James Earl Jones receives the Lifetime Achievement in Theater recognition at the Tony Awards this year.
In 1957, during his first week in New York as a wannabe actor, James Earl Jones saw these shows:
Night one: Tosca starring Leontyne Price
Night two: Swan Lake starring Margot Fontaine
Night three: Pal Joey
Night four: Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
What a week, right?
This remarkable itinerary was put together by his father, the actor Robert Earl Jones, who wanted to give his son a taste of la crème de la crème on stage at the time (and probably of all time).
By night five, James Earl Jones, an unknown actor adrift with thousands of other unknown actors vying for a spot on Broadway, knew, one day, he would be in the glow of the warm stage lights.
One year later, he was. Jones landed the role of Edward in the FDR bio-play Sunrise at Campobello.
We feel safe assuming Jones did not know his career would land him the indelible distinction of being the voice of both the worst and best of fatherhood. And, really, who among us hears James Earl Jones speak and doesn’t automatically think, “[heavy breathing] I am your father” and/or “Look, Simba . . . everything the light touches is our kingdom.”
(Editors’ note for the benefit of diehard Star Wars fans who will surely mention this in the comments if we don’t: The classic line from Star Wars is often misremembered as “Luke, I am your father,” as even Jones’ mentions in the clip below, though the line is “No, I am your father,” as you can hear in the excerpt from the film.)
Jones, who continued to work the stage in New York after Sunrise at Campobello for the next decade, emerged as a man who would carve his place on the monument of Great Actors with his mind-blowing work as a heavyweight boxing champ named Jack Jefferson in The Great White Hope in 1968. In Clive Barnes’ review, he noted that as he was leaving the theater, Jones was “receiving a standing ovation of the kind that makes Broadway history.”
Jones won his first Tony, in 1969, for that role. His acting prowess and newfound fame steered his career straight to Sesame Street, where, also in 1969, he was the very first celebrity guest. As for another Tony, his work in the original production of August Wilson’s Fences (the role recently revived by Denzel Washington in the 2016 film) earned him his second award in 1987.
In between, there was a little $7,000 gig voicing a character for George Lucas’ intergalactic war movie. What would Star Wars have been without Darth Vader? And what would Darth Vader be without James Earl Jones? (Rick Moranis in Spaceballs — if you don’t believe us, watch this short clip of David Prowse, who played Vader, saying the dialogue in that giant, plastic helmet-mask).
Jones, who stuttered, spent eight years of his childhood in relative silence, speaking to the animals on their farm in Michigan but avoiding talking to other human beings. Encouraged by his English teacher to recite poetry in front of his high school class as a means of overcoming the stutter, Jones eventually gained mastery. The last public return of the stutter popped up during a performance of Sunrise at Campobello when he stuck over the “M” in “Mrs. Roosevelt,” though Jones says the stutter remains, even now, at 86, which is notably ironic considering Jones’ fame emanates partly from his deep, clear, bass voice.
Try saying “This is CNN” without hearing Jones. It’s impossible. His voice is that powerful. In a little-known anecdote, Jones, who is by nature a merry jokester, used to pretend to be Darth Vader on his CB radio on long car trips. When he realized the truckers were genuinely getting scared, he quit. Best to use one’s powers for good, especially when you’re James Earl Jones. As evidence of his ability to still have fun and use his powers for good, he teamed up with Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) in a series of Sprint commercials where the two former Stanley Kubrick actors performed texts and Facebook messages dramatically, on a bare stage and in tuxedos:
Congratulations, Mr. Jones, on your sixty years of valuable, funny, unforgettable and powerful work in the performing arts.
Want to see James Earl Jones receive his award? Then mark your calendars: The Tony Awards will be broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall on CBS on Sunday, June 11, 2017 at 8 p.m.