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Jones, James Earl

James Earl Jones

1931

Actor

Some people know him as one of the nation's finest stage actors, an artist who tackles the works of such playwrights as William Shakespeare and Eugene O'Neill. Others know his sonorous bass voice as the most menacing aspect of the evil Darth Vader in the blockbuster film Star Wars. Still others recognize him as a television star who brings depths of humanity to clichéd character parts. James Earl Jones fits all these descriptions and more: for more than 40 years he has been one of the most esteemed actors in the United States.

Jones has worked steadily for decades in a market that supplies little hope to black performers. Having first established himself as a serious dramatic actor, he has never balked at the so-called "low brow" pursuits of television and popular film. His resume includes Othello as well as television episodes of Tarzan. He has received Tony, Emmy, and Obie awards, and yet he can be heard as the voice announcing "This is CNN" for Cable News Network. With film appearances ranging from the classic Dr. Strangelove to the forgettable Conan, the Barbarian, Jones admitted in the Saturday Review that he takes roles to surprise peopleincluding himself. "Because I have a varied career, and I've not typecast myself, nobody knows what I'm going to do next. They don't know if I'm going to drop 20 pounds and play an athlete. They don't know whether I'm ready to be a good guy or a bad guy."

Whatever Jones playsvillain or herohe infuses each role with "enormous talent, range, courage, taste, [and] sensitivity," wrote a Newsweek correspondent. During a career that began in the late 1950s, James Earl Jones has struggled to define himself not as a black actor, but simply as an actor. In an effort to resist stereotypes, he has opted for maximum variety, but each new part bears his particular, memorable stamp. In Newsweek, Jack Kroll called Jones "the embodiment of the living paradox that informs all great acting: his powerful persona is at once intimate and apart, friendly and heroic. He's right there in the room with you, but he's also in your mind, an electrifying double presence that only the strongest actors can create."

The only child of Robert Earl and Ruth Connolly Jones, James Earl Jones was born on January 17, 1931, in Arkabutla, Mississippi, on his maternal grandfather's farm. Before his son's birth, James's father left the family to pursue a career as a prize fighter and later as an actor. Ruth Jones soon followed suit when she found tailoring work that kept her separated from her son for long periods of time. Born during the Great Depression, Jones remarked in Newsweek that he realizes economic circumstances forced his parents apart. Still, he said, the abandonment hurt him deeply. "No matter how old the character I play," he concluded, "those deep childhood memories, those furies, will come out. I understand this."

Living on his grandparents' farm, Jones was afforded a measure of security. As a youngster he hunted, fished, and performed various farm chores. He also attended church, where he watched his grandmother's emotional displays of holy rapture. "There was a strong evangelistic aspect to her religion, and when she went to church and felt the spirit, she ended up behaving like a holy roller," Jones recalled in the Saturday Review. "There wasn't much touching in the family, but there was emotion."

Eventually Jones's grandparents formally adopted him, and took him north to rural Michigan. Jones acknowledged in Newsweek that the move north helped him to escape "a certain self-castration" common among Southern blacks at the time, but he did not adjust easily to his new surroundings. He developed a stutter and eventually found communication so difficult that at certain periods during grammar school he could talk only to himself or his immediate family. The problem followed him to high school, where one of his English teachers suggested he memorize speeches and enter oratorical contests. It seemed an unlikely way to cure a stutter, but it worked for Jones. Slowly, wrote Michelle Green in the Saturday Review, Jones "became such a skilled speaker that he began besting his voluble opponents."

Jones attended the University of Michigan on a full scholarship, intending to study medicine. At first he took acting classes simply as a sideline, but he soon switched his major to theater. When he was 21 years old, and a junior at Michigan, he traveled east to New York City to meet his father. They had only spoken briefly on the telephone several times. The relationship was strained by the long years without communication, but Jones's father encouraged him to pursue a career in theater; James graduated from Michigan in 1953 with a bachelor's degree in drama.

The U.S. Army, specifically the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), recruited Jones in 1953 for two years of compulsory service. He spent much of his stint in a rigorous ranger-training program in the Colorado mountains and was set to reenlist in 1955 when his commanding officer suggested that he taste civilian life before making a long-term commitment to the armed services. So Jones moved to New York City and enrolled in further acting classes. Two things helped ease his decision: he knew he could return to the army if he did not find success as an actor, and his tuition at the American Theater Wing was paid for by the Army's G.I. Bill.

Jones lived with his father for a time, and the two supplemented their meager acting incomes by polishing floors in Off-Broadway theaters. In 1957 the younger Jones earned his first professional role in an Off-Broadway production of Wedding in Japan. He was rarely out of work after that, but his salary during the last years of the 1950s averaged $45 a week. He made ends meet by renting a cold-water flat on the Lower East Side. Even as a journeyman actor, Jones proved willing to try any role, no matter how small. In 1959 he began a long tenure with the New York Shakespeare Festival, carrying a spear in Henry V. Before long he was given more prominent roles, culminating in his 1963 performance as the lead in Othello one of a staggering 13 plays he appeared in that year.

Othello ran for a year Off-Broadway with Jones in the lead. The actor also found time to do television spots and to make one film appearanceas the bombardier in Stanley Kubrick's dark comedy Dr. Strangelove. In the mid-1960s Jones began augmenting his theater work with television parts. He took cameo roles in shows such as The Defenders and East Side/West Side, and he became the first black man to take a continuing role on a daytime serial when he portrayed a doctor on As The World Turns. The big break for Jones, though, came during a period when he was touring Europe as the lead in Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones.

At a Glance

Born on January 17, 1931, in Arkabutla, MS; son of Robert Earl (an actor) and Ruth (a tailor; maiden name, Williams) Jones; married Julienne Marie (an actress), 1967 (divorced); married Cecilia Hart (an actress), March 15, 1982; children: (second marriage) Flynn Earl. Education : University of Michigan, BA, 1953; received diploma from American Theatre Wing, New York City, 1957; studied acting with Lee Strasberg and Tad Danielewsky. Military : U.S. Army, 1953-55; became first lieutenant.

Career : Actor, 1957.

Selected awards : Obie Awards for Off-Broadway work, 1962 and 1965; Tony Awards for best actor, 1969, for The Great White Hope, and 1987, for Fences ; Academy Award nomination for best actor, 1970, for The Great White Hope ; Emmy Award for best actor in a series, 1991, for Gabriel's Fire ; Daytime Emmy, 2000, for Summer's End ; Kennedy Center Honors honoree, 2002; DVDX Award, 2003, for Finder's Fee.

Addresses : Agent c/o Horatio Productions Inc., PO Box 610, Pawling, NY 12564.

A copy of a play titled The Great White Hope landed in Jones's lap in 1967. A dramatization of the life of boxing champion Jack Johnson, The Great White Hope was slated for a possible Broadway run. Jones wanted the part desperately. He began to train at gymnasiums in order to build his muscles, working with boxing managers and watching old footage of Johnson's fights. He was ultimately awarded the part, and the show opened on Broadway on October 3, 1968.

The Great White Hope was a success, and its reception propelled Jones to stardom. "Fourteen years of good hard acting work, including more Shakespeare than most British actors attempt, have gone into the making of James Earl Jones," wrote a Newsweek reviewer who also concluded that "only an actor with the bigness and power of Jones" could make such a play work. Jones won a Tony Award for his contribution to The Great White Hope, and he was nominated for an Academy Award in 1970 when the play was made into a motion picture.

The instant celebrity brought Jones a new awareness of his limitations. The actor told TV Guide that his work in The Great White Hope did not prove to be the career boost he thought it would. "I thought with the Oscar nomination that several projects would be waiting for me immediately," he continued in TV Guide. "But then projectsvery viable ones close to getting go-aheadscaved in under racism's insanity." One of those projects was a life story of civil rights activist Malcolm X, a version of which was finally scheduled for release by filmmaker Spike Lee in 1992.

Jones returned to the stage, appearing in Hamlet in 1972, King Lear in 1973, and Of Mice and Men in 1974. He also performed in a series of minor films, including The Man and The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings. Jones's most notable movie role of the 1970s and early 1980s, though, was one in which only his voice was used. He gave a memorable level of malevolence to the half-man, half-machine villain Darth Vader in all three Star Wars films.

