- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 7, 2002

James Earl Jones figured he was forever to be known only as the voice of Darth Vader. Then "The Lion King" came along."I think they are running neck-and-neck,
the people who know me as either the voice of Darth Vader or as Mufasa," says Mr. Jones in a telephone interview. "And then there is this whole other, older generation who know me as the man who says 'This is CNN' or the guy from the Verizon ads."
Mr. Jones, one of this year's five recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors, has lent his commanding physical presence and splendid, basso voice to numerous speaking parts in his 40-year career.
His achievements include a best-selling recording of the Bible and a Tony award and Oscar nomination for his role as the boxer Jack Jefferson (based on the life of boxer Jack Johnson) in "The Great White Hope" which premiered at Arena Stage in 1966. "It was a carnival, a circus, a crazy kind of energy," he remembers about the Arena Stage production, which co-starred Jane Alexander. "We got away with it because no one expected it or seen it before."
Mr. Jones won a second Tony award in 1987 for his role as the aging baseball player in August Wilson's "Fences." "I think of August as an African American Mozart," he says. "There is such poetry and music in his dialogue."
But he didn't start out as the mouth that roared. Instead, Mr. Jones had such a severe stutter as a child he preferred to be silent.
Born Jan. 7, 1931, in Arkabutla, Miss., Mr. Jones was adopted by his maternal grandparents in Michigan after his father, a prizefighter and an actor, abandoned the family. His childhood was lonely. Self-conscious about his stutter, Mr. Jones was quiet around other children.
"I was unable to talk from the age of 8 to the age of 15," he recalled in a 1979 interview in Jet magazine, "I thought, 'If I can't say it, I just won't' so I didn't talk." While he was in high school, an English teacher discovered that Mr. Jones was secretly writing poetry, and encouraged him to speak out and overcome his speech impediment.
Acting provided further therapy. Mr. Jones enrolled at the University of Michigan to study medicine, but acting lessons to develop his voice proved such a lure that he quickly dropped all notions of becoming a doctor. Instead he moved to New York after a stint in the military, attending the American Theatre Wing school and supporting himself as a janitor.
In 1957, he made his Broadway debut, and during the next decade he became a much sought-after actor, appearing in Athol Fugard's "Boesman and Lena," the role of Othello for the New York Shakespeare Festival, an all-black production of Jean Genet's "The Blacks," as well as the roles of King Lear and Oberon. "I would like to tackle King Lear again, now that I am older and closer to the right age," Mr. Jones says, adding that he went to the Stratford Festival in Canada to catch Christopher Plummer's Lear and was "completely blown away."
If "King Lear" doesn't happen for Mr. Jones, he has a Plan B: writing. Having first put pen to paper for his 1993 autobiography, "Voices and Silences," Mr. Jones is trying his hand at fiction. "Although I have a great affection for the eloquence and gentility of many Southern writers, I love Hemingway's writing, that jab, jab, punch way with dialogue and words. I like to think my writing is like a good punch, like boxing."
He was one of the first black actors to appear as a regular on the soaps, playing a doctor on both "Guiding Light" and "As the World Turns." Another bit of trivia: Mr. Jones' film debut was in 1964, in Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb." From there, he worked on-screen throughout the '70s, in documentaries about Martin Luther King, in the romantic drama "Claudine" with Diahann Carroll and the film adaptations of "King Lear" and "The River Niger."
His icon status was conferred in 1977, after a day of uncredited voice-over work for the character of Darth Vader in "Star Wars" (the on-screen role was played by David Prowse). In front of the camera, he has performed in the movies "Matewan," "Field of Dreams," "The Hunt for Red October," "Patriot Games," "Clear and Present Danger" and "Cry, the Beloved Country." He also played Alex Haley in the TV series, "Roots: The Next Generation."
"I have not yet done the film role that will be my legacy," he says. "I have some stories and novels in mind, but nothing has come of it. Things have always happened in my career the way they are supposed to, not the way I want."
As an actor, Mr. Jones has received two Tonys, four Emmys, a Golden Globe, two Cable ACEs, five Drama Desks and a Grammy, as well as being honored with an NAACP Image Award and the National Medal of Arts in 1992.
"Awards are irrelevant; they make nice trophies. But the Kennedy Center Honors is different, it is like the Queen of England is giving you something. And it is a wonderful party, a wonderful gathering. I have been to the Honors as a guest and a participant, now as an honoree," he says, adding with a booming laugh, "All I can say is that this year's recipients are far too young to be getting a lifetime achievement award."
He is hoping that Secretary of State Colin Powell will be there, since the two are often confused for each other. "I kid him that I will play him in his older years if he plays me in my younger years," Mr. Jones says.
Even though he is a famous and beloved figure, Mr. Jones encounters prejudice in daily life. "I am a realist and I acknowledge it," he said in a 1995 interview promoting the film "Cry, the Beloved Country." "Fortunately for me, it's usually the kind of thing I can say I won't let get to me. In a way, you are as big as what makes you mad. And if something petty makes you mad, that's how you get reduced."
Not that you have to forgive. "I'm not saying that at all," Mr. Jones continues, "But you can't let it reduce you. You can't be encumbered by insanity. And racism is insanity. You cannot let it stop you. And when something gets you bitter, it stops you."
Although lauded as a role model for blacks, Mr. Jones says he would like to "obliterate the word 'race' from our vocabulary, so it doesn't exist.
" 'Race' suggests something different, a ghettoizing. I think of myself as an African American who is of a European culture I love classical theater, Shakespeare, classical music and so on. Am I betraying my culture? I don't think so. It is what I like and I don't apologize for it."
Likewise, he doesn't apologize for playing the title role in "Paul Robeson" in the late '70s. A dramatic recounting of the singer-activist's life, the play unintentionally sparked widespread opposition from the black intellectual community. Picketers appeared outside the theaters during the tour, protesting that the production misrepresented Mr. Robeson's life. Ossie Davis, Coretta Scott King, James Baldwin and Maya Angelou were among those who publicly criticized the show.
In retrospect, "Paul Robeson" has been credited with helping to renew interest in the late performer's achievements and life story. In his autobiography, Mr. Jones notes that in recent years the play has been "performed all over the country, without any form of protest" under the sponsorship of Malcolm X's daughter Attilah Shabazz.
In his long career, Mr. Jones has found the stage a much more fertile ground for risk-taking, and wishes that Hollywood would take bigger chances. He cites "The Great White Hope" as an example, saying that the play was "much rougher. It had a lyric poetry to it that was removed as it made its way to film. In the stage production, the characters were monolithic. The film was much more of a social story of a black man and a white girl, when the story was really much larger than that."
"Art should be brave," he says. "It should transcend racism and race relations. But Hollywood and the popular media have some very bad habits that keep bravery from happening."

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