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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

Related Links:
Tony Awards

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James Earl Jones
James Earl Jones
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James Earl Jones Interview (page: 4 / 7)

National Medal of Arts

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  James Earl Jones

James Earl Jones Interview Photo
When did you know this was what you wanted to do with your life? Was there a defining moment or did it just happen?

James Earl Jones: I really think I ambled through a lot of my life, or ambled from one thing to the other. I wasn't a lazy kid. I'd gotten that, not a work ethic, but a survival ethic built into me during my youth. I knew I had to make a living, but the idea of being a plumber was not a bad thing.

When I was in New York after I left the Army, I studied for two years at the American Theater Wing, studied acting which involved dance and fencing and speech classes and history of theater, all that. I was preparing myself for the theater, and... I got a little job here and a job there, but it wasn't going well, and I considered some time before the mid-60s that maybe I should consider something else. And I went to NYU for some vocational testing, vocational guidance. And they found that I had a talent, perhaps, in architecture. So I applied to Pratt and Parsons for that kind of training. And I was prepared to say bye-bye to acting, go on to something else, and before I joined my fall classes, I got a job out in Indiana that set me back on the track of acting.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

James Earl Jones Interview Photo

I don't ever want to be a sentimentalist. I prefer to be a realist. I'm not a romantic really.

I never approached the show business from a sentimental point of view. I never saw it as a romantic and glamorous place. I knew real show business from my father's line. My father who had been an actor since he left the world of boxing. He was a prize fighter when he first -- and a man I never really knew, a man I -- allegedly I was face to face with him once when I was about two, three days old -- and didn't meet again until I was an adult, was not allowed to meet him 'til I was an adult. But, I knew of his career through his mother, and I knew he was not very successful, but I didn't know how good an actor he was. I found out later he was quite a wonderful actor who excelled in the element of simplicity. But because he was one, black, and then blacklisted because of his involvement with labor unions and so on during those years, he just didn't get work. Certainly not in the areas that Red Channels controlled, which was movies and taped television. He got work occasionally in theater, you know. And he told me when I finally met him, he said, "I've not been able to make a living at this, so I want you to know that's a possibility; that you don't enter it for the money. You enter it because you love doing the work."

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

So I had that reality orientation. I've never looked at it as a romantic place, or as a place to make big bucks. Perhaps I should have. I'd have been richer if I'd gone with the bank, but I've applied that contentment, measure.

I was as content Off-Broadway as I was in a big Hollywood movie, and, I just try to be content wherever I am, you know. An, it doesn't solve anything, it just makes you able to move, from one -- I think I was told yesterday by some wonderful brilliant mind that I met on the path out here, Churchill said, "Success is moving from one failure to the next with undiminished enthusiasm." Well, that's what I was able to do from my early -- so nothing threw me, really. And nothing embittered me, which is important, because I think ethnic people and women in this society can end up being embittered because of the lack of affirmative action, you know. Or the lack of removal of those ceilings, those glass ceilings. And that never happened to me, and I feel blessed. I'm a healthier person because of it. I can pass on a healthier state of mind to my son because of it.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Tell us about your relationship with your father. You sought him out in New York after all those years.

James Earl Jones: When I was finally allowed to see him. I was legally banned from seeing him until I could decide for myself. There was such animosity between those two families. It's still unresolved. It will never be resolved with my father. I had a meeting with him just a few days ago, and it's a mess, but I accept that. He doesn't seem to accept it. He still wants to sort it out. He wants to place him and me and my son into some sort of galaxy. That's a sign of romanticism, and I don't care for it.

Family relationships come from really real bonding, not from something imagined, or a presumption about genetic inheritance. It has to be real, and I think a lot of the problems we have as a society is because we don't acknowledge that family is important and it has to be people who are present, you know and mothers and fathers, both are not present enough with children. I'm not present enough with my son. I'm here and he's there, you know. Often that's the case, and that's a problem, you know. You don't build a bond without being present.

Could you tell us something about your struggle to become an actor in New York City?

James Earl Jones: It was as it should be. Because of my father's orientation, I was not...

I did not expect anything. No one asked me to be an actor, so no one owed me. There was no entitlement. Still is not. It is one of the -- I think the arts in general, no one asked you. They might ask you to fly an airplane; they might ask you to raise wheat. But they don't ask you to sing a song. That is still considered, in this society, one of those elitist or luxury endeavors, you know. So the idea that you are essential has not occurred yet. I think with the lack of appreciation for the National Endowment, it seems it may never occur in my time. But I think someday it must occur, because it has occurred in all great societies, all over Europe and England. The arts have always been an important ingredient to the health of a nation, but we haven't gotten there, yet. And so actors have to accept that, you know. No one asked us. So the idea of not getting work, that's part of the territory.

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This page last revised on Sep 23, 2010 14:50 EST
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