In 1982 Jones appeared on Broadway as Othello to standing ovations. He also portrayed the villain in the film Conan, the Barbarian. To critics who faulted him for taking roles in substandard films, Jones had a simple reply: movies and television pay well, theater does not. "I can't afford to take a vacation unless I do some commercials when I'm in New York," he pointed out in the Saturday Review. "Money goes fast, and you can't get along doing only stage work. I've never minded doing commercials. Commercials can be very exciting." In 1991 Jones lent himself to a string of TV ads for the Bell Atlantic Yellow Pages, his first on-air product endorsement.

Jones's work in the late 1980s and early 1990s was as varied as his early career. He played an enigmatic writer in the 1990 hit film Field of Dreams, a CIA chief in the 1992 screen adaptation of Tom Clancy's novel Patriot Games, and an ex-convict private investigator in the award-winning television series Gabriel's Fire. Not neglecting his onstage work, he earned yet another Tony Award in 1988 for his portrayal of a disenchanted Negro League baseball player in August Wilson's play Fences. Jones explained in the Los Angeles Times that he has taken so many minor film roles and so much television work simply because he likes to work. "Just as, on stage, I waited years for a role like Jack [Johnson] in Great White Hope, orarolelike Troy in Fences, you do the same thing in movies," he said. "Unless you are among that handful of exceptions, the stars who have projects lined up, you don't wait, at least I didn't want to wait. I don't think I've done many films that counted. What I'm getting at, rather than waiting for that wonderful role in a movie, I take 'off' jobs."

To quote Los Angeles Times correspondent David Wallace, those "off jobs" are often "memorable only for [Jones's] commanding presence [or] for the brevity of his appearance." That situation would change, however; in 1990 Jones announced that his age and health were forcing him to curtail his work in live theater. "After six months in a play, the fatigue factor begins to affect the quality of a performance," the actor conceded in the Los Angeles Times. "The audiences might not know it, but I do. My thing is serious drama, and usually the lead character has a heavy load to carry. I find that after six months, if you get four out of eight shows a week that work perfectly the way you want, you're lucky."

Though he phased out most of his theatrical work, Jones continued to make occasional appearances in films and on television. Star Wars fans, for example, could count on Jones to return as the voice of Darth Vader in the latest installation in that film series, Revenge of the Sith, released in 2005. He wrote his biography, James Earl Jones: Voices and Silences, in 1993, and dedicated his voice and his stature to efforts to support literacy and education.

Despite a shelf full of awards and contributions to every sort of mass media, James Earl Jones remains a modest man with a sense of adventure about his career. He and his second wife, actress Cecilia Hart, have one son, and Jones told the Los Angeles Times that he guards against appearing heroic to his child. "When I go home nobody is saying, 'Hi, can I have your autograph?' I'm me, that's reality. I'm an actor. That's something you do, not something you are, and I want my son to have a sense of reality." Looking toward the future, Jones sees no lack of opportunities in show business. "There are lots of wonderful cameos and a lot of good lead roles out there," he concluded in the Los Angeles Times. "There are a lot of things I can do."

Selected works

Books

(With Penelope Niven) James Earl Jones: Voices and Silences, Scribner, 1993.

Films

Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 1964.

The Great White Hope, 1970.

(Narrator), Malcolm X, 1972.

Deadly Hero, 1976.

The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, 1976.

(Voice) Star Wars, 1977.

The Greatest, 1977.

(Voice) The Empire Strikes Back, 1980.

Conan the Barbarian, 1982.

(Voice) Return of the Jedi, 1983.

Gardens of Stone, 1987.

Matewan, 1987.

Field of Dreams, 1989.

The Hunt for Red October, 1990.

Sneakers, 1992.

Patriot Games, 1992.

(Voice) The Lion King, 1994.

Clear and Present Danger, 1994.

Jefferson in Paris, 1995.

Cry, the Beloved Country, 1995.

(Voice) Primary Colors, 1998.

The Annihilation of Fish, 1999.

Finder's Fee, 2001.

The Sandlot 2, 2005.

(Voice) Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, 2005.

Plays

The Blacks, 1961.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1961.

Othello, 1964, 1982.

The Emperor Jones, 1967.

The Great White Hope, 1968.

Of Mice and Men, 1974.

Master Haroldand the Boys, 1983.

Fences, 1987.

Television

The Defenders, 1962.

The Greatest Thing That Almost Happened, 1977.

Paul Robeson, 1978.

Paris, 1979.

Roots: The Next Generations, 1979.

Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp, 1984.

The Atlanta Child Murders, 1984.

Heat Wave, 1989.

Last Flight Out, 1990.

Gabriel's Fire, 1990.

The JFK Conspiracy, 1992.

(Narrator) Lincoln, 1992.

(Host) Twilight Zone: Rod Serling's Lost Classics, 1994.

Merlin, 1998.

Summer's End, 1999.

Feast of All Saints, 2001.

Sources

Periodicals

Chicago Tribune, May 26, 1990; May 5, 1991.

Ebony, April 1965; June 1969.

Los Angeles Times, September 2, 1990; August 26, 1991; September 26, 1991.

Movieline, May 1999.

Newsweek, October 21, 1968; April 6, 1987.

Saturday Review, February 1982.

Time, April 6, 1987.

TV Guide, October 27, 1990.

Variety, September 23, 1991; December 5, 2002.

Anne Janette Johnson and

Tom Pendergast

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Jones, James Earl 1931–

James Earl Jones 1931

Actor

At a Glance

Acting Beat out Other Careers

Fame Assured by The Great White Hope

Working for Love and Money

Sources

Some people know him as one of the nations finest stage actors, an artist who tackles the works of such playwrights as William Shakespeare and Eugene ONeill. Others know his sonorous bass voice as the most menacing aspect of the evil Darth Vader in the blockbuster film Star Wars. Still others recognize him as a television star who brings depths of humanity to cliched character parts. James Earl Jones fits all these descriptions, and more: for more than 30 years he has been one of the most esteemed actors in the United States.

Jones has worked steadily for decades in a market that supplies little hope to black performers. Having first established himself as a serious dramatic actor, he has never balked at the so-called low brow pursuits of television and popular film. His resume includes Othello as well as television episodes of Tarzan. He has been laden with Tony, Emmy, and Obie awards, and yet he can be heard as the voice announcing This is CNN for Cable News Network. With film appearances ranging from the classic Dr. Strangelove to the forgettable Conan, the Barbarian, Jones admitted in the Saturday Review that he takes roles to surprise peopleincluding himself. Because I have a varied career, and Ive not typecast myself, nobody knows what Im going to do next. They dont know if Im going to drop 20 pounds and play an athlete. They dont know whether Im ready to be a good guy or a bad guy.

Whatever Jones playsvillain or herohe infuses each role with enormous talent, range, courage, taste, [and] sensitivity, in the words of a Newsweek correspondent. During a career that began in the late 1950s, James Earl Jones has struggled to define himself not as a black actor, but simply as an actor. In an effort to resist stereotypes, he has opted for maximum variety, but each new part bears his particular, memorable stamp. In Newsweek, Jack Kroll called Jones the embodiment of the living paradox that informs all great acting: his powerful persona is at once intimate and apart, friendly and heroic. Hes right there in the room with you, but hes also in your mind, an electrifying double presence that only the strongest actors can create.

The only child of Robert Earl and Ruth Connolly Jones, James Earl Jones was born in Arkabutla, Mississippi, on his maternal grandfathers farm. Before his sons birth, Jamess father left the family to pursue a career as a prize fighter and later as an actor. Ruth Jones soon followed suit when

At a Glance

Born January 17, 1931, in Arkabutla, MS; son of Robert Earl (an actor) and Ruth (a tailor; maiden name, Williams) Jones; married Julienne Marie (an actress), 1967 (divorced); married Cecilia Hart (an actress), March 15, 1982; children: (second marriage) Flynn Earl. Education: University of Michigan, B.A., 1953; received diploma from American Theatre Wing, New York City, 1957; studied acting with Lee Strasberg and Tad Danielewsky.

