All achievers

James Earl Jones

National Medal of Arts

I didn't expect anything, no one asked me to be an actor, no one owed me. There's no entitlement...The arts have always been an important ingredient to the health of a nation, but we haven’t gotten there yet. Actors have to accept that. So the idea of not getting work, that's part of the territory.

James Earl Jones's grandparents, John Henry and Maggie Connolly, on the front porch of their homestead in Mississippi, ca. 1933.
1933: James Earl Jones’s grandparents, John Henry and Maggie Connolly, on the front porch of their homestead in Mississippi. Jones has described his grandmother, Maggie, as “the most racist person I have ever known,” which forced him to develop his own independent thinking. His grandmother was of African-American, Cherokee and Choctaw ancestry.

James Earl Jones was born in Arkabutla Township, Mississippi. His parents separated before his birth and he was raised by his grandparents on a farm that had been in the family since Reconstruction. When he was only five, the family moved north to a farm in rural Michigan, and the young boy found the adaptation so traumatic that he developed an incapacitating stutter. For years he refused to speak more than a few words at a time, even to his family. In school he pretended to be mute, and communicated only in writing. He began to express himself by writing poetry. In high school a sympathetic teacher named Donald Crouch saw through Jones’s insecurity. He challenged each student in the class to write a poem. Jones found inspiration in the citrus fruit the federal government had distributed in the area to relieve wartime shortages. When he turned in an “Ode to Grapefruit,” written in the epic meter of Longfellow’s “Hiawatha,” the teacher pretended to believe that Jones could not have written the poem himself, and challenged him to prove it by reciting it in front of the class. With his own verses committed to memory, Jones found he could speak without stuttering. Crouch encouraged Jones to compete in high-school debates and oratorical contests. One happy day in his senior year, he won both a public-speaking contest and a scholarship to the University of Michigan.

1938: Robert Earl Jones, James Earl Jones's father in Langston Hughes's Don't You Want to Be Free. (Carl Van Vechten)
1938: Robert Earl Jones, James Earl Jones’ father in Langston Hughes’s Don’t You Want to Be Free. James Earl Jones was born in Arkabutla, Mississippi in 1931, the son of Robert Earl Jones (1910-2006), an actor, boxer, butler, and chauffeur who left the family after James Earl’s birth, and his wife, Ruth Jones, a teacher and maid. Jones and his father reconciled many years later and Jones was raised by his maternal grandparents. (Carl Van Vechten)

Jones entered the University of Michigan planning to study medicine, but found himself drawn to the theater. After completing service as an Army Ranger, he set off for New York City to pursue acting studies. It was not an easy choice. He lived in a $19-a-month apartment and scrubbed floors to make ends meet. Serious jobs for black actors were scarce, and Jones had before him the sobering example of his father, Robert Earl Jones, an actor who had been blacklisted for his political activism.

1961: Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones in a scene from the Off-Broadway production of the play The Blacks.
1961: Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones in a scene from the Off-Broadway production of the play The Blacks.

After a number of small roles, James Earl Jones attracted the attention of critics and audiences with his intense performance in the American premiere of Jean Genet’s absurdist drama, The Blacks. This historic 1961 production introduced the theater public to a new generation of outstanding African American actors; the cast included Roscoe Lee Brown, Raymond St. Jacques, Cicely Tyson, Godfrey Cambridge and Maya Angelou. Jones earned multiple awards for his performances in Moon on A Rainbow Shawl in 1962, and garnered an Obie as Best Actor in Off-Broadway Theater for his performance in Clandestine on the Morning Line. He received two Obies in 1965 for his work in Bertolt Brecht’s Baal and Shakespeare’s Othello.

In 1968, James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander starred as husband and wife in Howard Sackler’s searing drama The Great White Hope, a fictionalized account of the life of boxing legend Jack Johnson that ran at the Alvin Theatre. Jones (seen at right) and Alexander were awarded Tony Awards for Best Actor and Best Featured Actress in a Play.
In 1968, James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander starred as husband and wife in Howard Sackler’s searing drama The Great White Hope, a fictionalized account of the life of boxing legend Jack Johnson that ran at the Alvin Theatre. Jones (seen at right) and Alexander were awarded Tony Awards for Best Actor and Best Featured Actress in a Play.

