in the film trilogy, with Jones dubbing Vader's dialogue in postproduction because Prowse's strong West Country accent was deemed unsuitable for the role by director George Lucas.[28] At his own request, Jones was uncredited for the original releases of the first two Star Wars films,[29] though he later would be credited for the first film in its 1997 "Special Edition" re-release.[30] As he explained in a 2008 interview:

When Linda Blair did the girl in The Exorcist, they hired Mercedes McCambridge to do the voice of the devil coming out of her. And there was controversy as to whether Mercedes should get credit. I was one who thought no, she was just special effects. So when it came to Darth Vader, I said, no, I'm just special effects. But it became so identified that by the third one, I thought, OK I'll let them put my name on it.[29]

In the autumn of 1979, Jones appeared on the short-lived CBS police drama Paris, which was notable as the first program on which Steven Bochco served as executive producer.

1980s: Fences, Field of Dreams[edit]

In 1987, Jones starred in August Wilson's play Fences as Troy Maxwell a middle aged working class father who struggles to provide for his family. The play set in the 1950s, is part of Wilson's ten-part "Pittsburgh Cycle". The play explores the evolving African American experience and examines race relations, among other themes. Jones' won widespread critical acclaim, earning himself his second Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play.

During the 1980s, Jones starred in several box office hits including, the science fiction films, Conan the Barbarian (1982), as well as The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and The Return of the Jedi (1983). He also appeared in the independent film Matewan (1987). A film which dramatizes the events of the Battle of Matewan, a coal miners' strike in 1920 in Matewan, a small town in the hills of West Virginia. He received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for his performance.

Jones also appeared in the Eddie Murphy comedy Coming to America (1988) and the sports drama Field of Dreams (1989). Field of Dreams earned an Academy Award for Best Picture nomination.

In 1985, Jones was the voice of Pharaoh in the first episode of Hanna-Barbera's The Greatest Adventure: Stories from the Bible.

1990s: The Lion King, Television roles[edit]

Jones with President George H. W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush in 1992

During the early 1990s, Jones appeared in various successful films including, The Hunt for Red October (1990), Patriot Games (1992), The Sandlot (1993), Clear and Present Danger (1994), and Cry, the Beloved Country (1995) among many other roles.

In 1992, Jones was presented with the National Medal of the Arts by President George H. W. Bush.

Another notable voice role include Mufasa in the 1994 Disney animated film The Lion King; as well as its direct-to-video sequel, The Lion King II: Simba's Pride, and its 2019 remake, directed by Jon Favreau (for which he was the only original voice cast member to reprise his role).[31] According to Favreau, Jones's lines remained mostly the same from the original film.[32][33] Chiwetel Ejiofor, who voiced Scar in the remake, said that "the comfort of [Jones reprising his role] is going to be very rewarding in taking [the audience] on this journey again. It's a once-in-a-generation vocal quality."[32]

Jones has the distinction of winning two Primetime Emmys[34] in the same year, in 1991 as Best Actor for his role in Gabriel's Fire and as Best Supporting Actor for his work in Heat Wave.[4]

Jones starred in the critically acclaimed the television mini-series Roots: The Next Generations as the older version of author Alex Haley;[15] and widowed police officer Neb Langston in the television program Under One Roof, for which he received an Emmy nomination. He also appeared in television and radio advertising for Verizon Business DSL and Verizon Online DSL from Verizon Communications. He appeared on the soap opera Guiding Light. He portrayed Thad Green on "Mathnet", a parody of Dragnet that appeared in the PBS program Square One Television.

He has played lead characters on television in three series. The second show aired on ABC between 1990 and 1992, the first season being titled Gabriel's Fire and the second (after a format revision) Pros and Cons. In both formats of that show, Jones played a former policeman wrongly convicted of murder who, upon his release from prison, became a private eye. In 1995, Jones starred in Under One Roof as Neb Langston, a widowed African-American police officer sharing his home in Seattle with his daughter, his married son with his children, and Neb's newly adopted son. The show was a mid-season replacement and lasted only six weeks. From 1989 to 1993, Jones served as the host of the children's TV series Long Ago and Far Away. In 1998, Jones starred in the widely acclaimed syndicated program An American Moment (created by James R. Kirk and Ninth Wave Productions). Jones took over the role left by Charles Kuralt, upon Kuralt's death.

