Jones has been said to possess "one of the best-known voices in show business, a stirring basso profundo that has lent gravel and gravitas to" his projects, including live-action acting, voice acting, and commercial voice-overs. As a child, Jones had a stutter. In his episode of Biography, he said he overcame the affliction through poetry, public speaking, and acting, although it lasted for several years. A pre-med major in college, he went on to serve in the United States Army during the Korean War before pursuing a career in acting. On November 12, 2011, he received an Honorary Academy Award. On November 9, 2015, Jones received the Voice Arts Icon Award. On May 25, 2017, he received an Honorary Doctor of Arts degree from Harvard University and concluded the event's benediction with "May the Force be with you".
James Earl Jones was born in Arkabutla, Mississippi on January 17, 1931, to Ruth (Connolly) Jones, a teacher and maid, and Robert Earl Jones (1910–2006), an actor, boxer, butler, and chauffeur who left the family shortly after James Earl's birth. Jones and his father reconciled many years later. His parents were African-American, and Jones has learned they also had Irish and Native American ancestry.
From the age of five, Jones was raised by his maternal grandparents, John Henry and Maggie Connolly, who had moved from Mississippi and had a farm in Jackson, Michigan. Jones has described his grandmother, Maggie, as "the most racist person I have ever known"; he had to develop his own independent thinking. His grandmother was of African-American, Cherokee and Choctaw ancestry. Jones found the transition to his grandparents in Michigan traumatic, and the boy developed a stutter so severe he refused to speak. When his family moved to Brethren, Michigan, a teacher helped him overcome his stutter. He remained functionally mute for eight years until he entered high school. He credits his English teacher, Donald Crouch, who discovered he had a gift for writing poetry, with helping him end his silence. Crouch urged him to challenge his reluctance to speak. "I was a stutterer. I couldn't talk. So my first year of school was my first mute year, and then those mute years continued until I got to high school."
After being educated at the Browning School for boys in his high school years and graduating as vice president of his class from Dickson Rural Agricultural School (now Brethren High School) in Brethren, Michigan, Jones attended the University of Michigan where he was initially a pre-med major. He joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps and excelled. He felt comfortable within the structure of the military environment and enjoyed the camaraderie of his fellow cadets in the Pershing Rifles Drill Team and Scabbard and Blade Honor Society. During the course of his studies, Jones discovered he was not cut out to be a doctor. Instead, he focused on drama at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance with the thought of doing something he enjoyed, before, he assumed, he would have to go off to fight in the Korean War. After four years of college, Jones graduated from the university in 1955.
With the war intensifying in Korea, Jones expected to be deployed as soon as he received his commission as a second lieutenant. As he waited for his orders, he worked as a part-time stage crew hand at the Ramsdell Theatre in Manistee, Michigan, where he had earlier performed. Jones was commissioned in mid-1953 and reported to Fort Benning to attend Infantry Officers Basic Course. He then attended Ranger School and received his Ranger Tab (although he stated during an interview on the BBC's The One Show, screened on November 11, 2009, that he "washed out" of Ranger training). He was initially to report to Fort Leonard Wood, but his unit was instead sent to establish a cold weather training command at the former Camp Hale near Leadville, Colorado. His battalion became a training unit in the rugged terrain of the Rocky Mountains. Jones was promoted to first lieutenant prior to his discharge. He then moved to New York, where he studied at the American Theatre Wing, working as a janitor to support himself.
Jones began his acting career at the Ramsdell Theatre in Manistee, Michigan. In 1953, he was a stage carpenter. During the 1955–57 seasons, he was an actor and stage manager. He performed his first portrayal of Shakespeare’s Othello in this theater in 1955. His early career also included an appearance in the ABC radio anthology series Theatre-Five.
Jones is an accomplished stage actor; he has won Tony awards in 1969 for The Great White Hope and in 1987 for Fences. He has acted in many Shakespearean roles: Othello, King Lear, Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Abhorson in Measure for Measure, and Claudius in Hamlet. Jones played Lennie on Broadway in the 1974 Brooks Atkinson Theatre production of the adaptation of John Steinbeck's novella, Of Mice and Men, with Kevin Conway as George and Pamela Blair as Curley's Wife. Jones received Kennedy Center Honors in 2002. On April 7, 2005, James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams headed the cast in an African-American Broadway revival version of On Golden Pond, directed by Leonard Foglia and produced by Jeffrey Finn. In February 2008, he starred on Broadway as Big Daddy in a limited-run, all-African-American production of Tennessee Williams's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Debbie Allen and mounted at the Broadhurst Theatre. In November 2009, James reprised the role of Big Daddy in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof at the Novello Theatre in London's West End. This production also stars Sanaa Lathan as Maggie, Phylicia Rashad as Big Mamma, and Adrian Lester as Brick. In October 2010, Jones returned to the Broadway stage in Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy along with Vanessa Redgrave at the Golden Theatre.
