NEW YORK — James Earl Jones glances at a visitor’s recording device, and a shadow of worry crosses his face. “Are you recording this?” he asks, settling into a small room at a rehearsal space just off Times Square. “My voice always sort of rumbles and gets muddy, so I hope it’s clear. If it's not clear, you can get back to me and say, ‘What did you mean by that?’ ”
Let the record reflect: James Earl Jones has no problem making himself clear. The 83-year old actor, dressed this day in a corduroy jacket, a pair of suspenders just visible underneath, possesses one of the best-known voices in show business, a stirring basso profundo that has lent gravel and gravitas to CNN and Verizon, “Star Wars” and “The Lion King,” “The Big Bang Theory” and Sprint.
Today, Jones’s voice is soft and quiet, the actor’s chronic obstructive pulmonary disease necessitating deep, contemplative breaths between sentences. Now ending the first few weeks of rehearsal for “You Can’t Take It With You,” the 1930s farce about a madcap New York family, Jones is conserving his energy. He admits that, this early in the process, he’s still figuring out how to find his character, presiding patriarch Grandpa Martin Vanderhof.
“Because he has retired, he’s difficult to find,” Jones says of Vanderhof. “An angry man, a man with problems, a man with something to prove, a man with edges, is a lot easier to find, easier to play. Vanderhof doesn’t have any edges anymore. . . . So I haven’t found him yet. I look at the other actors, and they’re finding their little world and creating stuff in that world, and I say, ‘God, I envy that.’ I wish I could find that but I don’t have that.”
Not that Jones is worried. Far from it, he seems to be having a ball with the play — the theatrical ur-text for screwball comedy, by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart — and a cast that includes Rose Byrne, Julie Halston, Mark Linn-Baker and Elizabeth Ashley.
“Everybody knocks me out in this play,” he says softly. “My greatest pleasure will be sitting there every night, watching the play with the audience.”
“You Can’t Take It With You” is just the latest installment of a decade-long return to the stage for Jones, who made his Broadway debut more than 50 years ago, shortly thereafter winning his first Tony for “The Great White Hope.” Hollywood naturally beckoned, but he never chased or embraced stardom; the “Star Wars” gig took little more than an hour, and paid less than $10,000. (He won’t be appearing in the upcoming chapters, he insists. “George wanted to kill Darth off.”)
Since 2002, when he played opposite Leslie Uggams in “On Golden Pond,” Jones has steadily appeared on the stage, starring in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “The Best Man” and “Much Ado About Nothing,” a gambit, co-starring Vanessa Redgrave, he now calls “a production we didn’t belong in.” That misstep notwithstanding, Jones has delivered consistently memorable and galvanizing performances. “With a Jones performance, the rain rarely spreads in a gentle mist,” wrote Post theater critic Peter Marks in a 2002 profile of the actor. “More often it pummels the earth in buckets.”
How does Jones tune himself — physically, mentally, emotionally — for the demanding 10-hour rehearsal days and subsequent performances? “Rest is important, and it’s hard to get on this schedule,” admits Jones, who lives with his wife, Cecilia, in Dutchess County, N.Y. “But I try to get eight hours every night. Which is not something I’m used to. I’m used to staying up until 1 o’clock, 2 o’clock. But my wife feeds me well, [and] I do moderate exercise on the treadmill or the step-up, just to get the heart going.” For the past several years, Jones has brought an oxygen tank with him to use backstage before the show and between scenes.
“It’s because I went up a few times,” he explains, referring to instances when actors forget their lines. “I went up so seriously in ‘Cat On a Hot Tin Roof’ that the stage manager . . . thought I must be having a stroke.” The problem turned out to be low blood oxygen, a condition he monitors and controls with the portable generator “just to make sure that . . . it doesn’t affect my memory.”
One of the reasons Jones has been having trouble “finding” Martin Vanderhof — who he calls “Mr. Mellow” — is that, unlike Norman in “On Golden Pond” or Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” or Art Hockstader in “The Best Man,” his character is wholly at peace with himself. Grandpa Vanderhof, Jones says, “is the first nonaggressive guy I’ve played in a long time. . . . He’s accepted his mortality, he’s come to terms with the world and he tries to help others to do the same thing.”