Actor, 1957. Principal stage appearances include The Blacks, 1961; A Midsummer Nights Dream, 1961; Othello, 1964 and 1982; The Emperor Jones, 1967; The Great White Hope, 1968; Of Mice and Men, 1974; Master Haroldand the Boys, 1983; and Fences, 1987. Principal film appearances include Dr. Strangelove, 1964; The Great White Hope, 1970; The Man, 1972; Star Wars, 1977; Exorcist II: The Heretic, 1977; The Empire Strikes Back, 1980; Conan, the Barbarian, 1982; Return of the Jedi, 1983; Matewan, 1987; Coming to America, 1988; Field of Dreams, 1990; and Patriot Games, 1992. Principal television appearances include The Defenders, 1962; Paris, 1979; and Gabriels Fire, 1990. Has also appeared in television films, including Roots: The Next Generations, 1979; The Atlanta Child Murders, 1984; and Heat Wave, 1989; and in television specials, including The JFK Conspiracy, 1992. Military service: U.S. Army, 1953-55; became first lieutenant.

Awards: Obie Awards for Off-Broadway work, 1962 and 1965; Tony Awards for best actor, 1969, for The Great White Hope, and 1987, for Fences; Academy Award nomination for best actor, 1970, for The Great White Hope; Emmy Award for best actor in a series, 1991, for Gabriels Fire.

Addresses: Agent c/o Lucy Kroll Agency, 390 West End Avenue, New York, NY 10024.

she found tailoring work that kept her separated from her son for long periods of time. Born during the Great Depression, in 1931, Jones remarked in Newsweek that he realizes economic circumstances forced his parents apart. Still, he said, the abandonment hurt him deeply. No matter how old the character I play, he concluded, those deep childhood memories, those furies, will come out. I understand this.

Living on his grandparents farm, Jones was afforded a measure of security. As a youngster he hunted, fished, and performed various farm chores. He also attended church, where he watched his grandmothers emotional displays of holy rapture. There was a strong evangelistic aspect to her religion, and when she went to church and felt the spirit, she ended up behaving like a holy roller, Jones recalled in the Saturday Review. There wasnt much touching in the family, but there was emotion.

Eventually Joness grandparents formally adopted him, and took him north to rural Michigan. Jones acknowledged in Newsweek that the move north helped him to escape a certain self-castration common among Southern blacks at the time, but he did not adjust easily to his new surroundings. He developed a stutter and eventually found communication so difficult that at certain periods during grammar school he could talk only to himself or his immediate family. The problem followed him to high school, where one of his English teachers suggested he memorize speeches and enter oratorical contests. It seemed an unlikely way to cure a stutter, but it worked for Jones. Slowly, wrote Michelle Green in the Saturday Review, Jones became such a skilled speaker that he began besting his voluble opponents.

Acting Beat out Other Careers

Jones attended the University of Michigan on a full scholarship, intending to study medicine. At first he took acting classes simply as a sideline, but he soon switched his major to theater. When he was 21 years old, and a junior at Michigan, he traveled east to New York City to meet his father. They had only spoken briefly on the telephone several times. The relationship was strained by the long years without communication, but Joness father encouraged him to pursue a career in theater; James graduated from Michigan in 1953 with a bachelors degree in drama.

The U.S. Army, specifically the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), recruited Jones in 1953 for two years of compulsory service. He spent much of his stint in a rigorous ranger training program in the Colorado mountains and was set to reenlist in 1955 when his commanding officer suggested that he taste civilian life before making a long-term commitment to the armed services. So Jones moved to New York City and enrolled in further acting classes. Two things helped ease his decision: he knew he could return to the army if he did not find success as an actor, and his tuition at the American Theater Wing was paid for by the Armys G.I. Bill.

Jones lived with his father for a time, and the two supplemented their meager acting incomes by polishing floors in Off-Broadway theaters. In 1957 the younger Jones earned his first professional role in an Off-Broadway production of Wedding in Japan. He was rarely out of work after that, but his salary during the last years of the 1950s averaged $45 a week. He made ends meet by renting a cold-water flat on the Lower East Side. Even as a journeyman actor, Jones proved willing to try any role, no matter how small. In 1959 he began a long tenure with the New York Shakespeare Festival, carrying a spear in Henry V. Before long he was given more prominent roles, culminating in his 1963 performance as the lead in Othello one of a staggering 13 plays he appeared in that year.

Fame Assured by The Great White Hope

Othello ran for a year Off-Broadway with Jones in the lead. The actor also found time to do television spots and to make one film appearanceas the bombardier in Stanley Kubricks dark comedy Dr. Strangelove. In the mid-1960s Jones began augmenting his theater work with television parts. He took cameo roles in shows such as The Defenders and East Side/West Side, and he became the first black man to take a continuing role on a daytime serial when he portrayed a doctor on As The World Turns. The big break for Jones, though, came during a period when he was touring Europe as the lead in Eugene ONeills The Emperor Jones.

A copy of a play titled The Great White Hope landed in Joness lap in 1967. A dramatization of the life of boxing champion Jack Johnson, The Great White Hope was slated for a possible Broadway run. Jones wanted the part desperately. He began to train at gymnasiums in order to build his muscles, working with boxing managers and watching old footage of Johnsons fights. He was ultimately awarded the part, and the show opened on Broadway on October 3, 1968.

The Great White Hope was a success, and its reception propelled Jones to stardom. Fourteen years of good hard acting work, including more Shakespeare than most British actors attempt, have gone into the making of James Earl Jones, wrote a Newsweek reviewer who also concluded that only an actor with the bigness and power of Jones. could make such a play work. Jones won a Tony Award for his contribution to The Great White Hope, and he was nominated for an Academy Award in 1970 when the play was made into a motion picture.

The instant celebrity brought Jones a new awareness of his limitations. The actor told TV Guide that his work in The Great White Hope did not prove to be the career boost he thought it would. I thought with the Oscar nomination that several projects would be waiting for me immediately, he continued in TV Guide. But then projectsvery viable ones close to getting go-aheadscaved in under racisms insanity. One of those projects was a life story of civil rights activist Malcolm X, a version of which was finally scheduled for release by filmmaker Spike Lee in 1992.

Working for Love and Money

Jones returned to the stage, appearing in Hamlet in 1972, King Lear in 1973, and Of Mice and Men in 1974. He also performed in a series of minor films, including The Man and The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings. Joness most notable movie role of the 1970s and early 1980s, though, was one in which only his voice was used. He gave a memorable level of malevolence to the half-man, half-machine villain Darth Vader in all three Star Wars films.

In 1982 Jones appeared on Broadway as Othello to standing ovations. He also portrayed the villain in the film Conan, the Barbarian. To critics who faulted him for taking roles in substandard films, Jones had a simple reply: movies and television pay well, theater does not. I cant afford to take a vacation unless I do some commercials when Im in New York, he pointed out in the Saturday Review. Money goes fast, and you cant get along doing only stage work. Ive never minded doing commercials. Commercials can be very exciting. In 1991 Jones lent himself to a string of TV ads for the Bell Atlantic Yellow Pages, his first on-air product endorsement.

Joness work in the late 1980s and early 1990s was as varied as his early career. He played an enigmatic writer in the 1990 hit film Field of Dreams, a CIA chief in the 1992 screen adaptation of Tom Clancys novel Patriot Games, and an ex-convict private investigator in the awardwinning television series Gabriels Fire. Not neglecting his onstage work, he earned yet another Tony Award in 1988 for his portrayal of a disenchanted Negro League baseball player in August Wilsons play Fences. Jones explained in the Los Angeles Times that he has taken so many minor film roles and so much television work simply because he likes to work. Just as, on stage, I waited years for a role like Jack [Jefferson] in Great White Hope, or a role like Troy in Fences, you do the same thing in movies, he said. Unless you are among that handful of exceptions, the stars who have projects lined up, you dont wait, at least I didnt want to wait. I dont think Ive done many films that counted. What Im getting at, rather than waiting for that wonderful role in a movie, I take off jobs.

