Chances are that, having shuffled off your mortal coil and made it past the pearly gates, you’d fully expect the Primal Elder’s voice to be at least as sonorous as that of James Earl Jones.
That voice has settled into our cultural consciousness with Delphic assurance, on CNN, on NBC’s telecast of the ’84 Olympics, the haunted house of “The Simpsons” and the foreboding baritone of Darth Vader.
But Jones’ career has occupied much more space than the inner ear. After two Tonys, nine Emmys and five Golden Globes, among other honors, his sizable frame is something an organization like SAG can’t get around when it comes to bestowing a Life Achievement honor — as the Kennedy Center did in 2002. SAG in fact has celebrated his work before, by naming him outstanding male actor in a leading role in a 1996 remake of “Cry, the Beloved Country.”
“An iconic figure,” Kathy Connell, SAG Awards producer, calls him. “He’s appeared in film, TV, commercials, voiceovers and animation. He’s the Everyman actor.”
Adds Paul Napier, a member of SAG’s awards committee and chair of the honors and tributes committee, “He has a long list of credits that makes an impressive cross section of work. He’s represented the African-American artist as visibly as anyone. He’s recognized everywhere.”
Recognized indeed. But defined? That’s another matter.
Jones has 112 credits on his film and TV resume, most of them major, like the voice of Mustafa in “The Lion King.” But the irony of his career is that, at 77, he still has no sure place in the highlight reel of Hollywood retrospectives. And he knows it.
“I know what my theater legacy will be,” he says over the phone from upstate New York. “‘The Great White Hope’ was a well-realized work. Last year I played Big Daddy in ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.’ I played ‘King Lear’ for Joe Papp.” (Jones’ second Tony, after “Hope,” was for August Wilson’s “Fences.”)
“But I’m still looking for the role that will establish my film legacy. The closest I’ve ever come is ‘Cry, the Beloved Country.’ But it wasn’t promoted in the U.S. and it didn’t do anything in South Africa. They’ve had it with tragedy down there.”
Though he made his screen debut in Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” (1963), Jones’ first big splash came in Howard Sackler’s aforementioned “The Great White Hope” (1970), a fictionalized account of the career of heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. (It was historic in more than one sense; Jones and Jane Alexander took it from Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage, a regional theater, to Broadway, which had never been done, before it became a Martin Ritt movie). In it, the physically powerful Jones looked like he could have given the later George Foreman a decent rumble. And there was that megawatt smile, which on one level suggested supreme confidence and well-being, and on another, the itchy satisfaction of getting it over on whitey.
Aside from the voice, a lot of the best of Jones’ work is in what’s left unsaid — as a resplendent African king picking his way gingerly through his son’s fleabag New York apartment in “Coming to America,” for example. Or the way his vaultlike frame as Adm. James Greer in the Tom Clancy series (which includes “Patriot Games” and “The Hunt for Red October”) stores secrets of the CIA while casually suggesting, “Sure, I could answer that, but then I’d have to kill you.”
He was an early celebrity host in “Sesame Street.” He played Thulsa Doom in “Conan the Barbarian.” He was the skeptic in “Field of Dreams,” and the mild Alex Haley in TV’s “Roots: The Next Generation.”
This is rangy stuff. It may be the nature of versatility to operate at the expense of an incisive screen presence — the better the actor, the more obscure the core of his personality. But there’s still the sense that Jones has never been used to his bust-out fullest, where every corner of a large, complex, unforgettable character has been scoured out and delivered. And he knows that, too.
“I feel strongly that I’d like to do more work,” he says. “Especially film work. But it’s hard to find roles that have size. And unlike being part of a stage company, with a film company you feel like ships passing in the night.”
There’s the rub. Jones, who was born on a farm in Mississippi and raised on another farm in Michigan, took a big gamble on a stage career by enrolling at the American Theater Wing in New York (his genealogy is African-American, Irish, Choctaw and Cherokee, which leads him to quip, “I can’t be bigoted against anybody”). The legendary Stella Adler, who taught many great film actors, used to warn how directors and producers, in serving their own visions or the vision of the writer, “less and less serve the actor. They forget that the actor is capable of growth and change.”
Jones may have suffered from this oversight. As a stage actor who luxuriates in size and language, he’s a classical figure stuck in a postmodern world — suspicious of one and indifferent to the other. The language part especially bothers him.
“I’m a student of language,” he says. “If you look at older movies, like Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in ‘Pat and Mike,’ you saw actors who spoke well and clearly. Lately we’ve developed a film tradition of whispering and mumbling. I don’t agree with that style. It removes the voice as a vibrating instrument. It bypasses character, which can only be given clarity by full voice. It’s not only a betrayal of language, it reduces character.”
His sensitivity to language has another source. Among the most memorable quotes he’s ever given is, “One of the hardest things in life is having words in your heart that you can’t utter,” made more poignant for his having been locked in self-conscious silence over a bad boyhood stutter. He wrote poetry during those years. An observant teacher challenged him to speak his words out loud, which broke the stutter and gave Jones the key to the kingdom of self-expression.
Despite the stentorian nature of his roles, his offscreen demeanor is humble and soft-spoken. Asked if he had anything to say in response to SAG’s lifetime award, he replies, surprisingly, “No. I’m still trying to shape my words on what it means to be an actor.
“All actors deserve an award like this. I’d like to share mine with them. It’s a noble profession, this breathing life into action. No one else can do it. My father (Robert Earl Jones, a prizefighter and actor) was encouraging when I started out but warned that I shouldn’t go into it looking for money and fame. He said you have to do it for love. Otherwise you’ll be heartbroken.”
What: 15th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards
When: 5 p.m. Sunday in Shrine; 8 p.m. ET/PT on TNT/TBS
Where: Shrine Exposition Center, Los Angeles