In 1968 Jones earned widespread acclaim for his performance in The Great White Hope playing a character based on Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion. His performance in the play on Broadway won him his first Tony Award; he received an Oscar nomination for his performance in the 1970 film version.

James Earl Jones is known for his voice roles as Darth Vader in the Star Wars film series and Mufasa in Disney's The Lion King.
James Earl Jones is known for his voice roles as Darth Vader in Star Wars and Mufasa in Disney’s The Lion King.

In the decades since, James Earl Jones has continued to appear in memorable roles on stage, in feature films, and on television. He made his big screen debut in Dr. Strangelove in 1963, and has worked in over 50 films, appearing in everything from Conan the Barbarian to Field of Dreams. He played “Admiral Greer” in the highly popular series of films based on the Tom Clancy novels The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger. One of his favorite roles is that of the South African minister in the classic Cry, The Beloved Country. Younger audiences will recognize his voice as “King Mufasa” in the animated classic The Lion King, and as Darth Vader in the Star Wars films.

Lena Horne embraces actor James Earl Jones after his opening night performance, on March 27, 1987, in the Broadway play Fences at the 46th street Theatre in New York. (AP Photo/Mario Suriani)
March 27, 1987: Award-winning singer and actress Lena Horne embraces actor James Earl Jones after his opening night performance in the Broadway play Fences at the 46th street Theatre in New York. (AP Photo/Mario Suriani)

James Earl Jones has appeared on television regularly since the early 1960s. One of his most memorable appearances was as the writer Alex Haley in Roots II. In 1991, he won an Emmy for Best Actor in a Drama Series for his performance in the title role of Gabriel’s Fire, and as Best Supporting Actor for his role in the television film Heat Wave, making him the first person to win two acting Emmys in the same year. He is also heard by millions around the world every day intoning the words, “This is… CNN.”

1991: James Earl Jones holding his awards in Press Room at Primetime Emmy Awards.
1991: James Earl Jones holding his awards at the Primetime Emmy Awards. Jones received two Emmy Awards: for Outstanding Supporting Actor in Heat Wave and for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for Gabriel’s Fire.

Throughout his career, he has regularly returned to the live theater, winning acclaim for his performances in Of Mice and Men, in Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys, and as King Lear for the New York Shakespeare Festival. Over the years he has received numerous honors for his work. He won a second Tony Award for his stunning performance in the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Fences by August Wilson and directed by Lloyd Richards.

2011: James Earl Jones receives an Honorary Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the third annual Governors Awards.
2011: James Earl Jones receives an “Honorary Oscar” by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

In 1992 he received the National Medal of Arts for his services to American culture. The following year, he won critical praise for his autobiography, Voices and Silences. He was honored by his peers with the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Screen Actors Guild in 2009 and received an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2011.

2015: James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson reunite on Broadway in the Gin Game.
2015: James Earl Jones and 90-year-old Cicely Tyson reunite on Broadway in the two-person play The Gin Game.

More than 40 years after his breakthrough performance in The Great White Hope, James Earl Jones remains active on both stage and screen. After returning to Broadway in a 2005 revival of the play On Golden Pond, he had leading roles on Broadway or on London’s West End in every season from 2008 to 2015. In 2008 he played Big Daddy in the Tennessee Williams classic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a role he reprised on London’s West End the following year. In 2010 and 2011, he enjoyed successful runs in New York and London starring opposite Vanessa Redgrave in an acclaimed revival of Driving Miss Daisy. He played a cunning ex-president in the 2012 Broadway revival of Gore Vidal’s political drama The Best Man. The following year, he reunited with his Driving Miss Daisy co-star Vanessa Redgrave in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing at the Old Vic in London. On Broadway, he played the cheerfully eccentric grandfather in the classic comedy You Can’t Take It With You in 2014, and starred opposite Cicely Tyson in a revival of the two-character drama The Gin Game in 2015.