In November 2011, Jones starred in Driving Miss Daisy in London's West End, and on November 12 received his honorary Oscar in front of the audience at the Wyndham's Theatre, which was presented to him by Ben Kingsley. In March 2012, Jones played the role of President Art Hockstader in Gore Vidal's The Best Man on Broadway at the Schoenfeld Theatre. Earning Jones a Tony nomination for Best Performance in a Lead Role in a Play. The play also starred Angela Lansbury, John Larroquette (as candidate William Russell), Candice Bergen, Eric McCormack (as candidate Senator Joseph Cantwell), Jefferson Mays, Michael McKean, and Kerry Butler, with direction by Michael Wilson. In 2013, Jones starred opposite Vanessa Redgrave in a production of Much Ado About Nothing directed by Mark Rylance at The Old Vic, London.
In 2014, Jones played the role of Grandpa in the comedy You Can't Take it With You at the Longacre Theatre, Broadway. On September 23, 2015, Jones opened in a new revival of The Gin Game opposite Cicely Tyson, in the same venue where the play originally premiered (with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy): the John Golden Theater. The play will have a limited run of 16 weeks.
His first film role was as a young and trim Lt. Lothar Zogg, the B-52 bombardier in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb in 1964. In 1967, Jones portrayed a surgeon and Haitian rebel leader in The Comedians. His first starring film role came with his portrayal of boxer Jack Jefferson in 1970's The Great White Hope. For his role, Jones was nominated Best Actor by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, making him the second African-American male performer (following Sidney Poitier) to receive a nomination. In 1974, Jones co-starred with Diahann Carroll in the film Claudine, the story of a woman who raises her six children alone after two failed and two "almost" marriages. Jones also played the villain Thulsa Doom in Conan the Barbarian, "Few Clothes" Johnson in John Sayles' Matewan, the author Terence Mann in Field of Dreams, the feared neighbor Mr. Mertle in The Sandlot, King Jaffe Joffer in Coming to America, Reverend Stephen Kumalo in Cry, the Beloved Country, Raymond Lee Murdock in A Family Thing, and Vice Admiral James Greer in The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, among many other roles.
Jones is also known as the voice of Darth Vader in the 1977 film Star Wars: A New Hope and its sequels The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983). Darth Vader was portrayed in costume by David Prowse in the film trilogy, with Jones dubbing Vader's dialogue in postproduction because Prowse's strong West Country accent was deemed unsuitable for the role by George Lucas. At his own request, Jones was uncredited for the original releases of the first two Star Wars films, though he later would be credited for the first film in its 1997 "Special Edition" re-release. As he explained in a 2008 interview:
When Linda Blair did the girl in The Exorcist, they hired Mercedes McCambridge to do the voice of the devil coming out of her. And there was controversy as to whether Mercedes should get credit. I was one who thought no, she was just special effects. So when it came to Darth Vader, I said, no, I'm just special effects. But it became so identified that by the third one, I thought, OK I'll let them put my name on it.
Although uncredited, Jones' voice is possibly heard as Vader at the conclusion of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005). When specifically asked whether he had supplied the voice, possibly from a previous recording, Jones told Newsday: "You'd have to ask Lucas about that. I don't know." Jones reprised his voice role of Vader for the character's appearances in the animated TV series Star Wars Rebels, and the live-action film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016).
His other voice roles include Mufasa in the 1994 Disney film The Lion King and its direct-to-video sequel, The Lion King II: Simba's Pride. Archive recordings from the film would later be used for the English version of the 2006 video game Kingdom Hearts II since Jones himself did not reprise the role. He more recently voiced Mufasa in the 2015 TV pilot movie The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar. In February 2017, it was announced that Jones would again voice the character in the 2019 remake of The Lion King, which will be directed by Jon Favreau.
In 1990, Jones performed voice work for The Simpsons first "Treehouse of Horror" Halloween special, in which he was the narrator for the Simpsons' version of Edgar Allan Poe's poem "The Raven". In 1992, Jones was often seen as the host on the video monitor at SeaWorld Orlando, in Florida, US. He also voiced the Emperor of the Night in Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night and Ommadon in Flight of Dragons. In 1996, he recited the classic baseball poem "Casey at the Bat" with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, and in 2007 before a Philadelphia Phillies home game on June 1, 2007.
