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Mississippi Legends: James Earl Jones

Mississippi Legends: James Earl Jones

By: Laura Lee Leathers - February 18, 2024

  • Laura Lee Leathers takes a look at the life of James Earl Jones, from humbling beginnings in Arkabutla, Mississippi.

Delving into the childhood of James Earl Jones, I learned a remarkable fact. He has dealt with stuttering all his life. It is hard to believe for a man who has done numerous voiceovers, acting in movies, roles in television, and performances on stage.

CNN used James Earl Jones’ voice for their tagline, “This … is CNN.” The 1994 version of The Lion King used his voice for Mufasa. He recorded the voiceover for Darth Vader in the 1977 version of Star Wars in only two and a half hours. He frequently receives requests to say, “No, I am your father.”

Could it be that his greatest weakness became his most significant asset? It certainly seems that way. In one interview, Jones describes himself as “a great listener, but also inarticulate, especially when attending parties.”

Mississippi to Michigan

Ruth Connolly (1911-1986) worked as a teacher and a maid. Her husband, Robert Earl Jones (1910-2006), was employed as a butler, chauffeur, and boxer. Their son, James Earl Jones, was born on January 17, 1931, in the community of Arkabutla, Mississippi. His lineage includes African, Irish, Choctaw, and Cherokee.

In a CBC 1969 interview, James Earl Jones shared about his growing up years in Mississippi. He reminisced about fishing with his grandfather and escapades along the banks of the Mississippi River. His years in Mississippi were few.

His father left the family before James Earl was born. Many years later, the two men reconnected in a Manhattan theater. His maternal grandparents raised him. John Henry Connelly was known for being hardworking, and Maggie Connolly was a storyteller.

Around the age of four or five, his grandfather purchased forty acres near Dublin, Michigan. The large family moved to the small farm, raising livestock and vegetables as subsistence farmers. Initially, the grandparents wanted to leave James Earl with another family member. However,  James Earl clung to the back seat, begging not to be left behind. His grandfather obliged, but that day made a lasting impact on James Earl and his speech. He began to stutter and eventually stayed mute for many years.  

Jones started first grade in a one-room schoolhouse in Dublin. Sometimes, he was the only child in his grade. Eventually, he wrote about his struggles in a compelling memoir, Voices and Silences, by James Earl Jones with Penelope Niven (September 13, 1993).

 “One of the hardest things in life is having words in your heart that you can’t utter.”

– James Earl Jones

 In high school, an insightful English teacher helped him overcome his stuttering by having him recite poetry, some he had written, and prose in front of the class. Jones said it helped him tremendously. He graduated from the Dickson Rural Agricultural School in 1949.

He majored in drama at The University of Michigan (B.A.) and graduated in 1953. He served in the U. S. Army, commissioned as a second lieutenant. Upon his honorable discharge, he knew the stage in New York was calling his name.

Broadway to Hollywood

Jones studied with Lee Strasberg at the American Theatre Wing in New York. In 1957, he acted in his first Off-Broadway production, Sunrise at Campobello (1958). He had a small part. His role as a houseboy had one line: “Mrs. Roosevelt, supper is served.” He said he could not say the line initially because he couldn’t get the words out. The letter “m” was problematic for him.

He was also involved with the New York Shakespeare Festival from 1961 to 1973. He had the leading role in Othello, a Shakespearean tragedy. The co-star was actress Julienne Marie, whom he married in 1968. They divorced in 1972.  

(L-R) James Earl Jones as Othello and Christopher Plummer as Iago in a scene from the Broadway revival of the play “Othello.”

In The Great White Hope, Jones starred as boxer Jack Jefferson (the real fighter was Jack Johnson) in the 1970 film version. He earned his first Tony Award for a Broadway drama and received a Golden Globe and a nomination for an Academy Award.  

Jones is known for playing strong, authoritative characters throughout his career. For example, in Conan the Barbarian, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, he played the villain Thulsa Doom. Other vital roles were in The Hunt for Red October (1990s), Patriot Games (1991), and Clear and Present Danger (1994).