To quote Los Angeles Times correspondent David Wallace, those off jobs are often memorable only for [Joness] commanding presence [or] for the brevity of his appearance. That situation would change, however; in 1990 Jones announced that his age and health were forcing him to curtail his work in live theater. After six months in a play, the fatigue factor begins to affect the quality of a performance, the actor conceded in the Los Angeles Times. The audiences might not know it, but I do. My thing is serious drama, and usually the lead character has a heavy load to carry. I find that after six months, if you get four out of eight shows a week that work perfectly the way you want, youre lucky. Jones stressed that he did not plan to retire from the theater completely, but rather to cut back his live work in favor of other projects.

A shelf full of awards to his credit and contributions to every sort of mass media notwithstanding, James Earl Jones remains a modest man with a sense of adventure about his career. He and his second wife, actress Cecilia Hart, have one son, and Jones told the Los Angeles Times that he guards against appearing heroic to his child. When I go home nobody is saying, Hi, can I have your autograph? Im me, thats reality. Im an actor. Thats something you do, not something you are, and I want my son to have a sense of reality. Looking toward the future, Jones sees no lack of opportunities in show business. There are lots of wonderful cameos and a lot of good lead roles out there, he concluded in the Los Angeles Times. There are a lot of things I can do.

Sources

Chicago Tribune, May 26, 1990; May 5, 1991.

Ebony, April 1965; June 1969.

Los Angeles Times, September 2, 1990; August 26, 1991; September 26, 1991.

Newsweek, October 21, 1968; April 6, 1987.

Saturday Review, February 1982.

Time, April 6, 1987.

TV Guide, October 27, 1990.

Variety, September 23, 1991.

Anne Janette Johnson

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"Jones, James Earl 1931–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Jones, James Earl 1931–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/jones-james-earl-1931

"Jones, James Earl 1931–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved October 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/jones-james-earl-1931

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James Earl Jones

James Earl Jones

Award-winning actor James Earl Jones (born 1931) has acted on television, stage, and screen. He is, perhaps, best known for his sonorous bass voice.

Some people know him as one of the nation's finest stage actors, an artist who tackles the works of such playwrights as William Shakespeare and Eugene O'Neill. Others know his sonorous bass voice as the most menacing aspect of the evil Darth Vader in the blockbuster film Star Wars. Still others recognize him as a television star who brings depths of humanity to cliched character parts. James Earl Jones fits all these descriptions, and more: for more than 30 years he has been one of the most esteemed actors in the United States.

Jones has worked steadily for decades in a market that supplies little hope to black performers. Having first established himself as a serious dramatic actor, he has never balked at the so-called "low brow" pursuits of television and popular film. His resume includes Othello as well as television episodes of Tarzan. He has been laden with Tony, Emmy, and Obie awards, and yet he can be heard as the voice announcing "This is CNN" for Cable News Network. With film appearances ranging from the classic Dr. Strangelove to the forgettable Conan, the Barbarian, Jones admitted in the Saturday Review that he takes roles to surprise people—including himself. "Because I have a varied career, and I've not typecast myself, nobody knows what I'm going to do next. They don't know if I'm going to drop 20 pounds and play an athlete. They don't know whether I'm ready to be a good guy or a bad guy."

Whatever Jones plays—villain or hero—he infuses each role with "enormous talent, range, courage, taste, [and] sensitivity," in the words of a Newsweek correspondent. During a career that began in the late 1950s, James Earl Jones has struggled to define himself not as a black actor, but simply as an actor. In an effort to resist stereotypes, he has opted for maximum variety, but each new part bears his particular, memorable stamp. In Newsweek, Jack Kroll called Jones "the embodiment of the living paradox that informs all great acting: his powerful persona is at once intimate and apart, friendly and heroic. He's right there in the room with you, but he's also in your mind, an electrifying double presence that only the strongest actors can create."

A Traumatic Boyhood

The only child of Robert Earl and Ruth Connolly Jones, James Earl Jones was born in Arkabutla, Mississippi, on his maternal grandfather's farm. Before his son's birth, James's father left the family to pursue a career as a prize fighter and later as an actor. Ruth Jones soon followed suit when she found tailoring work that kept her separated from her son for long periods of time. Born during the Great Depression, in 1931, Jones remarked in Newsweek that he realizes economic circumstances forced his parents apart. Still, he said, the abandonment hurt him deeply. "No matter how old the character I play," he concluded, "those deep childhood memories, those furies, will come out. I understand this."

Living on his grandparents' farm, Jones was afforded a measure of security. As a youngster he hunted, fished, and performed various farm chores. He also attended church, where he watched his grandmother's emotional displays of holy rapture. "There was a strong evangelistic aspect to her religion, and when she went to church and felt the spirit, she ended up behaving like a holy roller," Jones recalled in the Saturday Review. "There wasn't much touching in the family, but there was emotion."

Eventually Jones's grandparents formally adopted him, and took him north to rural Michigan. Jones acknowledged in Newsweek that the move north helped him to escape "a certain self-castration" common among Southern blacks at the time, but he did not adjust easily to his new surroundings. He developed a stutter and eventually found communication so difficult that at certain periods during grammar school he could talk only to himself or his immediate family. The problem followed him to high school, where one of his English teachers suggested he memorize speeches and enter oratorical contests. It seemed an unlikely way to cure a stutter, but it worked for Jones. Slowly, wrote Michelle Green in the Saturday Review, Jones "became such a skilled speaker that he began besting his voluble opponents."

Acting Beat out Other Careers

Jones attended the University of Michigan on a full scholarship, intending to study medicine. At first he took acting classes simply as a sideline, but he soon switched his major to theater. When he was 21 years old, and a junior at Michigan, he traveled east to New York City to meet his father. They had only spoken briefly on the telephone several times. The relationship was strained by the long years without communication, but Jones's father encouraged him to pursue a career in theater; James graduated from Michigan in 1953 with a bachelor's degree in drama.

The U.S. Army, specifically the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), recruited Jones in 1953 for two years of compulsory service. He spent much of his stint in a rigorous ranger training program in the Colorado mountains and was set to reenlist in 1955 when his commanding officer suggested that he taste civilian life before making a long-term commitment to the armed services. So Jones moved to New York City and enrolled in further acting classes. Two things helped ease his decision: he knew he could return to the army if he did not find success as an actor, and his tuition at the American Theater Wing was paid for by the Army's G.I. Bill.

Jones lived with his father for a time, and the two supplemented their meager acting incomes by polishing floors in Off-Broadway theaters. In 1957 the younger Jones earned his first professional role in an Off-Broadway production of Wedding in Japan. He was rarely out of work after that, but his salary during the last years of the 1950s averaged $45 a week. He made ends meet by renting a cold-water flat on the Lower East Side. Even as a journeyman actor, Jones proved willing to try any role, no matter how small. In 1959 he began a long tenure with the New York Shakespeare Festival, carrying a spear in Henry V. Before long he was given more prominent roles, culminating in his 1963 performance as the lead in Othello—one of a staggering 13 plays he appeared in that year.

Fame Assured by The Great White Hope

Othello ran for a year Off-Broadway with Jones in the lead. The actor also found time to do television spots and to make one film appearance—as the bombardier in Stanley Kubrick's dark comedy Dr. Strangelove. In the mid-1960s Jones began augmenting his theater work with television parts. He took cameo roles in shows such as The Defenders and East Side/West Side, and he became the first black man to take a continuing role on a daytime serial when he portrayed a doctor on As The World Turns. The big break for Jones, though, came during a period when he was touring Europe as the lead in Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones.

A copy of a play titled The Great White Hope landed in Jones's lap in 1967. A dramatization of the life of boxing champion Jack Johnson, The Great White Hope was slated for a possible Broadway run. Jones wanted the part desperately. He began to train at gymnasiums in order to build his muscles, working with boxing managers and watching old footage of Johnson's fights. He was ultimately awarded the part, and the show opened on Broadway on October 3, 1968.

The Great White Hope was a success, and its reception propelled Jones to stardom. "Fourteen years of good hard acting work, including more Shakespeare than most British actors attempt, have gone into the making of James Earl Jones," wrote a Newsweek reviewer who also concluded that "only an actor with the bigness and power of Jones" could make such a play work. Jones won a Tony Award for his contribution to The Great White Hope, and he was nominated for an Academy Award in 1970 when the play was made into a motion picture.

