When James Earl Jones got the news he was going to receive an honorary Oscar, he and his wife found themselves “jumping up and down, and giggling,” he says. “We’re still giggling!”
It’s a contrast to the onscreen image for the thesp who occupies the center of gravitas whenever he appears. Monarch or miner, admiral or garbageman, his authority and authenticity are never open to question.
In the early 1970s, he played the first black president in “The Man.” To countless audiences for 50 years, James Earl Jones has been the Man. His resume boasts more majesties and power brokers than anyone this side of Olivier. Yet he avers, “I like what Shakespeare called ‘the elemental men’ — the men who have no sophistication to hide anything they really are. And if I play an admiral, I try to boil him down to his essence too, so he’s also an elemental man, as best I can.”
His physical power is all the more imposing because of his reluctance to wield it. “He’s a formidable man,” says “Field of Dreams” co-star Kevin Costner, “but like any formidable man he knows not to use that as his right hand.”
And of course, there’s the mellow, rolling bass that drove millions to Verizon, welcomed billions to CNN and taught Simba how to become a lion king. It’s the voice that prompted George Lucas — who needed someone to dub supervillain Darth Vader — to pass over the likes of Orson Welles in favor of “this guy who was born in Mississippi, was raised in Michigan and who stuttered,” as Jones genially describes himself.
His onscreen gravitas comes partly from his intense concentration. Chris Cooper remembers being “so flattered when James gave me his full attention” in a long, tense sequence in his first film, 1987’s “Matewan.”
“I’m watching him in full character, tears streaming down his face as I delivered this speech. Then John (Sayles) asked if we wanted to go again, and James said something like ‘Naw, there’s nothing more to do, that’s the way to do it.’ Just a great subtle pat on the back to me, just what I needed to hear: I’m on the right track with this champ.”
Early stage acclaim peaked with signature Tony Award-winning roles in “The Great White Hope” and “Fences.” Cinema adaptation of the former led to a lead actor Oscar nom, only the second time a black actor had been so honored.
But a man’s got to eat. Jones chomps down lustily on the wicked Thulsa Doom in “Conan the Barbarian” and shaman Kokumo in “Exorcist II.” “The phrase ‘journeyman actor’ fits me, and I’m quite proud of it.”
From the beginning, he says, “I found I couldn’t get enough acting work in any given medium such that I could ever have a family or be a breadwinner. So I decided on what I call centipede acting. I wouldn’t act on one leg, like just being a film actor, but I would try everything: film, radio, TV, commercials.”
One particular voiceover job kept him going, big time. “I was broke that summer, and I was offered a job to record some words that didn’t have to be lipsynched. My agent said, ‘Jimmy, you want a day’s work?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, give it to me!’ ” Thus Lord Vader stepped up to the mic.
“Once I told him what I wanted, that it didn’t need to be mechanical and that I wanted it to have some emotion, but not be overly emotional, he found that sweetspot,” Lucas remembers. “He gave it depth and rounded the character out simply with the power of his voice and his acting abilities.”
Jones has an affinity for the everyday guy, perhaps because he thinks of himself as an everyday guy himself. “The idea of behaving like a star is a terrible waste of time and a terrible waste of feeling,” he maintains.
Says Cooper, “James Earl showed me that humility works, being a team player works,” and Costner agrees: “He has a gentleness and humbleness that’s almost impossible to resist.” Tom Guiry remembers that on “The Sandlot,” “He was so wonderful to all of us. Never went into his trailer but hung out with us kids and the grips, climbed up into our treehouse. … He’s a beautiful man and a great actor.”
Yet Jones confesses, “Even at my age, I haven’t done the film yet that I can say, ‘This is my legacy on film.’ I’m still looking for it.”
Have no doubt, though: He will happily accept his Oscar. “What’s wonderful about it is I didn’t have to fight for it, I didn’t have to campaign for it. They don’t have to say ‘James Earl Jones, winner!’ I didn’t win it, I earned it.
“At least, I hope I did.”
Honorary Oscar recipient on some of his iconic roles
“Dr. Strangelove” (1964):
Jones’ film debut, for helmer Stanley Kubrick. Jones played a bombardier, and “one day I had a bunch of numbers I was supposed to have memorized, and I didn’t. ‘You don’t know your lines? OK, let’s move to the next set.’ Stanley wasn’t happy.”
“The Great White Hope” (1970):
“We made a mistake. (Helmer) Marty Ritt said to us, ‘You give me the performances you gave on stage, and I will modulate them.’ I ended up giving a performance that had not a great deal of subtlety to it. Theater is frontal, but film shows you in three dimensions at least.”
“Soul Man” (1986):
“I confessed to the director I tend to seize up in closeups. My dear friend Henry Winkler says, ‘make love to the machine,’ but I say, ‘Bullshit, I’m not making love to a camera!’ So this director says, ‘OK, so we’ll do a lot of closeups.’ He sort of broke the taboo, right there.”
“The Lion King” (1994):
“We were brought back periodically over two years before they were satisfied. They’d say, ‘Make Mufasa more fatherly. In fact, make him a dopey dad.’ This dopey smile would come on my face and they’d record that and add the dopey smile to the animation.” – —
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