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 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.
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 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 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. He is also heard by millions around the world every day intoning the words, "This is... CNN."
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. 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. Forty years after his breakthrough performance in The Great White Hope, James Earl Jones remains active on both stage and screen. In 2011, he enjoyed successful runs on Broadway and London's West End starring opposite Vanessa Redgrave in an acclaimed revival of Driving Miss Daisy. Between roles, he makes his home on a secluded farm in upstate New York.