The instant celebrity brought Jones a new awareness of his limitations. The actor told TV Guide that his work in The Great White Hope did not prove to be the career boost he thought it would. "I thought with the Oscar nomination that several projects would be waiting for me immediately," he continued in TV Guide. "But then projects—very viable ones close to getting go-aheads—caved in under racism's insanity." One of those projects was a life story of civil rights activist Malcolm X, a version of which was finally scheduled for release by filmmaker Spike Lee in 1992.

Working for Love and Money

Jones returned to the stage, appearing in Hamlet in 1972, King Learin 1973, and Of Mice and Menin 1974. He also performed in a series of minor films, including The Man and The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings. Jones's most notable movie role of the 1970s and early 1980s, though, was one in which only his voice was used. He gave a memorable level of malevolence to the half-man, half-machine villain Darth Vader in all three Star Wars films.

In 1982 Jones appeared on Broadway as Othello to standing ovations. He also portrayed the villain in the film Conan, the Barbarian. To critics who faulted him for taking roles in substandard films, Jones had a simple reply: movies and television pay well, theater does not. "I can't afford to take a vacation unless I do some commercials when I'm in New York," he pointed out in the Saturday Review. "Money goes fast, and you can't get along doing only stage work. I've never minded doing commercials…. Commercials can be very exciting." In 1991 Jones lent himself to a string of TV ads for the Bell Atlantic Yellow Pages, his first on-air product endorsement.

Jones's work in the late 1980s and early 1990s was as varied as his early career. He played an enigmatic writer in the 1990 hit film Field of Dreams, a CIA chief in the 1992 screen adaptation of Tom Clancy's novel Patriot Games,, and a judge in the 1994 film Sommersby. On televison he starred as an ex-convict private investigator in the award-winning series Gabriel's Fire and, in 1995, as a widowed police officer in the series Under One Roof. Not neglecting his onstage work, he earned yet another Tony Award in 1988 for his portrayal of a disenchanted Negro League baseball player in August Wilson's play Fences. Jones explained in the Los Angeles Times that he has taken so many minor film roles and so much television work simply because he likes to work. "Just as, on stage, I waited years for a role like Jack [Johnson] in Great White Hope, or a role like Troy in Fences, you do the same thing in movies," he said. "Unless you are among that handful of exceptions, the stars who have projects lined up, you don't wait, at least I didn't want to wait… . I don't think I've done many films that counted. What I'm getting at, rather than waiting for that wonderful role in a movie, I take 'off' jobs."

To quote Los Angeles Times correspondent David Wallace, those "off jobs" are often "memorable only for [Jones's] commanding presence [or] for the brevity of his appearance." That situation would change, however; in 1990 Jones announced that his age and health were forcing him to curtail his work in live theater. "After six months in a play, the fatigue factor begins to affect the quality of a performance," the actor conceded in the Los Angeles Times. "The audiences might not know it, but I do. My thing is serious drama, and usually the lead character has a heavy load to carry. I find that after six months, if you get four out of eight shows a week that work perfectly the way you want, you're lucky." Jones stressed that he did not plan to retire from the theater completely, but rather to cut back his live work in favor of other projects.

A shelf full of awards to his credit and contributions to every sort of mass media notwithstanding, James Earl Jones remains a modest man with a sense of adventure about his career. He and his second wife, actress Cecilia Hart, have one son, and Jones told the Los Angeles Times that he guards against appearing heroic to his child. "When I go home nobody is saying, 'Hi, can I have your autograph?' I'm me, that's reality. I'm an actor. That's something you do, not something you are, and I want my son to have a sense of reality." Looking toward the future, Jones sees no lack of opportunities in show business. "There are lots of wonderful cameos and a lot of good lead roles out there," he concluded in the Los Angeles Times. "There are a lot of things I can do."

In 1995, Jones played Neb Langston in the CBS drama Under One Roof. Langston is a retired police officer who is raising a foster child. In early 1996, Jones starred opposite Richard Harris in the apartheid movie Cry, Beloved Country. Jones plays the role of a preacher whose son is arrested for the murder of a prominent white man.

Further Reading

Chicago Tribune, May 26, 1990; May 5, 1991.

Ebony, April 1965; June 1969.

Los Angeles Times, September 2, 1990; August 26, 1991; September 26, 1991.

Newsweek, October 21, 1968; April 6, 1987.

Saturday Review, February 1982.

Time, April 6, 1987.

TV Guide, October 27, 1990.

Variety, September 23, 1991. □

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Jones, James Earl

JONES, James Earl


Nationality: American. Born: Arkabutla, Mississippi, 17 January 1931; son of the actor Robert Earl Jones. Education: Attended Norman Dickson High School, Brethren, Michigan; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, B.A. in drama 1953. Military Service: U.S. Army, 1953–55: lieutenant. Family: Married 1) Julienne Marie, 1967; 2) Cecilia Hart, 1982. Career: 1955–57—studied acting at American Theatre Wing, and with Lee Strasberg and Tad Danielewski, New York; 1955–59—performed in summer stock at Manistee Summer Theatre, Michigan; 1957—New York role in Wedding in Japan; 1961—breakthrough role in The Blacks, New York; 1964—title role in Othello, New York; also made film debut in Dr. Strangelove; 1965—continuing role in TV series As the World Turns; 1968—role in Broadway hit The Great White Hope, repeated in film version, 1970; in TV mini-series Jesus of Nazareth, 1977, Roots: The Next Generation, 1979, and Signs and Wonders, 1996; in TV series Paris, 1979–80, Me and Mom, 1985, Gabriel's Fire, 1990–92, and Under One Roof, 1995. Awards: Emmy Awards, for Gabriel's Fire, and Heat Wave, 1990; National Medal of Arts, 1992. Agent: Bauman/Hiller, 5750 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 512, Los Angeles, CA 90036, U.S.A.


Films as Actor:

1964

Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Kubrick) (as Lt. Lothar Zagg)

1967

The Comedians (Glenville) (as Dr. Magiot)

1970

King: A Filmed Record . . . Montgomery to Memphis (Lumet and Joseph L. Mankiewicz—doc); End of the Road (Avakian) (as Dr. D); The Great White Hope (Ritt) (as Jack Jefferson)

1972

Malcolm X (Worth and Perc—doc) (as narrator); The Man (Sargent—for TV but released theatrically) (as President Douglass Dilman)

1974

Claudine (Berry) (as Roop)

1975

The UFO Incident (Colla—for TV)

1976

Deadly Hero (Nagy) (as Rabbit); The River Niger (Shah) (as Johnny Williams); The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and otor Kings (Badham) (as Leon); Swashbuckler (The Scarlet Buccaneer) (Goldstone) (as Nick Debrett)

1977

Star Wars (Lucas) (as voice of Darth Vader); The Greatest (Gries) (as Malcolm X); Exorcist II: The Heretic (Boorman) (as older Kokumo); The Last Remake of Beau Geste (Feldman) (as Sheikh Abdul); A Piece of the Action (Poitier) (as Joshua Burke); The Greatest Thing That Almost Happened (Moses—for TV)

1978

The Bushido Blade (Kotani) (as Harpooner); Paul Robeson (Lloyd Richards—for TV)

1980

The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner) (as voice of Darth Vader); The Golden Moment: An Olympic Love Story (Sarafian); Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (William A. Graham—for TV) (as Father Div)

1981

Amy and the Angel (Rosenblum—for TV) (as the Angel Gabriel)

1982

Blood Tide (Jeffries) (as Frye); Conan the Barbarian (Milius) (as Thulsa Doom)

1983

Return of the Jedi (Marquand) (as voice of Darth Vader)

1984

The Vegas Strip War (Englund—for TV) (as Jack Madrid); Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (Burton—for TV)

1985

1877: The Grand Army of Starvation (Briers); The Atlanta Child Murders (Erman—for TV); City Limits (Lipstadt) (as Albert)

1986

My Little Girl (Kaiserman) (as Ike Bailey); Soul Man (Miner) (as Prof. Banks)

