Robert Earl Jones

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Robert Earl Jones
Robert Earl Jones in Langston Hughes' Don't You Want to be Free? (23 June 1938; photograph by Carl Van Vechten).jpg
Jones in Langston Hughes' Don't You Want to be Free?, 1938.
Born(1910-02-03)February 3, 1910
DiedSeptember 7, 2006(2006-09-07) (aged 96)
Other namesEarl Jones
  • Actor
  • boxer
Years active1938–1993
  • Ruth Connolly
    (m. 1929; div. 1934)
  • Jumelle Jones
    (m. 1938; div. 1950)
  • Ruth Williams
    (m. 1960; died 1981)
Children2; including James Earl Jones

Robert Earl Jones (February 3, 1910 – September 7, 2006),[1] sometimes credited as Earl Jones, was an American actor and prizefighter. One of the first prominent black film stars, Jones was a living link with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s, having worked with Langston Hughes early in his career.

Jones was best known for his leading roles in films such as Lying Lips (1939) and later in his career for supporting roles in films such as The Sting (1973), Trading Places (1983), The Cotton Club (1984), and Witness (1985). He was the father of actor James Earl Jones.


Early life[edit]

Jones was born in northwestern Mississippi; the specific location is unclear as some sources indicate Senatobia,[1] while others suggest nearby Coldwater.[2] A son of Robert and Elnora Jones, Robert Earl Jones left school at an early age to work as a sharecropper to help his family. He later became a prizefighter. Under the name "Battling Bill Stovall", he was a sparring partner of Joe Louis.[3]


Jones became interested in theater after he moved to Chicago, as part of the thousands leaving the South in the Great Migration. He moved on to New York by the 1930s. He worked with young people in the Works Progress Administration, the largest New Deal agency, through which he met Langston Hughes, a young poet and playwright. Hughes cast him in his 1938 play, Don't You Want to Be Free?.[4][1]

Jones also entered the film business, appearing in more than twenty films. His film career started with the leading role of a detective in the 1939 race film Lying Lips, written and directed by Oscar Micheaux, and Jones made his next screen appearance in Micheaux's The Notorious Elinor Lee (1940).[5] Jones acted mostly in crime movies and dramas after that, with such highlights as Wild River (1960) and One Potato, Two Potato (1964). In the Oscar-winning 1973 film The Sting, he played Luther Coleman, an aging grifter whose con is requited with murder leading to "the sting". In the later 20th century, Jones appeared in several other noted films: Trading Places (1983) and Witness (1985).

Toward the end of his life, Jones was noted for his stage portrayal of Creon in The Gospel at Colonus (1988), a black musical version of the Oedipus legend. He also appeared in episodes of the long-running TV shows Lou Grant and Kojak. One of his last stage roles was in a 1991 Broadway production of Mule Bone by Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, another important writer of the Harlem Renaissance.[5] His last film was Rain Without Thunder (1993).

Although blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s, Jones was ultimately honored with a lifetime achievement award by the U.S. National Black Theatre Festival.[5]

Personal life[edit]

Jones was married three times. As a young man, he married Ruth Connolly (died 1986) in 1931; they had a son, James Earl Jones. Jones and Connolly separated before James was born in 1931. The couple divorced in 1933. Jones did not come to know his son until the mid-1950s. Jones married two other times, to Jumelle Jones from 1938 to 1950, and Ruth Williams from 1960 until her death in 1981. He fathered a second child. Jones died on September 7, 2006, in Englewood, New Jersey, from natural causes at the age of 96.[3]





  1. ^ a b c David Patrick Stearns (December 2006). "Robert Earl Jones: US actor rooted in the Harlem renaissance". The Guardian. Retrieved 2007-01-26.
  2. ^ "Robert Earl Jones profile". Internet Broadway Database. Retrieved 2007-01-26.
  3. ^ a b Fox, Margalit (September 19, 2006). "Robert Earl Jones, 96, Broadway Actor, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved April 21, 2008.
  4. ^ Peterson, Jr., Bernard L., The African American Theatre Directory, 1816–1960: A Comprehensive Guide to Early Black Theatre Organizations, Companies, Theatres, and Performing Groups, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997, p. 92.
  5. ^ a b c McLellan, Dennis, "Robert Earl Jones, 96; Actor, Father of James Earl Jones", Los Angeles Times, September 20, 2006.

External links[edit]

Media related to Robert Earl Jones at Wikimedia Commons