While Jones speaks, his son Flynn, who works as his assistant, arrives with a cup of coffee just how he likes it, with a little milk and some artificial sweetener. While he stirs the brew, Jones suggests that, at its core, “You Can’t Take It With You” is “a study of two families”: the zany, eccentric Sycamores and the far more straitlaced Kirbys, who collide when two of their younger members fall in love. “The whole family is tightly wound,” Jones says of the Kirbys. “And our family is very loosely wound.” Highly charged family dynamics are somewhat familiar to Jones from his own childhood living on farms in Mississippi and Michigan, where he was reared by his grandparents Maggie and John Henry Connolly. He recalls Maggie vividly as a singular, fiercely independent character.
“She was unusual,” Jones says fondly. “She was unexpected. She was a woman who was part Cherokee, part Choctaw Indian and African American. . . . During the war, my grandmother was so anti-Mississippi that she said, ‘If Hitler wants to bomb Mississippi first, that’s okay with me.’ We had a mailman who was German, and he caught a lot of hell – people would put horse manure in the mailbox – [but] my grandmother adored him. She thought the Japanese were okay because they were colored people. So we had to keep her inside a lot, in terms of the war effort.”
Jones says all of this with an affectionate laugh, adding that when he started doing summer stock theater in Michigan in the 1950s, Maggie was always there first, in the front row. “Because her life was full of drama. She never saw anybody really address it, except in the plays I was doing. So she was my best audience.”
Jones tells another story, just as revealing, about when the family, which was Methodist, first moved to Michigan from Mississippi and attended a service at an all-white church one town over from theirs.
“When we walked in as a family, they started singing ‘Old Black Joe,’” Jones recalls. “Well Maggie, the Choctaw Indian, was outraged. But John Henry, the Irish-African guy, said, ‘Wait, no, maybe that’s all they knew. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. They sang a black song to serenade us.’ My grandmother took it as an insult, my grandfather took it as a lack of cultural assimilation. We lived that way.”
The complicated spiral of shame, pride, love and exasperation that animates “You Can’t Take It With You” resonates with Jones. And that dynamic played out in other ways when in 1982 he married Cecilia Hart, the daughter of a retired Army colonel living in Springfield, Va. “I fell in love with Colonel Hart before I knew I loved my wife,” Jones says warmly, adding that the only problem when they married was that “I had to stop flirting with her mother.”
Still, he says, the night he asked the Harts for their blessing in marrying their daughter, Mrs. Hart raised what was then a still-common objection: “She said, ‘What about the children? You’re a black man and my daughter’s a white woman.’ I said, ‘You know what? My children are gonna be black either way. What you’re worried about is your grandchildren.’” (Mrs. Hart immediately and cheerfully took the point, Jones says.) On their way to family trips to Springfield, Flynn would joyfully exclaim, “Yay, the house of chaos!” Says Jones: “The house of chaos has continued, so I can relate to the one in the play.”
When Jones was first cast in “You Can’t Take It With You,” the play’s director, Scott Ellis, suggested that he would hire a multi-ethnic cast to play the Vanderhof-Sycamore-Kirby clans. That turned out not to be the case: Jones is the only African American actor playing a role not specified as black. “I’m just playing Grandpa,” he says simply, allowing that the late Mrs. Vanderhof would have had to be “very pale” to account for Rose Byrne and Annaleigh Ashford as his granddaughters. “I love it that the audience has a little challenge when they sit down,” he says. “They’ll figure it out. They do it with every other play.
“Look around in real life, and you see all kinds of mixtures,” he continues. “Do you have to figure them all out? No.” And with that, James Earl Jones breaks into a beatific, all-is-right-with-the-world smile. Just like Mr. Mellow himself, reigning supreme in his own house of chaos.
You Can’t Take It With You opens Sept. 28 at the Longacre Theatre in New York.