James Earl Jones and his wife, Cecilia Hart, at the 2016 Tony Awards. Hart and Jones married in 1982, the same year that he played Othello opposite her Desdemona on Broadway.
James Earl Jones and his wife, television and stage actress, Cecilia Hart, at the 2016 Tony Awards. Hart and Jones married in 1982, the same year that he played Othello opposite her Desdemona on Broadway. Cecilia died in 2016.

James Earl Jones was married to actress Cecilia Hart from 1982 until her death in 2016. They had one child, Flynn Earl Jones. Between roles, James Earl Jones makes his home on a secluded farm in upstate New York.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1996

“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.”

When a five-year-old James Earl Jones moved with his grandparents from rural Mississippi to frosty Michigan, he developed a stutter so severe that he refused to speak aloud, even in school. One day in high school, an understanding teacher, impressed by a poem Jones had written, dared him to recite it in front of the class. When he recited without faltering, teacher and students were amazed by the power of the voice Jones had kept bottled up inside him. Today that voice is one of the best known in the world.

Through an arduous program of public speaking, James Earl Jones overcame his handicap, and today he is one of America’s most celebrated actors, renowned for what critics have called “the voice of the century.” His performance in the play and film The Great White Hope made him a star. He has won multiple Tony, Emmy and Grammy Awards for his stage, television and recording work, and an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in motion pictures. He has been heard by millions as the voice of Mustafa in The Lion King, and Darth Vader in the Star Wars films. This triumphant star is the recipient of the National Medal of Arts, awarded in tribute to his outstanding contributions to the cultural life of the United States.

Watch full interview

We understand that the move from rural Mississippi to Michigan was traumatic for you as a small boy. Is it true you actually stopped talking for some years?

James Earl Jones: It wasn’t that I stopped talking, it’s that I resolved that talking was too difficult. You see, in the move from Mississippi to Michigan, you would think it would be a jubilant journey for a young boy of — I was then five years old — going to the promised land, you know. For me though, it was leaving the soil that I had touched with my bare feet, and I didn’t know if I’d ever touch soil with my bare feet again, and that was traumatic for me. I was leaving a Huck Finn world. Forget social problems, I was leaving the earth of Mississippi, the clay soil along the banks of the Mississippi River. And that was a trauma for me.

James Earl Jones's great-grandparents, Wyatt and Shirley Jeeter Connolly, and family on the family farm, 1908. James Earl Jones's grandfather, John Henry Connolly, is second from right in the back row.
1908: James Earl Jones’s great-grandparents, Wyatt and Shirley Jeeter Connolly, and family on the family farm in Arkabutla, Mississippi. James Earl Jones’s grandfather, John Henry Connolly, is second from right in the back row.

I didn’t realize that until I went back for a family reunion when I was 40 years old. I got back to the old homestead, and I felt such a warmth. Not temperature, not heat warmth, but such a sucking warmth hit me that I was back to that land again. That choo-choo train journey from Mississippi to Michigan was a trauma. There were other things that happened along the way that one might pin it to, family things.

I was an adopted child of my grandparents, and I don’t know how I can ever express my gratitude for that because my parents would have been a mess. And there were considerations about that, where should I go, and that began to bother me when I’d hear those discussions at night. “Where should James Earl go?” But it was the journey itself that I really feel, the being ripped from the soil is what set me into a state of trauma. So by the time I got to Michigan 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.

James Earl Jones at 30 in 1961. (Carl Van Vechten)
James Earl Jones at 30 in 1961. Since his Broadway debut in 1957, his career has spanned more than sixty years, and he has been described as “one of America’s most distinguished and versatile” actors. (© Carl Van Vechten)

I suspect a lot of people are stutterers and somehow overcome it.

