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James Earl Jones: Voice acting par excellence

On James Earl Jones’ 91st birthday, here’s a revisit to the veteran actor’s prolific career in voice acting.

James Earl Jones: Voice acting par excellence
  • Shreya Paul

Last Updated: 02.15 PM, Jan 11, 2022

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James Earl Jones is arguably one of the most well-known voice actors of the recent past. Except for his turn as Mufasa in The Lion King or Darth Vader in Star Wars, the veteran actor has featured in a plethora of other programs that garnered global audiences. 

Interestingly, Jones relationship with his vocal cords has been tumultuous, to say the least. After being raised in Mississippi, Jones was promptly packed off to his grandparents’ in Michigan by the age of five. 

The shift affected the child so badly that he was rendered speechless with a severe stuttering problem. Low in confidence and always a wallflower, Jones was struggling with his speech when in high school, a particularly determined teacher nudged him towards reading poetry. This move would prove to be the stepping stone towards honing one of his greatest skills – that of oratory.

Having moved to New York to take tutelage at the American Theatre Wing, Jones soon burst open within the theatre scene. His first notable performance was in the 1957 play The Congo from New York’s Equity Library Theater company. 

The very next year, he made an appearance on the Broadway blockbuster Sunrise at Campobello. This was followed by a spate of roles in Shakespearean productions, the most notable among them being Jones playing Othello for Joseph Papp. 

Jones garnered considerable fame in theatre, bagging a Tony for his role in The Great White Hope. He debuted in Hollywood with Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Jones career was equally about performances as it was about bolstering staggered projects around him. After Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination in 1968, Jones became one of the main narrative voices behind the documentary King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis

Two years later, King’s widow, Coretta Scott King extended her gratitude towards Jones and a few of the African American luminaries from the world of entertainment including Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, Diahann Carroll, Sammy Davis Jr., Sidney Poitier, and Leslie Uggams.

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Often criticised for not being political enough, Jones had a difficult time being a pioneering African American artiste. Many social activists of the time were of the opinion that Jones could have utilised his position and privilege to propel the narrative on skin colour and race, but his obvious absence was more than felt. 

Referring to these allegations, Jones had once said in an interview, “Don’t get me wrong. I believe in the same things that all those people demonstrating believe in, but I just look for plays or movies that say the same thing and play characters in them.”

But his ambivalent approach to the matter did not hinder the actor in him from being part of meaningful roles. He featured in Roots: The Next Generation and also bagged a Tony for his role in August Wilson’s Fences.

Jones’ career highlight was his role in Star Wars, where he voices the sinister Darth Vader. Though not the most verbose character, Vader’s menacingly low register went a long way to establish his villainy. When voicing the legendary role, director George Lucas apparently told Jones to “go as low as you can.” 

The role, in fact, went under the radar for the film’s first two instalments with Jones’ contributions even going uncredited. But as and when the world discovered, the actor almost shot to renewed fame. Jones received Emmys, Grammys and an honorary Oscar for his contribution to cinema, technically making him an EGOT winner. The actor reprised his role in Rogue One and appeared briefly in Star Wars: The Rise of the Skywalker.

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