James has guest starred in many television shows over the years, including for NBC's Law & Order, Frasier, and Will & Grace, and ABC's Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. In 1990, Jones performed voice work for The Simpsons first "Treehouse of Horror" Halloween special, in which he was the narrator for the Simpsons' version of Edgar Allan Poe's poem "The Raven". He also voiced the Emperor of the Night in Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night and Ommadon in Flight of Dragons. Accompanied by the Morgan State University choir, Jones spoke the U.S. National Anthem before the 1993 Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Baltimore.[35] In 1996, he recited the classic baseball poem "Casey at the Bat" with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra,[36] and in 2007 before a Philadelphia Phillies home game on June 1, 2007.[37]

2000s: Continued work[edit]

During the 2000's Jones made appearances on various television shows such as CBS's Two and a Half Men, the WB drama Everwood, Fox's medical drama House, M.D., and CBS's The Big Bang Theory.[38][39]

In 2002, Jones received Kennedy Center Honors at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. Also at the ceremony included fellow honorees Paul Simon, Elizabeth Taylor, and Chita Rivera. President George W. Bush joked, "People say that the voice of the president is the most easily recognized voice in America. Well, I'm not going to make that claim in the presence of James Earl Jones."[40] Those there to honor Jones included, Sidney Poitier, Kelsey Grammer, Charles S. Dutton, and Courtney B. Vance.

On April 7, 2005, Jones and Leslie Uggams headed the cast in an African-American Broadway revival version of On Golden Pond, directed by Leonard Foglia and produced by Jeffrey Finn.[15] In February 2008, he starred on Broadway as Big Daddy in a limited-run, all-African-American production of Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Debbie Allen and mounted at the Broadhurst Theatre. In November 2009, James reprised the role of Big Daddy in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof at the Novello Theatre in London's West End. This production also stars Sanaa Lathan as Maggie, Phylicia Rashad as Big Mamma, and Adrian Lester as Brick.

In 2009, for his work on film and television Jones was presented with the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award by Forest Whitaker.

2010s: Continued theater work[edit]

Jones with Dame Angela Lansbury in 2014

In October 2010, Jones returned to the Broadway stage in Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy, along with Vanessa Redgrave at the Golden Theatre.[41]

In November 2011, Jones starred in Driving Miss Daisy in London's West End, and on November 12 received an honorary Oscar in front of the audience at the Wyndham's Theatre, which was presented to him by Ben Kingsley.[42]

In March 2012, Jones played the role of President Art Hockstader in Gore Vidal's The Best Man on Broadway at the Schoenfeld Theatre: he was nominated for a Tony for Best Performance in a Lead Role in a Revival. The play also starred Angela Lansbury, John Larroquette (as candidate William Russell), Candice Bergen, Eric McCormack (as candidate Senator Joseph Cantwell), Jefferson Mays, Michael McKean, and Kerry Butler, with direction by Michael Wilson.[43][44]

In 2013, Jones starred opposite Vanessa Redgrave in a production of Much Ado About Nothing directed by Mark Rylance at The Old Vic, London.[45]

From February to June 2013, Jones starred alongside Dame Angela Lansbury in an Australian tour of Driving Miss Daisy.[46]

In 2014, Jones starred alongside Annaleigh Ashford as Grandpa in the Broadway revival You Can't Take it With You at the Longacre Theatre, Broadway. Ashford received a Tony Award nomination for her performance.

On September 23, 2015, Jones opened in a new revival of The Gin Game opposite Cicely Tyson, in the John Golden Theater, where the play had originally premiered (with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy). The play had a planned limited run of 16 weeks.[47] It closed on January 10, 2016.

In 2016, and 2019 Jones lent his voice to reprise Darth Vader in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and Rise of Skywalker. Also 2019 he lent his voice in another reprisal role, that of Mufasa, in the live action The Lion King remake, a role in which director Jon Favreau expressed no interest in recasting.