1987

Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold (Gary Nelson and Newt Arnold) (as Umslopogaas); Gardens of Stone (Francis Ford Coppola) (as Sgt.-Major "Goody" Nelson); Matewan (Sayles) (as "Few Clothes" Johnson); Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night (Hal Sutherland—animation) (as voice of Emperor of the Night)

1988

Coming to America (Landis) (as King Jaffe Joffer)

1989

Three Fugitives (Veber) (as Detective Dugan); Field of Dreams (Robinson) (as Terence Mann); Best of the Best (Radler) (as Coach Couzo)

1990

The Hunt for Red October (McTiernan) (as Adm. James Greer); Grim Prairie Tales (Coe) (as Morrison); Last Flight Out (Elikann—for TV) (as Al Topping); The Ambulance (Cohen) (as Lt. Spencer); Heat Wave (Hooks—for TV) (as Junius Johnson); Ivory Hunters (The Last Elephant) (Sargent—for TV) (as Inspector Nkuru); By Dawn's Early Light (Sholder—for TV) (as Alice)

1991

Terrorgram (Kienzle) (as Voice of Retribution); True Identity (Lane) (as himself); Convicts (Masterson) (as Ben Johnson)

1992

Scorchers (Beaird) (as Bear); Sneakers (Robinson) (as Mr. Bernard Abbott); Patriot Games (Noyce) (as Adm. James Greer); Lincoln (Kunhardt—doc for TV) (as narrator)

1993

Excessive Force (Hess) (as Jake, the bar owner); Percy and Thunder (Dixon—for TV) (as Percy Banks); Hallelujah (Lane—for TV) (as Old Man Taylor); The Meteor Man (Townsend) (as Mr. Moses); The Sandlot (Evans) (as Mr. Mertle); Sommersby (Amiel) (as Judge Isaacs); Dreamrider (Bill Brown)

1994

The Lion King (Minkoff—animation) (as voice of Mufasa); Clean Slate (Mick Jackson) (as Dolby); Clear and Present Danger (Noyce) (as Adm. James Greer); Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (Segal) (as himself, uncredited); Twilight Zone: Rod Serling's Lost Classics (Markowitz—for TV) (as host); Africa: The Serengeti (doc) (as narrator); Confessions: Two Faces of Evil (Cates—for TV) (as Charlie Lloyd); The Vernon Johns Story (Fink—for TV) (title role)

1995

Jefferson in Paris (Ivory) (as Madison Hemings); Cry, the Beloved Country (Roodt) (as the Rev. Stephen Kumalo)

1996

A Family Thing (Richard Pearce) (as Ray Murdock); Looking for Richard (Pacino); Rebound: The Legend of Earl 'The Goat' Manigault (La Salle—for TV) (as Dr. McDuffie)

1997

Casper: A Spirited Beginning (McNamara—for video) (as voice of Kibosh); Alone (Horton Foote's Alone) (Lindsay-Hogg—for TV) (as Grey); Good Luck (Guys Like Us; The Ox and the Eye) (LaBrie) (as James Bing); The Second Civil War (Dante) (as Jim Calla); Gang Related (Gang City) (Kouf) (as Arthur Baylor); What the Deaf Man Heard (Harrison) (as Archibald Thacker)

1998

Summer's End (Shaver) (as Dr. William Blakely); The Lion King II: Simba's Pride (LaDuca, Rooney) (as Mufasa); Primary Colors (Nichols) (voice); Merlin (Barron) (as Mountain King)

1999

Undercover Angel (Stoller); The Annihilation of Fish (Burnett) (as Fish); Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun (Kucan) (as General Solomon)

Publications


By JONES: book—


James Earl Jones: Voices and Silences, with Penelope Niven, New York, 1993.

By JONES: articles—

Interview in Jet (Chicago), 4 July 1994. Interview in Jet (Chicago), 16 January 1995.

On JONES: book—

Null, Gary, Black Hollywood: The Negro in Motion Pictures, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1975.

On JONES: articles—

Hellman, P., "The Great Black Hope," in New York, 21 October 1968.

Clark, John, filmography in Premiere (New York), June 1992.

Current Biography 1994, New York, 1994.

Culhane, John, "How James Earl Jones Found His Voice," in Reader's Digest, July 1994.

Mesic, Penelope, "Real Heat," in Chicago, February 1996.


* * *

When James Earl Jones was a young actor, it would have been impossible for him to have attained celluloid stardom. From the early 1950s through the late 1960s/early 1970s, only one African-American performer was allowed to achieve eminence on screen: Sidney Poitier. Such was the manner in which the racial politics of the era affected the movies. In the 1990s, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Wesley Snipes, Laurence Fishburne, and others have become movie stars—and Jones, too old to play romantic leads or action heroes, has aged into a venerable celluloid elder statesman and character actor.

Jones began pursuing an acting career in the 1950s, at which point he cut his teeth on the New York stage, often appearing with Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival. He was past 30 when he debuted on-screen in Dr. Strangelove, and he was barely noticeable in a minor role. His first important movie work came in 1970, when he was approaching the age of 40. In The Great White Hope, he offers a mesmerizing performance as Jack Jefferson, a character based on Jack Johnson, the first black-American heavyweight boxing champion. It was a part he had originated on Broadway two years earlier. Jones did go on to play some starring parts—most intriguingly, the first black U.S. president in The Man, and most memorably, the Josh Gibson-like Negro League home-run hitter opposite Billy Dee Williams's Satchel Paige-like hurler in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings. Over the years, Jones frequently returned to the stage, and began appearing in television movies and mini-series (with one of his more distinguished roles being Alex Haley in Roots: The Next Generation).

But in most of his better films, including Matewan, Field of Dreams, The Sandlot, and the trilogy The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger, Jones has had supporting roles. As he began surfacing on screen with more frequency, many of his films—from Swashbuckler in 1976 through Excessive Force and The Meteor Man in 1993—have been unimpressive. Still, Jones is such an imposing presence that his impact is felt even when only his voice is employed on screen. Such is the case in the animated feature The Lion King, where he speaks the character of Mufasa, and most especially in the Star Wars trilogy, where he is the voice of Darth Vader.

In the mid-1990s, Jones has had two interesting starring roles: a back-country South African priest in Cry, the Beloved Country and a Chicago cop in A Family Thing. In these films, he is paired with a white actor (Richard Harris in the former, Robert Duvall in the latter). Both scenarios begin with the characters living in separate worlds; through the course of the story, they come to understand one another, realizing that they have much in common as human beings. In Cry, the Beloved Country, they are fathers whose sons suffer cruel fates; in A Family Thing, they are, in fact, half-brothers. The manner in which they learn to coexist serves to present a humanistic antidote to the racial polarization that pervades contemporary society.

While publicizing A Family Thing, Jones noted, "We are who we are for much more interesting reasons than our color": a deeply humane observation, which reflects upon his own life and career as much as it does the theme of the movie he was promoting.

—Rob Edelman

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Jones, James Earl

James Earl Jones

Born: January 17, 1931
Arkabutla, Mississippi

African American actor

Award-winning actor James Earl Jones has acted on television, stage, and screen. He is best known for his deep bass voice.

Unhappy childhood

The only child of Robert Earl and Ruth Connolly Jones, James Earl Jones was born on January 17, 1931, in Arkabutla, Mississippi. Before his son's birth, James's father left the family to pursue a career as a boxer and later as an actor. Ruth Jones left soon after to find work, leaving her separated from her son for long periods of time. This was during the Great Depression, a slowdown in the United States's system of producing, distributing, and using goods and services that caused millions of Americans to lose their jobs. Jones told Newsweek that being abandoned hurt him deeply. "No matter how old the character I play," he said, "those deep childhood memories, those furies, will come out. I understand this."

Jones lived at his grandparents' farm and hunted, fished, and performed various chores. He also attended church, where he watched his grandmother's dramatic displays of religious feeling. Eventually Jones's grandparents formally adopted him and took him north to Michigan. Jones struggled in his new surroundings. He developed a stutter and soon found communication so difficult that at certain periods during grammar school he could talk only to himself or his immediate family. The problem continued in high school, where an English teacher suggested he memorize speeches and enter speaking contests. This cured Jones of his problem.

