James Earl Jones (b.1931) turns 91 today. I was half-tempted to backdate this post for last year, when Jones reached a much rounder age, but this year his birthday falls on Martin Luther King Day and that feels meaningful. By the way, Jones shares (shared) a birthday with Muhammad Ali, which also feels significant. One of the first films I ever would have seen Jones in was The Great White Hope (1970), in which he played a character based on boxer Jack Johnson. Jones’ father Robert Earl Jones had been a boxer and then an actor, layering on the resonance. The fact that I wrote about the elder Jones before his much more famous and contemporary son speaks untold volumes about this blog!
The younger Jones was born in Mississippi and raised by grandparents in Michigan. As a young person he had a stuttering problem, which a teacher helped him to overcome with schoolroom poetry recitations. Jones’ careful enunciation overcompensates for that early impediment; it’s the main reason I sometimes find him less than plausible in realistic parts, and much better in classical roles, fantasy, and the like (aided and abetted by the great gift of his deeply resonant voice, which could probably be used in coastal areas to summon whales). At any rate, before and after his army service, he studied acting at the University of Michigan and the American Theatre Wing.
Jones’ gifts were apparent to all and sundry from the get-go and he began working in theatre, radio and television as soon as he began to pursue it professionally in the mid ’50s. His first Broadway gig was in The Egghead (1957) a play by Eliza Kazan’s first wife Molly, where he understudied for Lloyd Richards, who later directed the original production of things like A Raisin in the Sun and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and became the Dean of Yale School of Drama. From here he went into the original 1958 stage production of Sunrise at Campobello. In 1961 he starred in the American premiere of Jean Genet’s The Blacks, the longest running Off-Broadway play of the decade. He also appeared in regional Shakespeare (he was a born Othello of course but that’s not all he played) and did TV guest shots. His first movie was Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964). The 1968 Broadway premier of The Great White Hope is what set him up to star in the 1970 film.
Lots of stage and screen roles followed, but 1977 was the year his career truly exploded (in a good way). It’s hard to believe all this stuff happened in one year. His most notable credit is of course the voice role of Darth Vader in the original Star Wars. (Never before has such a recognizable voice been repurposed to such great effect. Somehow, the costume was so striking that we didn’t notice that we knew the voice, which was masked anyway with those breathing sounds). At any rate, that same year he played Balthazar in Jesus of Nazareth, Malcolm X in Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest, and was in Sidney Poitier’s A Piece of the Action, Marty Feldman’s The Last Remake of Beau Geste, and Exorcist II: The Heretic, among other things. Following lead roles in Broadway revivals of The Iceman Cometh (1973) and Of Mice and Men (1974-75), he played the eponymous role in Paul Robeson (1978), also starring in the 1979 film version, the same year he was in Roots: The Next Generation.
At any rate, after this, he has so many incredible credits over the next 40 years it seems absurd to try and list them. I’ll just mention a few highlights. The most significant, I think is that he was the original Troy Maxson in the original Broadway production of August Wilson’s Fences (1987). Also on Broadway: A Lesson from Aloes (1980), Othello (1982), and Driving Miss Daisy (2010, gamely tackling a role closely identified with Morgan Freeman), et al. In films, he of course played Darth Vader through the subsequent Star Wars sequels, but was also in Conan the Barbarian (1982), Soul Man (1986), Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold (1986), Gardens of Stone (1987), Matewan (1987), Coming to America (1988), Field of Dreams (1989), The Hunt for Red October (1990), Patriot Games (1992), Sneakers (1992), The Sandlot (1993), The Lion King (1994, and sequels), Jefferson in Paris (1995), Cry the Beloved Country (1995), etc.
I also associate him with high-end TV movies: in addition to the aforementioned Jesus of Nazareth and Roots: The Next Generations, there were things like Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (1980 — good lord, the corpses hadn’t even cooled), and The Atlanta Child Murders (1985). He guest starred or provided narration on too many tv shows to name, but I would like to mention that he also starred in several short-lived series: Paris (1979-80; it was a cop show, Paris was character’s name, as was the style then); Me and Mom (1985, a sit-com), Gabriel’s Fire (1990-91) and its successor series Pros and Cons (1991-92), and Under One Roof (1995).
This leaves out hundreds of stage and screen roles, but this ain’t no phone book. Jones is still very much in the fray, by the way. His most recent role, was a reprise of his King Jaffe part in Coming 2 America (2021).