That voice. You've heard the booming, mellifluous tones countless times, over the TV set, through the earpiece of the cell phone, in movie theater SurroundSound.
It's the omniscient voice of the media, intoning, "This is CNN." It's the neutral voice of the corporation: "Welcome to Verizon." It's the voice of Doom, resonating in the helmet of interstellar evildoer Darth Vader.
The voice is supple, stentorian, regal. It's pitched in the key of heroism. No wonder it has articulated the words of both Othello, Moor of Venice, and Mufasa, the Lion King. If Zeus had hired a vocal coach, in fact, you could almost imagine the teacher imploring the divinity atop Mount Olympus: "Once again, please, and with more authority. Think 'James Earl Jones.' "
Jones, at the moment, is sitting in an armchair in a Georgetown hotel, laughing his bellowing Paul Bunyan laugh: "Huh-huh-huh-huh!" Batten down the wall hangings! He's reflecting on the impact his disembodied vowels and consonants have had on American culture, starting with the day George Lucas settled on him as the speaking voice of Malice Incarnate in the original "Star Wars," a role that neither taxed nor particularly enriched him. "I got paid $7,000 for the first one," he says of the recording session to supply Vader's voice for the initial film. "And it only took 2 1/2 hours."
Hollywood legend has it that the words were not even supposed to be his, that Lucas had in mind another unforgettable set of pipes. "The story goes that he considered asking Orson Welles," Jones says. "But he thought that Welles might be too recognizable. So he picks a guy from Mississippi, with a stutter."
That's the crazy truth of it. James Earl Jones was a stutterer. From the ages of 6 to 14 he barely spoke, so consumed was he with embarrassment. He'd venture a few words to family members, but in front of strangers the farm kid from Arkabutla, Miss., was mute. In later life he would come to an understanding of the motivational role stuttering played in his development as an actor -- an actor renowned for the cyclonic power of his oratorical gifts. "I think a stutterer ends up with a greater need to express himself," he explained in "Voices and Silences," the 1993 autobiography he wrote with Penelope Niven, "a greater awareness of the deep human need for expression. The desire to speak builds and builds until it becomes part of your energy, your life force."
Desire, energy, force: There has always been something turbodynamic in the career of James Earl Jones, who today, a month shy of his 72nd birthday, joins the ranks of Kennedy Center honorees. He may have found a lucrative second wind in voice-overs -- "Verizon has treated me better economically than anything I've ever done," he says of his corporate spokesman's role -- but Jones's true legacy is the supercharged gallery of masculine, vulnerable, stormy characters he's created onstage and in film.
With a Jones performance, the rain rarely spreads in a gentle mist. More often it pummels the earth in buckets. And nowhere has the impact been felt more volcanically than in the arena of his first love, the theater. He's had his share of strong television and film portrayals -- he was Alex Haley in "Roots," a CIA man in "The Hunt for Red October," a private investigator on ABC's "Gabriel's Fire," the reclusive author in "Field of Dreams" -- but the real measure of his artistry has been on the stage. Whether in the guise of Jack Jefferson, the proud, persecuted boxer of Howard Sackler's "The Great White Hope," or Troy Maxson, tyrannical patriarch of August Wilson's "Fences," the 6-foot-2 Jones is a performer wired for mythic roles. "Mild" is not a natural entry in the Jones lexicon, but even in his more placid characters, you can sense something boiling, something seething, behind the fiery gaze.
"I remember the time I tackled 'Lear' with Ed Sherin," Jones says, referring to his close friend, the theater director who also directed him on Broadway in "Great White Hope," the part that won him his first Tony Award. ("Fences" won him his second.)
"The first two weeks of rehearsal, I was trying to be as kingly and as Oxonian as I could, and Ed one day said to me, 'Okay, are you tired of doing it that way? So now give me a Lear who farts and scratches his butt.' "
The hotel room is quaking. It's the laugh again. "Ed said, 'Don't get stuck wasting your energy playing a king. Play a human being,' " Jones goes on. " 'He's out there on the heath and he says, "You've got nothing but your skin against the storm." That's what life is. Just pay attention to that. Go for the elemental man.' "
The elemental man is the part Jones has been auditioning for all his life. He's tried, he says, to remain true to himself, to seek varied work that would make him happy rather than make him a superstar. "If anything, I'm a renegade," he says. "In a race, a rebel would run in the opposite direction. A renegade will go outside the fence and run there."
This attitude thwarted the attempts of those around him to make him a Hollywood leading man, a star, perhaps, to slip into the distinguished shoes of Sidney Poitier. After the success of "The Great White Hope," the Pulitzer-winning 1967 play based on the life of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion, Jones was the man of the moment. The production, which originated at Arena Stage in Washington, landed him on the cover of Newsweek; imagine that kind of attention today for an achievement in the marginalized world of the straight play. Reprising the role in the 1970 movie -- a version he thought inferior to the play -- he earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
Tinseltown came a-knocking. He was offered, get this, "Shaft." "I read it, and I said, 'Wait a minute, I'm from Mississippi, I don't know what the psyche of this character is. He's an urban creature.' People, though, tend to think if you're black, you're black."