Discovers acting

Jones attended the University of Michigan on a full scholarship (money given to a student to attend college), intending to study medicine. At first he took acting classes as a hobby, but he soon switched his major to theater. When he was twenty-one years old and a junior at Michigan, he traveled to New York City to meet his father for the first time. The relationship was strained by the many years they had been apart, but Jones's father encouraged him to pursue a career in theater. James graduated from Michigan in 1953 with a bachelor's degree in drama.

In 1953 Jones joined the army, serving in a ranger (a soldier who confronts the enemy at close range) training program in the Colorado mountains. He was set to reenlist in 1955 when his commanding officer suggested that he take a break before making a long-term commitment. Jones moved to New York City and enrolled in more acting classes. He lived with his father for a time, and the two earned extra money by polishing theater floors. In 1957 the younger Jones earned his first professional role in a production of Wedding in Japan. Although he was rarely out of work after that, his salary during the late 1950s averaged only forty-five dollars a week.

In 1959 Jones began a long stretch with the New York Shakespeare Festival, carrying a spear in Henry V. Before long he was given bigger roles, and in 1963 he played the lead in Othello, one of thirteen plays he appeared in that year. Othello ran for a year with Jones in the lead. He also found time to make one film appearance, in director Kubrick's (19281999) Dr. Strangelove. In the mid-1960s Jones became the first African American man to take a continuing role on a daytime soap opera when he played a doctor on As The World Turns.

Critical success

In 1967, while Jones was touring Europe in Eugene O'Neill's (18881953) The Emperor Jones, he was given a copy of a play titled The Great White Hope. The story of the life of boxing champion Jack Johnson (18781946), The Great White Hope, was scheduled for a possible Broadway run. Jones wanted the part badly. He began working out to build his muscles, working with boxing managers, and watching old footage of Johnson's fights. He won the part, and the show opened on Broadway in October 1968.

The Great White Hope was a success. Jones won a Tony Award for his performance, and he was nominated (put forward for consideration) for an Academy Award in 1970 when the play was made into a motion picture. Still, Jones told TV Guide that his work in The Great White Hope did not prove to be the career boost he thought it would. He blamed racism (unequal treatment based on race) for the inability of several of his projects, including a life story of civil rights leader Malcolm X (19251965), to be approved for production.

Many different roles

Jones returned to the stage, appearing in Hamlet (1972), King Lear (1973), and Of Mice and Men (1974). He also performed in a series of minor films, including The Man and The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings. Jones's most popular movie role of the 1970s and early 1980s was one in which only his voice was used. He gave a memorable level of evil to the villain Darth Vader in all three Star Wars films.

In 1982 Jones appeared in the film Conan, the Barbarian. To critics who questioned why he took roles in second-rate films, Jones had a simple reply: movies and television pay well, theater does not. "I can't afford to take a vacation unless I do some commercials when I'm in New York," he pointed out in the Saturday Review. "Money goes fast, and you can't get along doing only stage work." In 1991 Jones appeared in a series of television ads for the Bell Atlantic Yellow Pages.

Jones's work in the late 1980s and early 1990s was as varied as his early career. He played a writer in Field of Dreams (1990), a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief in Patriot Games (1992), and a judge in Sommersby (1994). On television he starred as a private investigator in Gabriel's Fire and as a police officer in Under One Roof. He earned another Tony Award in 1988 for his portrayal of a Negro League baseball player in the play Fences.

Later years

In 1990 Jones announced that his age and health were forcing him to cut back his work in live theater. Jones stressed that he did not plan to retire from the theater completely; he simply wanted to spend more time on other projects. In 1993 Voices and Silences, his autobiography (the story of his one's own life), was published. Jones and his second wife, actress Cecilia Hart, have one son. Looking toward the future, Jones sees no lack of opportunities in show business. "There are lots of wonderful cameos (roles in which only a brief appearance is made) and a lot of good lead roles out there," he concluded in the Los Angeles Times. "There are a lot of things I can do."

In September 2001 Jones was the first speaker at a service in York's Yankee Stadium to honor the victims of the terrorist attacks on the United States twelve days earlier. In January 2002 city officials in Lauderhill, Florida, invited Jones to speak at their annual Martin Luther King, Jr. (19291968) Day Celebration. A plaque was unveiled that mistakenly paid tribute to James Earl Ray, the man convicted of shooting and killing King, rather than James Earl Jones.

For More Information

Hasday, Judy L. James Earl Jones. Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House, 1998.

Jones, James Earl, and Penelope Niven. James Earl Jones: Voices and Silences. New York: Scribner, 1993.

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Jones, James Earl

James Earl Jones, 1931–, American actor, b. Tate co., Miss. Jones made his stage debut at the Univ. of Michigan and appeared thereafter for seven years with the New York Shakespeare Festival in Macbeth (1962), Othello (1963), and King Lear (1973), among many others. He achieved Broadway stardom with his powerful portrayal of the fighter Jack Johnson in The Great White Hope (1968). He also appeared on Broadway in The Iceman Cometh (1973), Of Mice and Men (1974), and Athol Fugard's A Lesson from Aloes (1980). He returned triumphantly to the stage in August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize–winning Fences (1987). Jones has had supporting roles in numerous films, most notably as the voice of the villain Darth Vader in Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983).

See his autobiography (1993, with P. Niven).

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Jones, James Earl

Jones, James Earl

January 17, 1931


James Earl Jones, an actor renowned for his broad, powerful voice and acting range, was born as Todd Jones in Arkabutla, Mississippi, the son of actor Robert Earl Jones. He was raised by his grandparents, who moved to Michigan when Jones was five. Soon afterwards, Jones developed a bad stutter, and remained largely speechless for the following eight years. When he was fourteen, a high school English teacher had him read aloud a poem he had written, and Jones gradually regained the use of his voice. He subsequently starred on the school's debating team. In 1949 Jones entered the University of Michigan as a premedical student, but he soon switched to acting and received his bachelor's degree in 1953. Two years later he moved to New York City and studied at the American Theater Wing. He made his professional debut in 1957.

Jones first became well known in the early 1960s. His first leading role was in Lionel Abel's The Pretender in 1960. That same year he became a member of Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival; he remained with the company until 1967, performing on and off Broadway in numerous theatrical productions. He also played several small parts on Broadway. Between 1961 and 1963 he appeared in eighteen different plays off Broadway. His most notable performances came in Shakespeare Festival productions, as well as in an all-black production of Jean Genet's The Blacks, in Josh Greenfield's Clandestine on the Morning Line, and in Jack Gelber's The Apple. In 1962 Jones won an Obie Award for best actor of the season based on his performances in the latter two productions and in Errol John's Moon on a Rainbow Shawl. He subsequently won both a Drama Desk Award (1964) and a second Obie (1965) for his performance in the title role of Othello at the New York Shakespeare Festival. Jones also made his screen debut at this time, in a small role in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964).

In 1967 Jones received his first widespread critical and public recognition when he was cast as the boxer Jack Jefferson (a fictionalized version of heavyweight champion Jack Johnson) in a Washington, D.C., production of Howard Sackler's play The Great White Hope. In 1968 the play moved to Broadway. The following year, it won a Pulitzer Prize and Jones received a Tony Award. He also starred in the 1970 film based on the play and was nominated that year for an Oscar.

During the 1970s Jones appeared in a variety of stage and screen roles, including such movies as The Man (1972), Claudine (1974)for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe AwardThe River Niger (1975), The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars and Motor Kings (1976), and A Piece of the Action (1977); he also provided the voice of Darth Vader in Star Wars (1977) and its sequels. On stage, Jones starred in Lorraine Hansberry's Les Blancs (1970), in Athol Fugard's Boesman and Lena (1970), in an adaptation of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (1974), and in various Shakespearean roles.

In 1977 Jones appeared on Broadway in a one-man show in which he portrayed singer/activist Paul Robeson. The show (which opened soon after Robeson's death) was denounced as a distortion of Robeson's life by Paul Robeson, Jr., and was picketed by a committee of black artists and intellectuals who complained that the play had softpedaled Robeson's political radicalism. Jones countered that the committee was engaged in censorship. The play's Broadway run and subsequent appearance on public television served to revive public interest in Robeson's life and career.