Keys to success — Perseverance

I’m still a stutterer. But we all find a way to mask it. And sometimes, I guess, our vocabulary might be a little larger than it would have ordinarily been because we have to find a word we won’t trip on. A word that begins with the right consonant. I resigned to it as a kid. I guess I was then about — from ten years old — when I was approaching serious schoolwork, you had to really report what you knew, and the teacher accepted that I could do all my reporting with a pencil. I didn’t have to speak. Oral examinations? I did all mine written. And I became just a non-verbal person. I became a writer. And I was resigned to that. That was okay. I was kind of quiet. You know, I compare myself now to Ali — Muhammad Ali. Whenever I meet him, he doesn’t say much. I think he enjoys it back there, not saying very much, because he was such a mouther before — and brilliant at it. Now I think he enjoys being quiet. Well I enjoyed being quiet. As long as people respected and didn’t bother me, and didn’t probe me, it was a nice place to be.

1968: James Earl Jones, star of the play The Great White Hope talking with boxing champ Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali), following his performance.
1968: James Earl Jones, star of the play The Great White Hope, talking with world boxing champion Cassius Clay.

How did that change? Was there a teacher who helped?

Keys to success — Vision

James Earl Jones: Donald Crouch in high school said, “Do you like these words?” I was then writing words of my own. He said, “Do you like these words? Do you like the way they sound in your head?” He said, “Well, they sound ten times better when you give ’em out in the air. It’s too bad you can’t say these words.” He began to challenge me, to nudge me toward speaking again, and by using my own poetry — and then other poets because he himself was a compatriot of Robert Frost, he himself was a poet. He himself said he learned a poem a day. In case he went blind, he’d have a whole book of poems in his head. And he nudged me toward that, toward acknowledging and appreciating the beauty of words.

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Stephen Sondheim receives the Academy Gold Medal from Academy Awards Council member James Earl Jones at the 2005 International Achievement Summit in New York City. (© Academy of Achievement)
Composer Stephen Sondheim receives the Academy of Achievement’s Gold Medal from Awards Council member James Earl Jones at the 2005 International Achievement Summit during a Broadway symposium in New York City.

What was the poem he finally got you to read aloud?

James Earl Jones: It was the poem, “Ode to Grapefruit.” Only because I had written it in the meter — I’d used the meter of the “Hiawatha,” and Donald Crouch used that as a reason to challenge me. He said, “I don’t think you…” he says, “This is a good poem. It’s so good; I don’t think you wrote it. To prove you wrote it, get up in front of the class and say it out loud.” And that was the time. I don’t know whether he concocted that challenge or not, but he really meant it. And I got up and I said it and didn’t stutter. Nice surprise.

2015: James Earl Jones performs a monologue from You Can't Take It With You.
2015: James Earl Jones performs a monologue from You Can’t Take It With You. Jones possesses “one of the best-known voices in show business, a stirring basso profundo that has lent gravitas to his projects, including live-action acting and commercial voice-overs.” As a child, Jones had a stutter, but he overcame the affliction through poetry, public speaking and acting. Today, he’s “one of America’s most distinguished and versatile actors.”

What came over you at that moment?

James Earl Jones: I didn’t know if I was happy or not. I was in shock and awe. I won’t put a pleasure label to it. I was in trouble.

Do you still have the poem?

Keys to success — Passion

James Earl Jones: When I left the Army — when I left my training in Fort Benning, I bought a little used car that broke down in Akron, Ohio. In that little used car was all my poems, you know. So I put it in storage, and then when I went back to collect it later on after the Army, it was missing. And I’m grateful that the poem about grapefruit was missing, cause — although it was… it had all the poetic values and had all the meter and all that, it was basically — just as Longfellow imitated the Finnish author of Kalevalaa, I imitated Longfellow’s “Hiawatha,” and it had all that. But it was really about the beauty — I don’t know if anybody else can appreciate it. I wouldn’t expect them to. In the wintertime, in the snow country, citrus fruit was so rare, and if you got one, it was better than ambrosia. It was better than a peach. It was better than anything you can imagine from exotic worlds. And I just poured my heart out to the wonders of grapefruit.