James Earl Jones is the American actor who voiced Darth Vader in the Star Wars franchise. He's also known for films like The Great White Hope, The Hunt for Red October and Field of Dreams as well as an array of TV shows.
Early Life and Education
James Earl Jones was born on January 17, 1931, in Arkabutla, Mississippi. His father, Robert Earl Jones, a boxer and actor, was largely absent from his life growing up. At an early age, Jones was raised by his maternal grandparents in Mississippi before moving with them to Michigan. He is of African, Cherokee, Choctaw and Irish descent.
Jones developed a severe stutter in childhood, which left him terribly self-conscious and shy around other children. He generally didn't speak until a teacher helped him out of his silence during his high school years. “…I had a great English teacher who believed in language,” Jones later told the Hollywood Reporter. “And he looked at a poem I wrote and said, ‘It's too good for you to have written, so to prove you wrote it, please stand up in front of the class and recite it from memory.’ And I did it without stuttering. So he used that as a program to get me to talk.”
Jones went to the University of Michigan to study medicine, but soon discovered acting. After college, he served in the military during the Korean War, returning to his passion of performing once he finished his service. Moving to New York City, Jones studied at the American Theatre Wing and eventually took on the stage name Todd Jones for a little while, inspired by a childhood nickname. He found a job as a janitor to make ends meet during the early days of his career and got to know his father, who was then working in the dramatic arts as well.
Movies, TV and Stage
James Earl Jones made his Broadway debut in the late 1950s in the play Sunrise at Campobello. For several years, he took on a variety of roles for stage, television and film. Jones was active in the Shakespeare in the Park program, appearing in one of its first productions in 1962, and in 1964, he gave a tremendous performance as the title character in Othello, going on to play the character numerous times.
‘East Side/West Side,’ ‘Dr. Strangelove’
In 1963 Jones picked up his first Emmy Award nomination for his performance on the TV show East Side/West Side. The following year, he played Lieutenant Lothar Zogg in Stanley Kubrick's war satire Dr. Strangelove, starring Peter Sellers and George C. Scott. During the mid-‘60s he also starred in two soaps, Guiding Light and As the World Turns, portraying doctors.
‘The Great White Hope’
On the stage, Jones had a career breakthrough in 1968: He starred as boxer Jack Jefferson (a character based on real-world fighter Jack Johnson) in the Broadway drama The Great White Hope. The performance brought him his first Tony Award. He also starred in the 1970 film version of the play, for which he received an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe.
‘Of Mice and Men,’ ‘Fences’
Continuing to work in theater, Jones appeared in numerous Broadway productions during the 1970s and ‘80s. He had starring roles in such productions as the 1974 revival of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and the 1978 two-man show Paul Robeson. In 1987, Jones won his second Tony Award for his work in the August Wilson drama Fences.
Darth Vader in ‘Star Wars’
Jones also continued with his screen work, sharing the lead with Diahann Carroll in the 1974 drama/comedy Claudine as well as portraying author Alex Haley in the acclaimed 1977 miniseries Roots and its 1979 sequel The Next Generations. Famous for his distinctively deep and rich oration, Jones began one of his most iconic film roles in the late 1970s: providing the voice of Darth Vader in George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983).
‘Coming to America,’ ‘The Hunt for Red October’
On the big screen, Jones often played strong, authoritative characters. He portrayed the villain Thulsa Doom in 1982's Conan the Barbarian, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and later portrayed a king to Eddie Murphy's prince in 1988's Coming to America. He then took on the role of an admiral in 1990's The Hunt for Red October ‐ a part he reprised in Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994). That same year, he lent his commanding voice to the character of Mufasa for the blockbuster animated film The Lion King.
Historic Emmy Wins
Jones thrived on TV as well, winning a pair of Emmy Awards in 1991 for his leading role on the dramatic series Gabriel's Fire and his supporting role on the miniseries Heat Wave. He thus became the first actor to win two Emmys in the same year in the drama category. On Gabriel's Fire, which ran from 1990-91, he starred as a former cop who was released from prison after being convicted of murder.
Jones tried his hand at series TV again in 1995 with the short-lived drama Under One Roof. He's also made guest appearances on such shows as Touched by an Angel, Frasier, Stargate SG-1, The Simpsons, Everwood and The Big Bang Theory, among other programs.
‘Golden Pond,’ ‘Tin Roof’ and ‘Gin’
Jones continues to juggle a variety of stage and screen roles, remaining an in-demand actor. In 2005, he earned another Tony nomination for Best Leading Actor in a play for his work on On Golden Pond. (Leslie Uggams co-starred in the production.) Three years later, he played Big Daddy in the African-American revival of the Tennessee Williams’ classic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, co-starring Terrence Howard, Anika Noni Rose and Phylicia Rashad. Then in 2010, Jones co-starred with a fellow legend ‐ Vanessa Redgrave ‐ in the Broadway production of Driving Miss Daisy. More productions followed, including The Best Man (2012), You Can't Take It With You (2014) and The Gin Game (2015), with the latter co-starring fellow Tony winner Cicely Tyson.
‘The Best Man,’ ‘Gimme Shelter’
In 2012, Jones earned his fourth Tony nomination for his performance in the revival of The Best Man, penned by Gore Vidal. Around this time, he again appeared on the big screen with Vanessa Hudgens and Rosario Dawson in the 2013 drama Gimme Shelter, and co-starred with Peter Dinklage and Mila Kunis in the dramatic comedy The Angriest Man in Brooklyn.
Over the years, Jones has received many accolades for his contributions to the arts, including a Kennedy Center Honor in 2002 and an honorary Academy Award in 2011. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestowed the award to Jones “for his legacy of consistent excellence and uncommon versatility,” according to the organization's website.
In 1993 Jones published the memoir Voices and Silences, which looks at both his career and early family life.
Wife & Son
Previously married to actress Julienne Marie, with whom he co-starred in Othello, Jones wed Cecilia Hart in 1982 and was married to her until her death in 2016. The couple has one son, Flynn Earl Jones.
January 17, 1931
- James Earl Jones is well known for being the voice of Darth Vader in the mildly popular Star Wars movies.
- James Earl Jones had a very bad stutter when he was a child. So bad, in fact, was his stutter, he refused to speak. He was mute for almost eight years until an English teacher, Donald Crouch, taught him how to write poetry and Jones ended his long-running silence.
- James Earl Jones was only paid $7,000 for his appearance in the first Star Wars film. He didn't mind, though, and it doesn't matter now, as he is worth in excess of $45 million.
- James Earl Jones is also the voice of Mufasa in the Lion King.
- He has played title roles in Othello, King Lear, Hamlet, and Macbeth.