Actor James Earl Jones wins Marian Anderson Award

Pete Lacker
Pete Lacker
Posted: June 05, 2012

James Earl Jones, thunder-voiced actor of stage and screen, is the recipient of the 2012 Marian Anderson Award, Mayor Nutter announced Monday, citing Jones’ "culture-changing" theater roles and his "iconic" work as the voice of Darth Vader in Star Wars.

The honor named for Anderson, the Philadelphia-born contralto who lifted her voice in the fight for social justice, will be presented to Jones at a Kimmel Center gala, Nutter said. Previous winners include actors Sidney Poitier, Gregory Peck, Harry Belafonte, and Mia Farrow, and poet Maya Angelou.

In the announcement, Nutter called the award "one of Philadelphia’s greatest cultural events." He described Jones as a fixture in American life, noting Jones’ varied roles.

"I certainly look forward [to his visit] both officially and, I am comfortable enough with myself to say, personally. I have always, always, always wanted to meet James Earl Jones. And I look forward to welcoming him to Philadelphia on Nov. 19 when he arrives to accept this most-deserving award."

Jones, 81, currently appearing on Broadway in The Best Man, said in an interview that he was "deeply moved" to win a prize in the name of "an artist who certainly influenced me." Speaking from his dressing room at the Schoenfield Theater, Jones distinguished himself from previous winners of the award, describing them as "activists that led charges and broke down barriers."

"That’s not what I do," Jones said by phone. "That’s not what Marian Anderson did. When the Daughters of the American Revolution wouldn’t let an African American sing at Constitution Hall in 1939, she accepted Eleanor Roosevelt’s invitation to sing at the Lincoln Memorial. Miss Anderson led by quiet authority. Rather than battering down the barriers, she went around them. I can’t compare myself to her, but I like to think I conduct my life similarly."

"For five decades on stage and screen," said Pamela Browner White, chair of the Marian Anderson Award committee, Jones "has been an American role model, inspiring through quiet confidence and strength."

Browner White said she hoped the recipients of the Young Artists Study Grant, who attended the announcement with about 20 community members, including Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, would be inspired. "The possibilities are just so amazing to you if you continue to follow your dream, follow your path, follow your heart," she said to the teenagers. Among the 17 grant recipients who attended were: Franco Yugga, who plays viola; Lily Mell, Maxwell Chambers, Vilme Joselin, and Juliann Reid, all violinists; Vincent Luciano, a bass player; and Nzinga Banks and Yesseh Furaha-Ali, both saxophonists.

Jones is the owner of the planet’s most recognizable voice, an instrument that resounds from oceanic depths up to the stars. He originated the roles of Jack Jefferson in The Great White Hope and Troy Maxson in Fences, not to mention Darth Vader in Star Wars and Mufasa in The Lion King. He has won four Emmys, two Tony awards, and an Academy Award for life achievement, and he is contending for a Tony for his current role. His bass tones are also familiar from his intros for CNN and Verizon 411.

More than most, the man with the familiar voice knows what it’s like not to be heard. As a child and young adolescent, Jones had a stutter so severe, he stopped speaking — until a teacher encouraged him to read his own poetry aloud. "As a stutterer, if you have a weak muscle," he said, "sometimes, you can make it your strength."

Contact Carrie Rickey at Read her at Staff writer Dara McBride contributed to this article.

Memorable roles for James Earl Jones

Jack Jefferson, The Great White Hope, 1968, 1970.

Voice of Darth Vader, original Star Wars trilogy, 1977, 1980, 1983.

Rupert Marshall, Claudine, 1974.

Bryant Thomas, TV’s Picket Fences, 1992.

Voice of Mufasa, The Lion King, 1994.

Ex-President Arthur Hockstader, Broadway’s The Best Man (current).

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