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James Earl Jones Honored by Samuel L. Jackson, George Lucas at American Theatre Wing Gala

The Force was strong at Monday’s American Theatre Wing Gala at New York City’s Plaza Hotel.

“Star Wars” creator George Lucas and Samuel L. Jackson took the stage at the organization’s 98th annual event honoring stage legend and voice of Darth Vader, James Earl Jones.

“I knew the voice had to be very, very special,” Lucas said. “It was a tough choice, but in the end, it was a really easy choice. It was really a choice between Orson Welles and James Earl Jones. James Earl Jones won hands down. He created, with very little dialogue, one of the greatest villains that ever lived.”

Jackson presented Jones with an award for his “extraordinary contribution to the American theater,” adding in a little tribute of his own: a sterling silver money clip.

“There is no money in this clip,” he joked. “But way back when, these were the first Tony Awards and this is a representative of those awards.

“Thank you for giving us the courage to attack a role, and not simply enter it,” Jackson said.

Proceeds from the event will go towards funding theater education and artist development programs of the American Theatre Wing, including SpringBoard NYC, The Intern Theater Network, the National Theater Company Grants and Jonathan Larson Grants.

Though Jones’ career of more than 50 years as a stage actor was the star of the evening, much was made of his vocal prowess as Darth Vader in “Star Wars,” and as Mufasa in Disney’s “The Lion King.”

“His presence is so indelible, his talent so immense. He’s managed to make some of his most memorable film roles without even showing his face,” said Heather Hitchens, President of the American Theatre Wing.

The evening kicked off with a musical tribute to Jones’ “Lion King” performance, with original Broadway Mufasa Samuel E. Wright joining other Mufasas Alton Fitzgerald White, L. Steven Taylor, Nathaniel Stampley and Rufus Bonds Jr. in serenading Jones.

“On behalf of all the Mufasas all over the world,” Wright said, “we would like to thank you for the inspiration in our lives.

Broadway stars Kerry Butler, Brandon Victor Dixon, Norm Lewis, Ruthie Ann Miles and Patina Miller paid tribute to Jones in special vocal performances.

Lewis dedicated his performance of “The Prayer” from “Les Miserables” to its recently deceased star, Kyle Jean-Baptiste, who was the first black actor to play Jean-Valjean in the history of the show. Lewis thanked Jones for being a trailblazer. “That was all because of doors you opened,” he said.

Other special guests included Jeff Daniels, “Orange is the New Black” stars Lea DeLaria and Danielle Brooks, Latanya Richardson-Jackson, Magic Johnson, Jones’ “The Gin Game” co-star Cicely Tyson and Angela Lansbury.

“James is always ready to meet the challenge,” said Lansbury of her “Driving Miss Daisy” co-star. “Be it comedy, drama, Shakespeare, the book is out and the work begins.”

Two-time Tony winner Jones was born in Mississippi, and grew up in Michigan. After moving to New York, he worked as a janitor to support himself while working as an actor. In 1969, he won a Tony for his breakthrough role as Jack Johnson in “The Great White Hope.” He won a second in 1987 for August Wilson’s “Fences.”

In addition, he was won three Emmys, a Golden Globe, two Cable ACEs, two OBIEs, five Drama Desks, and a Grammy. In 2011, he also received an honorary Oscar, making him part of the exclusive EGOT club.

“I am so old,” Jones boomed, accepting the award. “I’m so old that my gratitude for the American Theatre Wing embraces more than the thanks for this night’s wonderful celebration. I go way back. “

An alumnus of the American Theater Wing’s Professional School, he thanked his alma mater for giving him the tools to succeed. “They taught us not to put ethnic or gender limits on the characters that we studied,” he said.

“They taught us speech for Shakespeare, and speech for Arthur Miller, and speech for Tennessee Williams, and speech for George Lucas,” Jones deadpanned.

“I can’t thank you enough,” he added. “No matter how old I get.”

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