On a more basic level, Jones was simply not interested in stardom. He thought of himself a character actor, honing his technique on the stages of off-Broadway in absurdist works, like Genet's "The Blacks," and performing Shakespeare for the legendary Public Theater impresario Joseph Papp. In movies he wanted to be considered part of the gritty generation of actors who looked and acted like real people: De Niro, Duvall, Hackman, Hoffman. "I didn't want to be good-looking, I didn't want to be handsome," he says. He began to neglect his physical appearance. "I was being groomed for Hollywood, and I started to balloon, like my friend Marlon."
He has since learned that his weight problems had a medical basis as well, and today, for the first time in decades, he's slimming down; the Jones who sits for a talk in Georgetown is dressed in a beautifully tailored dark suit, looking fit, ambassadorial.
Back in the '70s, eating a lot wasn't exactly a career goal, but it served its purpose. "My agent would say, 'Jimmy, somebody else is getting all the roles you should be doing.' And I guess I just -- I didn't want that. If I had wanted to be a millionaire, I would have gotten my act together."
Considering the obstacles he overcame early in life, that's easy to believe. His father, Robert Earl Jones, an actor himself, and mother, Ruth, had a brief, troubled liaison and parted. They left the baby in the care of James's maternal grandparents, who raised him on farms in Arkabutla and, later, rural Michigan. It was not until high school that Jones found comfort in language again, a new facility that came to him through his discovery of literature.
"I began to break my new teeth, my new speaking teeth, on pretty much classical material," he recalls. "It was through poetry I began to speak that other language, where the R's were rounded: Longfellow, Shakespeare, Chaucer." Through classroom dramatic readings, Jones began in a very real sense to locate his voice. "I wasn't trying to talk classical," he explains, "but that's how I began to talk."
That early immersion not only helped him discipline his tongue, it also gave him a lifelong passion for the most challenging roles in the canon, a predilection that invited comparisons with another epic-scale actor, Paul Robeson (whom Jones would portray in a one-man show). Like Robeson, he played Othello on Broadway; his well-received 1982 production also starred Christopher Plummer as Iago and, in the role of Desdemona, a young actress, Cecilia Hart, who was also Jones's wife. (They live today on a farm in Dutchess County, N.Y., and have a son, Flynn, who turns 20 this week.)
If celebrity never transfixed him, neither did an absorption in causes. He never sought to be a role model for other black actors any more than he pursued parts that would establish for him what he calls an "ethnic" identity. After "The Great White Hope" made him famous, he was pleased, he says, that the role did not also make him an icon. "I mean, there weren't young black actors shaving their heads, trying to act like Jack Johnson," he says. "And that pleased me. I don't like it when an icon gets swallowed up by the spectator."
Labels, for the most part, haven't bothered him. "The word I don't like is 'race,' " he explains. "Black is obvious, ethnic is obvious. But race is the division between us all, and I think there's a tendency for black people to want to categorize themselves. There's a good motive there, you know -- to be special, to accept what you are and all that. But I think it also plays into the whole thing of separation.
"If you want to separate yourself, fine; I can think of all kinds of ghettos all over the world. Psychic ghettos and cultural ghettos, but I don't know why anyone would want to ghettoize themselves. I don't understand that, to the extent that you can have a young black woman singer and she takes on a name like Ebony or something. Why the flags, you know? I don't understand that."
Of course Jones himself has always gravitated toward characters of fierce independence, proud black men. Elemental men. His single greatest performance may have been as one of these elemental figures, Troy Maxson, the Pittsburgh garbageman in Wilson's "Fences," locked in conflict with a son whose athletic potential offers the possibility of a career the embittered father could never have. "A black man, a free man, a descendant of slaves, a menial laborer, a father, a husband, a lover," then-theater critic Frank Rich wrote of the character in the New York Times in 1987. "Mr. Jones's Troy embraces all the contradictions of being black and male and American in his time."
As the father of a young son, Jones found the part wrenching; in rehearsal, the confrontation scene with Courtney B. Vance, playing Troy's son Cory, was too ambiguous for Jones. He couldn't bear the notion that the audience would be left with the impression that Troy might actually be able to take a baseball bat and kill his son. "I begged them, 'Would you let us resolve it?' " Jones recalls of his discussions with Wilson and director Lloyd Richards.
"And August didn't want to write it. So Lloyd said, 'Okay, we'll resolve it through pantomime.' At least I could leave the stage knowing that I couldn't kill my son. And I can't tell you what that meant for me, having my own son in my arms. But also, wondering, August is such an insightful writer: Is that in the cards for every father and son?
Spending a little time with Jones, you get some inkling of where the ferocity originates: It's the intense way he lives with his parts, small ones as well as big, the epic dimension of his need to perform. About that desire, he tells a little story. One day many years ago, he approached Papp on a New York street and told him flat out that he wanted to be cast in the director's "Henry V."
"I said, 'I want to come and carry a spear in your production.' He said, 'Okay, I need some big guys.' And he cast me as a character named Michael Williams, one of the key small parts in the play. I had no idea who Michael Williams was. I just knew what a spear was."
James Earl Jones likes that story. Like rolling thunder, the laughter erupts, rattling the coffee cups.