During the 1980s and 1990s Jones continued to act in various media. On stage, he starred on Broadway in 198182 in a highly acclaimed production of Othello with Christopher Plummer as Iago and Cecilia Hart (Jones's wife) as Desdemona, in Athol Fugard's A Lesson from Aloes (1980) and Master Harold and the Boys (1982), and in August Wilson's Fences, for which he received a second Tony Award in 1987. He also appeared in more than thirty films during this period, including such movies as Matewan (1984), Soul Man (1985), Gardens of Stone (1985), Coming to America (1988), Field of Dreams (1989), The Hunt for Red October (1990), Sommersby (1993), and the animated feature The Lion King (1994) as well as A Family Thing (1998).

Jones also has had considerable experience in television. He appeared in several episodes of such dramatic series as East Side, West Side in the early 1960s. In 1965 his role on As the World Turns made him one of the first African Americans to regularly appear in a daytime drama. In 1973 he hosted the variety series Black Omnibus. In 1978 Jones played author Alex Haley in the television miniseries Roots: The Next Generations. In the late 1990s and into the 2000s he has made numerous appearances in such popular television shows as Touched by an Angel, Frasier, Will and Grace, and Everwood. He also has starred in two shortlived dramatic series, Paris (197980) and Gabriel's Fire (19901992) for which he won an Emmy in 1990, and has made many television movies, including The Cay (1974), The Atlanta Child Murders (1984), and The Vernon Johns Story (1994). In 1993 Jones published a memoir, Voices and Silences.

See also Film in the United States; Johnson, Jack; Robeson, Paul; Television

Bibliography

Bogle, Donald. Blacks in American Film and Television: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1988.

Jones, James Earl, and Penelope Niven. Voices and Silences. New York: Scribner's, 1993.

sabrina fuchs (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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Jones, James Earl

JONES, James Earl

(b. 17 January 1931 in Arkabutla, Mississippi), dynamic actor of stage and screen, and only the third African-American actor to star in a major stage production of Shakespeare's Othello.

Jones is the son of Robert Earl and Ruth (Connolly) Jones, who parted before his birth. His mother later left him in the custody of her parents, John Henry and Maggie (Anderson) Connolly, in Arkabutla near the Mississippi delta. An only child, Jones was raised as a sibling to his aunts and uncles and to a younger cousin; he called his grandparents "mama" and "papa." When the Connollys moved from Mississippi to Michigan in the mid-1930s, John Connolly took Jones to Memphis to live with his paternal grandmother, Elnora Jones Jackson. Sensing rejection by the only family he knew, Jones refused to stay with her and moved instead to Michigan with the Connollys. He remained traumatized by the incident, began to stutter uncontrollably, and plunged into silence for many years.

After eight years at a one-room schoolhouse in Dublin, Michigan, Jones enrolled at Dickson High School in Brethren, where an English teacher named Donald Crouch noticed the boy's writing talent and took a special interest in him. With Crouch's encouragement, Jones not only conquered his stutter but also joined the school's debating team, played varsity basketball, and served as a class officer and on the student council. By the time he graduated in 1949 he had won a public speaking championship and a Regents Alumni Scholarship to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. That summer he visited his father in New York City. It was his first contact with the elder Jones, who had been working as an actor for some years, and the experience stimulated the son's interest in the theater. Although he had intended initially to become a doctor, Jones graduated from the University of Michigan in 1953 with a degree in drama.

While he was in college, Jones joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps and served a mandatory hitch from 1953 to 1955. Following his tour of duty in the armed forces, he used GI Bill funding to finance an apprenticeship with the American Theatre Wing in New York in 1957 and became affiliated with the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park in 1960. In 1961 Jones accepted a part in Jean Genet's controversial farce, The Blacks. The project, directed by Gene Frankel, opened off-Broadway at Saint Mark's Playhouse on 4 May 1961 and brought a number of rising young African-American stars together. Among them, Maya Angelou, Cicely Tyson, and Lou Gossett, Jr., all went on to rewarding careers on stage and in film. An offbeat play within a play, The Blacks was an ethereal tale of white colonialism and racially motivated murder. The all-black cast of actors donned eerie white masks to symbolize the colonialists, thus providing a macabre and provocative commentary on the morbid blackface theater of the post-slavery era. Jones, who appeared as Deodatus Village, recalled in his memoir that in the context of the 1960s, the play roiled a troubling reality inherent to a racially prejudiced social order; it was, he said, evocative of "pure conscience."

While continuing an affiliation with Shakespeare in the Park during the summer of 1961, Jones appeared in other live theater productions and in minor television roles. That year he won an Obie Award for best actor in the off-Broadway theater. An appearance with his father in Moon on a Rainbow Shawl further heightened Jones's stature on stage, and he received the 1962 Daniel Blum Theatre World Award for Most Promising Personality. Jones added the cinematic dimension to his career in 1962, when Stanley Kubrick cast him as Lieutenant Lothar Zogg in Dr. Strangelove. He appeared with George C. Scott in The Merchant of Venice that year, and in 1963 a reunion of the original cast of The Blacks led Jones to reprise his Village role for a landmark 1,000th performance, marking the longest off-Broadway run of a play in New York history.

Among his signature roles, Jones earned notoriety as Shakespeare's Othello on many occasions, beginning with a summer stock production at the Ramsdell Opera House in 1956. In March 1964 Joseph Papp cast Jones in the role for Shakespeare in the Park opposite Julienne Marie as Desdemona. Before Jones's Othellos, Paul Robeson was the only African-American actor to appear as the Moor in any major U.S. production in the twentieth century. The Papp production, directed by Gladys Vaughan, ran for nineteen performances in the park and went off-Broadway in October for 224 performances at the Martinique Theatre. Jones, who won a Drama Desk Award in 1964 and a Vernon Rice Award in 1965 for his performance, prompted Tom Prideaux's timely commentary in Life, "[Jones's] Othello, for better or worse, is affected by our own contemporary state of history. The ancient story of a dark-skinned Moor married to a fair Venetian noblewoman has special meaning to us in 1964." Jones later as dynamic in his personal life as in his career and, despite the conservative social mores of the 1960s, entered into a short-lived marriage in real life with his white costar, Marie, in 1968. The couple had no children and divorced in 1971. He went on to marry Cecilia Hart in 1982; they have one child.

Beginning in 1965 Jones appeared off-Broadway as Ekhart in Bertholt Brecht's Baal, spent the summer as Ajax in a Central Park production of Troilus and Cressida, and appeared on a daytime television series, As the World Turns. In 1967, while filming The Comedians with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Jones reviewed a script for The GreatWhite Hope from the director Edwin Sherin. A fictional drama by Howard Sackler, the play is based on the true-life story of an African-American fighter, Jack Johnson, who won the world boxing championship title in 1908. Jones accepted the role of the fictional boxer Jack Jefferson, and the play opened to critical acclaim in Washington, D.C., in 1967. The production moved to Broadway's Alvin Theater in 1968, and Jones earned an Antoinette Perry Award (the Tony) as best actor and a second Drama Desk Award, both in 1969. Jones later appeared in the film version of the play and was nominated for an Academy Award.

In later years Jones was recognized for the deep, broad sound of his bass voice as much as for his dramatic presence. In 1977 he gave voice to the intergalactic villain Darth Vader in the George Lucas Star Wars films, and in 1994 he was heard as King Mufasa in Disney's animated feature The Lion King. His booming bass voice makes him a popular choice for narrator for films and television, and in the twenty-first century he is heard around the clock as the voice of Time-Warner's Cable News Network.

Jones penned an autobiography, James Earl Jones: Voices and Silences, with Penelope Niven (1993). He is featured in James Earl Jones, in a series of books for juveniles by Judy L. Hasday (1998). See also Christine Arnold, "James Earl Jones: A New Standard for Othello," Philadelphia Inquirer (30 Dec. 1981), and Tom Prideaux's review of Othello in Life (11 Dec. 1964).

Gloria Cooksey

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