You would never guess it, but one of Hollywood’s most iconic voices once actually had a stutter. Who would imagine James Earl Jones went from suffering that childhood affliction to becoming the man behind Darth Vader’s terrifying presence and Mufasa’s millenary wisdom?
He overcame his stutter by reciting poetry, speaking in public, and acting, even though it lasted for several years. It’s a good thing he overcame it, however, or else who knows what the world of Disney—Star Wars included—would sound like today. You can’t have our current pop culture without Star Wars, after all, and you can’t have Star Wars as we know it without James Earl Jones. So, what did his road from stutterer to star look like?
Born on January 17, 1931, James Earl Jones didn’t have an easy childhood. His father left the family shortly after Jones’ birth, and from the time he was five, he was raised by his grandparents. This took a traumatic toll on James Earl, who developed his severe stutter around this time. He remained functionally mute for eight years after that!
He was initially a pre-med major at the University of Michigan, where he joined the Reserve Officer Training Troops. Somewhere along the way, he discovered a passion for the dramatic arts. Even during his time with the military, he worked as a part-time stage assistant.
Eventually, Jones moved to New York and studied at the American Theatre Wing. He worked as a janitor at this stage of his life.
But soon he began a prolific acting career, beginning with the grandeur of the stage. In 1955, he performed his first portrayal of Shakespeare’s Othello, at the Ramsdell Theatre in Michigan.
(Take a look at James Earl Jones performing Shakespeare at the White House Poetry Jam)
So, without further ado, here are 15 films that marked his career and voice.
Dr. Strangelove (1964)
He became a successful stage actor, performing in over 30 plays and winning two Tony awards. His first film appearance was in 1964, with the role of Lt. Lothar Zogg in the political satire Dr. Strangelove.
The Great White Hope (1970)
Afterwards, he starred in The Great White Hope (1970) as Jack Jefferson, a role he also portrayed on stage previously. He even received an Academy Award nomination and two Golden Globe nominations for this performance.
Malcolm X (1972)
During the 70’s he participated in over 15 other films, including Malcolm X (1972), where he portrayed the title character, and Swashbuckler (1976).
Star Wars (1977)
But the film that made him the legend he is now came in 1977, when he provided the ominous voice for one of the most famous antagonists in the history of cinema: Darth Vader. Star Wars was a massive cultural phenomenon, and he reprised the role several times afterwards.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Most notably, Jones voiced Darth Vader in the two immediate sequels after the success of Star Wars. First, in The Empire Strikes Back.
Return of the Jedi (1983)
And then, in Return of the Jedi.
Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Another iconic appearance came alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1982 cult classic, Conan the Barbarian.
In 1987, he acted in Matewan with Chris Cooper, for which he was nominated for the Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Male Actor.
The Hunt for Red October (1990)
Then came the 90s, and with them, a new brilliant stage in James Earl Jones’ career. He started the decade out acting alongside Sean Connery in The Hunt for Red October, based on Tom Clancy’s novel, as Admiral James Greer.
Patriot Games (1992)
He reprised his role as Admiral Greer in two sequels, starting with Patriot Games, alongside Harrison Ford.
Clear and Present Danger (1994)
And again in the final installment of Tom Clancy’s trilogy, where Harrison Ford also reprised his role from Patriot Games.
The Lion King (1994)
But perhaps the most memorable 90s film in which Jones participated was Disney’s classic animated, The Lion King. He famously provided the voice of Mufasa, Simba’s father and “king of everything the light touches.” It’s hard not to get tearful.
The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride (1998)
He did reprise the role of Mufasa in the less successful 1998 sequel.
The Angriest Man in Brooklyn (2014)
He also appeared alongside Robin Williams in 2014’s The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, one of Williams’ last films before his untimely death that same year. Here James Earl Jones goes back to his roots with a stutter.
The Lion King (2019)
Jones is set to reprise his role of Mufasa, yet again, in the 2019 remake of The Lion King. This is one we’re actually really excited for! And yeah, that voice in the trailer? It’s all him.
It’s clear James Earl Jones’ career is nothing short of amazing. There’s a good reason he is considered one of Hollywood’s most versatile actors, with a talent fitted not only for live-action films and theater plays, but television, commercials, and voice acting as well. His voice added the kind of gravitas to the movie industry that seldom comes once in a generation, and now, at his 88 years of age, he’s still going strong. Happy birthday, James Earl Jones!
(Cover photo by Carlos Osorio / Toronto Star)
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