He also has done the CNN tagline, "This is CNN", as well as "This is CNN International", and the opening for CNN's morning show New Day. Jones was also a longtime spokesman for Bell Atlantic and later Verizon. He also lent his voice to the opening for NBC's coverage of the 2000 and 2004 Summer Olympics; "the Big PI in the Sky" (God) in the computer game Under a Killing Moon; a Claymation film, The Creation; and several other guest spots on The Simpsons. Jones also lent his voice for a narrative part in the Adam Sandler comedy Click, released in June 2006. Jones narrated all 27 books of the New Testament in the audiobook James Earl Jones Reads the Bible.
Jones has the distinction of being the only actor to win two Emmys in the same year, in 1991 as Best Actor for his role in Gabriel's Fire and as Best Supporting Actor for his work in Heat Wave.
Jones portrayed the older version of author Alex Haley, in the television mini-series Roots: The Next Generations; the GDI's commanding general James Solomon in the live-action sequences of the video game Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun; and widowed police officer Neb Langston in the television program Under One Roof, for which he received an Emmy nomination. He also appeared in television and radio advertising for Verizon Business DSL and Verizon Online DSL from Verizon Communications. Jones appeared in the 1963–64 television season in an episode of ABC's drama series about college life, Channing, starring Jason Evers and Henry Jones. He appeared on the soap opera Guiding Light. He portrayed Thad Green on "Mathnet," a parody of Dragnet that appeared in the PBS program Square One Television.
In 1969, Jones participated in making test films for the children's education series Sesame Street; these shorts, combined with animated segments, were shown to groups of children to gauge the effectiveness of the then-groundbreaking Sesame Street format. As cited by production notes included in the DVD release Sesame Street: Old School 1969–1974, the short that had the greatest impact with test audiences was one showing bald-headed Jones counting slowly to ten. This and other segments featuring Jones were eventually aired as part of the Sesame Street series itself when it debuted later in 1969 and Jones is often cited as the first celebrity guest on that series, although a segment with Carol Burnett was the first to actually be broadcast.
He has played lead characters on television in three series. First, he appeared on the short-lived CBS police drama Paris, which aired during autumn 1979. That show was notable as the first program on which Steven Bochco served as executive producer. The second show aired on ABC between 1990 and 1992, the first season being titled Gabriel's Fire and the second (after a format revision) Pros and Cons. In both formats of that show, Jones played a former policeman wrongly convicted of murder who, upon his release from prison, became a private eye. In 1995, Jones starred in Under One Roof as Neb Langston, a widowed African-American police officer sharing his home in Seattle with his daughter, his married son with his children, and Neb's newly adopted son. The show was a mid-season replacement and lasted only six weeks. From 1989 to 1993, Jones served as the host of the children's TV series Long Ago and Far Away. In 1996, James guest starred in the CBS drama Touched by an Angel as the Angels of Angels in the episode "Clipped Wings". In 1998, Jones starred in the widely acclaimed syndicated program An American Moment (created by James R. Kirk and Ninth Wave Productions). Jones took over the role left by Charles Kuralt, upon Kuralt's death. He also made a cameo appearance in a penultimate episode of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and has guest-starred on such sitcoms as NBC's Frasier and Will & Grace, CBS's Two and a Half Men, and the WB drama Everwood.
In 2009, Jones guest starred in the Fox medical drama House, M.D., in season 6, episode 4, entitled "The Tyrant", as a brutal African dictator named Dibala who has fallen ill. The dictator had made threats of ethnic cleansing against an ethnic minority, the Sitibi, and the team deals with ethical issues of treating a potential mass murderer. In 2013-14, he appeared alongside Malcolm McDowell in a series of commercials for Sprint in which the two recited mundane phone and text-message conversations in a dramatic way. Jones appeared as himself on the season 7 episode of The Big Bang Theory entitled "The Convention Conundrum".
Jones married American actress/singer Julienne Marie in 1968, whom he met while performing as Othello in 1964. They had no children, and divorced in 1972. In 1982, he married actress Cecilia Hart, with whom he had one child, son Flynn Earl Jones. Hart died on October 16, 2016, after a one-year battle with ovarian cancer. In April 2016, Jones spoke publicly for the first time in nearly 20 years about his long-term health challenge with type 2 diabetes. He has been dealing with diabetes since the mid 1990s.Other awards
1985 Induction into the American Theater Hall of Fame
1987 First recipient of the National Association for Hearing and Speech Action's Annie Glenn Award
1991 Common Wealth Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Dramatic Arts
1992 National Medal of Arts
1996 Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars
2011 Eugene O'Neill Theater Center Monte Cristo Award Recipient
2012 Marian Anderson Award Recipient
2017 Honorary Doctor of Arts from Harvard University