At 81, the Tony Award-winning actor recently wrapped up a run in a revival of Gore Vidal's The Best Man, playing a former U.S. president. Monday, before he packs his bags for an Australian tour of Driving Miss Daisy opposite Angela Lansbury, Jones will visit Philadelphia to receive the Marian Anderson Award at a Kimmel Center gala.
"Marian Anderson was not a part of my early life," Jones says of the Philadelphia-born contralto who broke the color bar in opera. He was 8 when the African American singer was barred in 1939 from performing at Constitution Hall in Washington, and sang at the Lincoln Memorial instead. He had just arrived in New York in 1955 when she became the first black soloist at the Metropolitan Opera.
While the Anderson Award has gone to artist/advocates including Sidney Poitier, Oprah Winfrey, and Gregory Peck, in many ways Jones is most like Anderson. Both have voices that come along once in a century. And both raised them not as social activists but as inspirational figures on the cultural stage. "Her world was very different from mine," Jones reflects. "But we ended in the same place."
The actor's career "epitomizes the artistic excellence and strength of character that the Anderson Award has come to represent," says Jeffrey Gordon, manager of corporate relations at Peco, an Anderson Award sponsor.
Before the distinctive voice could become the Voice of America, Jones had to conquer a stutter that kept him from speaking for nearly eight years.
It began when he was 5, shortly after his family moved to Michigan from Mississippi.
Then Donald Crouch, his high school English teacher, tricked him into reading aloud a poem he had written. And Jones discovered in rhythm and rhyme tools to manage his incapacity. "I didn't overcome the stutter," he says mellifluously. "I'm still a stutterer. I don't ever expect not to be a stutterer." As Jones tells it, his life was not about overcoming but becoming.
Neither Jones' father, Robert Earl Jones, an actor and figure in the Harlem Renaissance, nor his mother, Ruth, was in the picture during James' youth. Ruth's parents, John Henry and Maggie Connolly, raised him.
When he won a scholarship to the University of Michigan, Jones enrolled in pre-med. "But in Ann Arbor, the theater department became a refuge for me." He remembers the camaraderie with fellow actors and the transforming effects of acting as acting itself was being transformed.
"I remember you could walk off campus to the nearby movie theater. That's where I saw my first Sidney Poitier and Marlon Brando movies."
Jones was electrified. "Sidney and Marlon defined my world. Sidney defined the way an actor of unusual status could rise; Marlon defined the breadth that an actor could explore."
Looking back he realizes, "We were seeing a transition from classical theater to the theater of the proletariat. It was the beginning of minority representation. It meant there was no longer a reason not to make theater for everyone."
At the end of the Korean War, Jones received a commission as an Army second lieutenant and served stateside for two years. On his discharge in 1955, he reconnected with his father in New York. Over four magical nights, the elder Jones gave the younger an unforgettable cultural initiation. Opera, ballet, musical theater, drama.
"The first night I saw Tosca with Leontyne Price; the next, Dame Margot Fonteyn in Swan Lake. On the third, he took me to see Pal Joey. The stage! The warm lights! That hooked me more than anything." On the last night they saw The Crucible, Arthur Miller's drama of the Salem witch trials.
The younger Jones went into the family business(es). By day, he studied at the American Theater Wing; by evening he "janitored" and finished floors with Dad. Father and son costarred in a production of Of Mice and Men at Purdue University. Jones says Lenny is his favorite role.
During his journeyman years on stage, Jones was tireless, performing in Act I of one play and hurrying across town to appear in Act III of another. He read excerpts from the Bible on Sunday morning religious programs. He took roles, small and large, in movies ( Dr. Strangelove was his big-screen debut) and on television ( The Defenders). Could he make a living? He wasn't sure.
Jones' success was incremental. The first turning point came in the late 1950s when he understudied Ivan Dixon in an Off-Broadway play. Jones was onstage one night when Lucy Kroll, the legendary talent agent, was in the audience. She asked to represent him.
Then came the 1961 Off-Broadway production of Jean Genet's The Blacks, in which Jones appeared with an emerging generation of performers including Maya Angelou, Roscoe Lee Browne, Godfrey Cambridge, Lou Gossett Jr., and Cicely Tyson.
Jones' dynamic presence and diction captivated audiences (Richard Burton, no slouch in those departments, was an admirer). He collected Obies - Off-Broadway theater awards - for title roles in Bertolt Brecht's Baal, an example of color-blind casting, and Shakespeare's Othello, which was not.
On Broadway in 1968 in The Great White Hope, Jones brought thunder and lightning to his role as a boxer, modeled on Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion. Jones earned national recognition - and his first Tony Award. He would receive an Oscar nomination for the 1970 film adaptation.
Unlike some theater luminaries who think anything less than a Broadway lead is beneath them, Jones also worked in television, film, and advertising. He voiced Darth Vader in Star Wars and Mufasa in The Lion King, did vocal intros for CNN and Verizon/411. In 1991 he won two Emmys, lead actor in Gabriel's Fire and supporting actor in Heat Wave.
"I did everything," he says with a booming laugh. " . . . I wanted a hundred ways of making a living. Every time I'm pigeonholed, I fly away from it."
That exuberance is palpable to colleagues. "James never missed a vocal warm-up before the show," says Michael McKean, one of the ensemble in The Best Man. "He made damn sure he'd be able to reach every seat with every syllable, regardless of the timbre of the line. . . . James' control is a thing of beauty."
Team player? "Team captain," McKean says.
Though Jones is mostly reticent about politics, it's the Monday before Election Day. He's had it up to here with people basing their self-esteem on whether they are white or black. "I begin to think that Lincoln died in vain," pronounces the actor who played the first African American president in The Man (1972).
McKean recalls how Jones handled this subject when The Best Man cast took questions from the audience at New York's 92d Street Y last April.
"Is it playing with history to have an African American ex-president as a character in a play based in 1960?" challenged an audience member.
"James replied, 'Why is our history such that it is an impossibility?' "
James Earl Jones talks about the sound of his voice: www.philly.com/jamesearljones
Contact Carrie Rickey at email@example.com. Follow her at http://www.carrierickey.com See JONES on H7