His television roles include guest appearances in the series Touched by an Angel, Stargate SG-1, The Simpsons, Gabriel’s Fire, and Heat Wave.

 Sesame Street & Simeon Schuster

James Earl Jones was the first celebrity guest on Sesame Street. The actor recited the numbers one to ten slowly. When he finished, he fell face forward. He said, “The children loved it!” He also recited the alphabet. Both appearances were used in the first season episodes.

Gerald S. Lesser, the chief adviser for the Children’s Television Workshop (later the Sesame Workshop), described the alphabet performance this way: “Mr. Jones’ recitation of the alphabet takes a full minute and a half. He stares compellingly at the camera. At the time the sequence was made, his head was shaved for his role of Jack Johnson in The Great White Hope, and it gleams in the close-up. His immense hollow voice booms the letter names ominously. His lip movements are so exaggerated that they can easily be read without the sounds.”

In 1978, in Episode 1148, Jones appeared again, this time as a movie star who visited Hooper’s Store. He returned to do the 10th anniversary special, A Walking Tour of Sesame Street (1979). In another taping, he appeared on the My Favorite Sesame Street Moments (2004).

Simon & Schuster published Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969), a Caldecott Medal winner, written and illustrated by William Steig. The book came to life when James Earl Jones did an audio version.

 “Speech is a very important aspect of being human. A whisper doesn’t cut it.”

~ James Earl Jones

Films, Honors, & Awards

If you would like to glimpse the life of James Earl Jones and his career, I suggest watching the 2002 presentation by Sidney Poitier at the Kennedy Center; a short documentary is included.

Here are a few of the awards he has won:

  • Lifetime Achievement honor at the 2017, Special Tony Award
  • Academy Honorary Award – Lifetime Achievement 2011
  • Honorary Award at the 2001 Governors Awards
  • Tony Awards for The Great White Hope (1969) and Fences (1987)
  • Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play for On Golden Pond (2005) Gore Vidal’s The Best Man (2012)
  • Emmy Awards for Heat Wave (1991), Gabriel’s Fire (1991), and Summer’s End (2000)
  • Grammy Award for Great American Documents (1977)
  • Golden Globe for The Great White Hope (1970)

Here are a few titles of Jones’ that might be of interest:

  • The Great White Hope (1970)
  • The Field of Dreams (1989)
  • Percy and Thunder – (1993)
  • Sand Lot – (1993)
  • The Vernon Johns Story (1994)
  • What the Deaf Man Heard – A Hallmark Movie (1997)
  • Summer’s End – A Hallmark Movie – (1999)
  • The Reading Room – A Hallmark Movie – (2005)

 Additional Credits

One of Jones’ desires was to act in a comedy production on Broadway. At 83, he played the part of a grandpa in the revival of the 1936 play You Can’t Take It with You. He loved doing this play and enjoyed smiling throughout the entire production.

 James Earl Jones and actress Cecilia Hart married in 1982. They met while co-starring in the police drama series Paris. They were married for thirty-four years. They had a son, Flynn Earl Jones, also an actor. Cecilia died on October 16, 2016, from ovarian cancer.

In June 2017, when he received the Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre, he paid tribute to his late wife “for being such a wonderful companion in my life and in my work, and for being the great co-producer of our son, Flynn, and for being so dazzling on the red carpet.”

Jones narrated the Bible’s New Testament using his “best voice,” a title he won awards for. It is accessible online, or you can purchase the audio 16 CD set, Unabridged (October 1, 2002).

Today, James Earl Jones resides in Pawling, New York.

About the Author(s)
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Laura Lee Leathers

Laura Lee Leathers is a writer and speaker. Imagine Lois Lane, over sixty-five, and living on a farm. Her metropolis is the area of freelance writing. Her primary love interest is the Word of God. She digs for information, interviews fascinating people, offers a cup of biblical hospitalit-tea, encourages, and helps others with the ‘how-to’s’ of life.