With his powerful performance as the proud but conflicted boxer Jack Jefferson in The Great White Hope (1970), James Earl Jones received an Academy Award® nomination for Best Actor. Over the next four decades, Jones would build a successful film career and become one of the most instantly recognizable voices in the world.
Jones has earned a prominent place in pop culture consciousness. In addition to giving voice to Darth Vader, one of the greatest screen villains of all time, Jones also portrayed a more benevolent father, the wise lion Mufasa, in the animated family classic The Lion King (1994).
His achievement seems all the more remarkable considering that he suffered from a debilitating stutter as a youth growing up in rural western Michigan. In grammar school, he pretended to be mute and communicated only through writing. One day, when a supportive high school English teacher encouraged him to read a poem he had written to the class, Jones discovered that his stutter vanished whenever he spoke words he had memorized. He eventually won a public-speaking contest as a senior and earned a full scholarship to the University of Michigan.
Jones spent four years at the University of Michigan studying English while pursuing acting jobs in the state’s regional theaters. His acting ambitions led him to New York City, where he polished floors while studying at the American Theatre Wing. In 1960, theater titan Joseph Papp cast him in Henry V, the start of Jones’s long affiliation with the New York Shakespeare Festival. He made his first film appearance in 1964 in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
In one of his many returns to the stage, Jones earned a Tony® Award for his portrayal of boxing’s first African-American heavyweight champion in The Great White Hope on Broadway in 1968. His Oscar® nomination followed two years later.
Jones has brought grace and gravitas to serious material, such as John Sayles’s Matewan (1987), but also has displayed abundant charm in lighter fare such as Claudine (1974). A consummate supporting actor and a generous lead, he has the ability to shine in scenes without necessarily dominating them. Working opposite Richard Harris, Jones drew some of the best reviews of his career for his nuanced performance as Reverend Stephen Kumalo in the apartheid drama Cry, the Beloved Country (1995). He also was the perfect foil to Robert Duvall in A Family Thing (1996), portraying Duvall’s embittered half-brother.
Over the years, Jones has made a variety of memorable appearances in such films as Coming to America (1988), Field of Dreams (1989), The Hunt for Red October (1990) and The Sandlot (1993). His face and talent have finally become as familiar to audiences as his unforgettable voice.
Gang Related (1997)
A Family Thing (1996)
Cry, the Beloved Country (1995)
Clear and Present Danger (1994)
The Lion King (1994) (voice)
The Sandlot (1993)
Patriot Games (1992)
The Hunt for Red October (1990)
Field of Dreams (1989)
Three Fugitives (1989)
Coming to America (1988)
Gardens of Stone (1987)
Return of the Jedi (1983) (voice)
Conan the Barbarian (1982)
The Empire Strikes Back (1980) (voice)
Star Wars (1977) (voice)
The Greatest (1977)
The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (1976)
The Great White Hope (1970)
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)