2020s: Continued legacy[edit]

Eddie Murphy announced that Jones would reprise the role of Jaffe Joffer in Coming 2 America (2020), the sequel to Coming to America (1988).[48]

Other appearances[edit]

Although uncredited, Jones's voice is possibly heard as Vader at the conclusion of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005). When specifically asked whether he had supplied the voice, possibly from a previous recording, Jones told Newsday: "You'd have to ask Lucas about that. I don't know."[29] Jones reprised his voice role of Vader for the character's appearances in the animated TV series Star Wars Rebels,[49][50] and the live-action film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016),[51] as well as for a brief voice cameo in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019).

He also has done the CNN tagline, "This is CNN", as well as "This is CNN International", and the opening for CNN's morning show New Day. Jones was also a longtime spokesman for Bell Atlantic and later Verizon. He also lent his voice to the opening for NBC's coverage of the 2000 and 2004 Summer Olympics; "the Big PI in the Sky" (God) in the computer game Under a Killing Moon; a Claymation film, The Creation; and several other guest spots on The Simpsons. Jones narrated all 27 books of the New Testament in the audiobook James Earl Jones Reads the Bible.[52]

In 2013-14, he appeared alongside Malcolm McDowell in a series of commercials for Sprint in which the two recited mundane phone and text-message conversations in a dramatic way.[53][54] In 2015, Jones starred as the Chief Justice Caleb Thorne in the American drama series Agent X alongside actress Sharon Stone, Jeff Hephner, Jamey Sheridan, and others. The television series was aired by TNT from November 8 to December 27, 2015, running only one season and 10 episodes.

In 2015, Jones reprised his Lion King role as Mufasa in the animated TV film The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar, which served as a pilot for the Lion Guard TV series.


Personal life[edit]

Jones married American actress/singer Julienne Marie in 1968, whom he met while performing as Othello in 1964.[55] They had no children, and divorced in 1972.[56] In 1982, he married actress Cecilia Hart, with whom he had one child, son Flynn Earl Jones (born 1982).[57][58] Hart died on October 16, 2016, after a year of living with ovarian cancer.[59] In April 2016, Jones spoke publicly for the first time in nearly 20 years about his long-term health challenge with type 2 diabetes. He was diagnosed in the mid-1990s after his doctor noticed he had fallen asleep while exercising at a gym.[60]

Awards and nominations[edit]

EGOT While James Earl Jones is technically a recipient of the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony), Jones has yet to win a competitive Oscar. He has, however, received an Honorary Academy Award.[61]

Year Award Category Nominated work Result
1970 Academy Awards Best Actor The Great White Hope Nominated
2011 Honorary Award Lifetime Achievement Won
1969 Tony Awards Best Actor in a Play The Great White Hope Won
1987 Fences Won
2005 On Golden Pond Nominated
2012 The Best Man Nominated
2017 Special Tony Award Lifetime Achievement Award Won
1963 Primetime Emmy Awards Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series East Side/West Side Nominated
1990 Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries By Dawn's Early Light Nominated
1991 Heat Wave Won
Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series Gabriel's Fire Won
1994 Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series Picket Fences Nominated
1995 Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series Under One Roof Nominated
1997 Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series Frasier Nominated
2004 Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series Everwood Nominated
1970 Grammy Awards Best Spoken Word The Great White Hope Nominated
1977 Great American Documents Won
2001 Best Spoken Word for Children The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey Nominated

Film and Television Awards

Year Award Category Nominated work Result
1970 Golden Globe Awards Most Promising Newcomer -Male The Great White Hope Won
Best Actor in a Drama Film Nominated
1974 Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical Film Claudine Nominated
1990 Best Actor in a Television Series - Drama Gabriel's Fire Nominated
1991 Pros and Cons Nominated
1995 Screen Actors Guild Awards Male Actor in a Miniseries or TV Movie Cry, the Beloved Country Nominated
2009 Lifetime Achievement Award N/A Won
1987 Independent Spirit Award Best Supporting Actor Matewan Nominated



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