Robert Earl Jones: From Cotton Fields to Colonus

This is a post in celebration of Black History Month. 

Fortuitous, is it not, that Robert Earl Jones (1910-2006) was born this month? For not only was Jones an important early African American stage and screen star, but he was the father of path-breaking second generation actor James Earl Jones (b. 1931).

The elder Jones started out sharecropping in rural Mississippi, moving North to Chicago as a young man as part of the Great Migration. He was a prizefighter in his younger years, boxing under the name Battling Bill Stovall. During this time, he was a sparring partner of Joe LouisThis adds layers of meaning to James Earl Jones’ performance in The Great Hope (1970), I’d never dreamed of when I watched that film as a kid. The performance has to be on some level a tribute to his father.

Working with the WPA during the Depression, the elder Jones met Langston Hughes, who cast him in his 1938 production of Don’t You Want to Be Free? This in turn brought him to the attention of Oscar Micheaux, who starred him in his films Lying Lips (1939) and The Notorious Elinor Lee (1940). In 1945 he made his Broadway debut in The Hasty Heart, the first of a dozen over a dozen appearances he would make on Broadway stages over nearly half a century. His numerous mainstream films included Wild River (1960), One Potato Two Potato (1964), The Sting (1973), Cockfight (1974), Trading Places (1983) and The Cotton Club (1984). You could also catch him on TV shows like Kojak and Lou Grant. 

During the 1980s, Jones played the crucial role of Creon in the both the stage and screen versions of The Gospel at Colonus. In 1991 he made his last Broadway appearance in Mule Bone by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. His last film appearance, in Rain Without Thunder, was the following year.