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If you like James Earl Jones's story, you might also like:
Athol Fugard,
Ernest J. Gaines,
Whoopi Goldberg,
Ron Howard,
Jeremy Irons,
B.B. King,
John R. Lewis,
George Lucas,
Audra McDonald,
Jessye Norman,
Harold Prince,
Sidney Poitier,
Lloyd Richards
and Hilary Swank

James Earl Jones's recommended reading: The Song of Hiawatha

James Earl Jones also appears in the video:
Perseverance and the American Dream

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James Earl Jones
James Earl Jones
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National Medal of Arts

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  James Earl Jones

Was there anything you read as a kid that influenced or inspired you?

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James Earl Jones: Reading was a big thing, yes. Books were a big thing. But the things that stick out were the newspapers. Every night before supper we'd hear Gabriel Heatter, a famous news commentator, and after supper we'd get the news from the paper. My granddad would read out loud everything that he thought was relevant and pertinent to us, and to our lives. I was influenced a great deal by what was going on in the world. We were approaching World War II at that time. Later on, when I left high school, Professor Donald Crouch, gave me a book of Emerson, Self Reliance, and he said, "Just read it when you have time, and it might be helpful."

After the trauma of moving and not speaking, and finally speaking again, how tough was the transition to the University of Michigan?

James Earl Jones: Well, by then I'd become a verbal person again, and it was important to go on to college. My youngest uncle Randy and I were the first members of our entire family to ever go to college. I was the first to ever go in the military. So we were special, we were the vanguard. As the vanguard it was important for me to pick one of the big three professions: doctor, lawyer Indian chief. One or the other.

Because I thought I liked science -- and I did like the Jules Verne kind of science in high school -- I decided to choose medicine. And that was my rationale of going to the University of Michigan on a scholarship. It was not my favorite study, as I found out later. I was having great difficulty with physics and chemistry. So in my sophomore year, I took a senior anatomy class. I thought anatomy -- being the thing that I should be most interested in -- and if I could hack, as we called it, a senior class, I would continue. I didn't hack the senior class. So in my junior year, I switched to the drama department. Also, because I was in ROTC. The Korean War was still raging, and I thought I'd be going to -- if I didn't get into a med school -- I'd be off to war and probably dead the same fall. So I was determined to use my last two years in college doing something I thought I would enjoy, which was acting. And it was probably because there was girls over in the drama school too, you know?

It was always hard in those days for the university theater wing to get enough boys to match the number of girls you had in those acting classes. Boys thought it was a little sissy. You know, "Sissiness going on over there!" because the drama school is too close to the music department and the dance department.

James Earl Jones Interview Photo

What was your grandfather's reaction when you said you wanted to be an actor?

James Earl Jones: Well, I never announced it. But...

One day, my youngest uncle -- the other one who was the first to go to college, Randy -- and I were sitting out on the front porch. And he was brilliant. He ended up -- he just retired from Boeing Aircraft in Wichita, Kansas. And he knew he wanted to be an engineer, you know, and we would -- you know, boys boasting -- I couldn't top that. So I said, "Well, I'm gonna be an actor on the stage," and whop! from behind. My grandaddy had been listening behind the screen door. That was his way of discouraging that kind of thinking, you know. I was not only forbidden to see my father, the idea that you would really take seriously a life of a troubadour! I mean, my people were very, very simple. They were peasant people, you know? So the idea of somebody making a living as an actor or singer! You sang in church, you know, and you didn't act at all. You tried not to act, you tried to tell the truth. The idea of being a troubadour on the road singing for your supper was very disturbing to him. So, that was his way his way of discouraging that kind of thinking.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

James Earl Jones Interview Photo
Did his thinking change as your career progressed?

James Earl Jones: No, but his insane wife -- my grandma, Maggie -- hers changed. This is a woman whose bedtime stories were about lynchings and hurricanes and floods and rapes and murders. Those were her bedtime stories! For me to go into drama, that kind of turned her on a little bit. I got a job over at the little opera house in Manistee, Michigan, the county seat. We had a summer theater there. She was always the first to be there, in the front row. Wanted to see me in these dramas. So she opened the door, as far as the family was concerned, about allowing this to happen.

What was it about acting that so aroused your passion and commitment?

James Earl Jones: It wasn't acting. It was language. It was speech. It was the thing that I'd been denied all those years and had denied myself all those years. I now had a great -- an abnormal -- appreciation for it, you know. And it was the idea that you can do a play -- like a Shakespeare play, or any well-written play, Arthur Miller, whatever -- and say things you could never imagine saying, never imagine thinking in your own life. You could say these things! That's what it's still about, whether it's the movies or TV or what. That what it's still about.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

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