Happy birthday to a Michigan Legend: James Earl Jones

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — This week, James Earl Jones will turn 93 years old.

Few actors have a resume that can compare to Jones’ list of credits. Both a Hollywood star and a Broadway icon, Jones was born in Mississippi but found his iconic, booming voice in Michigan.

His life story is just as riveting as any piece he has performed on stage or screen.


Jones was born on Jan. 17, 1931, in Arkabutla, Mississippi, a small community about 30 miles south of Memphis. His early years were chaotic. By the time he was 5, Jones’ father had left the family to become an actor and his mother had sent him off to live with his grandparents.

Then, his grandparents uprooted and moved the family 800 miles north, buying a plot of land sight unseen in northern Michigan. They settled on a small plot of land in Dublin, an unincorporated community on the border of Manistee and Lake counties.

The drastic changes compounded the trauma of his younger years. By the time the family settled in Michigan, Jones had developed a severe stutter — one so bad that many people believed he was mute because he spoke so rarely.

Still, reflecting on his Michigan childhood with MLive’s John Barnes, Jones loved his childhood growing up in Michigan and credits one of his teachers with helping him make a breakthrough with his speech impediment.

Donald Crouch, an English teacher at Dickson Rural Agricultural High School in Brethren, was the first to challenge Jones. He noticed that Jones had written a poem and encouraged him to read it out loud to the rest of the class.

“He understood somehow that poetry — being a very subjective language — I should be able to share it vocally as well as with pencil. That sort of gave me some confidence in uttering words,” Jones told Barnes in 2014.

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Jones went deeper on the story in his autobiography “Voices & Silence,” saying: “The written word is safe for the stutterer. The script is sanctuary. I could read from the paper the words I had composed there and speak as fluently as anybody in the class. ‘Aha!’ my professor exclaimed as I sat down, vindicated. ‘We will now use this as a way to recapture your ability to speak.’ So, gradually, my powers of speech were resurrected. Throughout the rest of high school, I read Shakespeare aloud in fields to myself.”

  • James Earl Jones, wearing athletic shorts and boxing shoes, stands proudly atop a scale during a weigh-in scene.
    James Earl Jones portrays Jack Jefferson in the stage play “The Great White Hope.” The story, based on the life of former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, proved to be Jones’ breakout role. (Getty Images)
  • Jones sternly looks at his co-star while keeping a hand tucked into his pocket.
    James Earl Jones, left, performs for an episode of ABC’s “N.Y.P.D.” in 1969. (Getty Images)
  • The poster, which shows James Earl Jones embracing his love interest, reads "He could beat any white man in the world. He just couldn't beat all of them."
    The promotional poster for the movie adaptation of “The Great White Hope.” (Getty Images)
  • James Earl Jones, with short, white hair and a beard, glares sternly while his two co-stars lean into him.
    James Earl Jones performs the title role of “King Lear” in 1973 alongside Rosalind Cash and Ellen Holly. (Getty Images)
  • A slim James Earl Jones lands a punch against his opponent in an early 20th-century boxing ring.
    James Earl Jones performs in an action scene for “The Great White Hope.” Jones played the role on Broadway and again when it was made into a movie. (Getty Images)


Before his newfound love of poetry and before his stutter was fixed, Jones knew he wanted to be an actor. In a 1988 interview with the Detroit Free Press, Jones detailed how his grandfather responded when he found out Jones wanted to become an actor like his absent father.

“My grandfather gave me a slap on the head. ‘Don’t you dare,’ he said. He knew my father was an actor and he felt he was a vagabond, that actors led unstable lives,” Jones said.

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That’s why Jones chose the University of Michigan and first started as a pre-med major. But he couldn’t resist the call of the stage and eventually shifted to become a drama major.

After graduating with his bachelor’s degree and a brief stint in the U.S. Army, Jones dedicated his life to acting. He received his first credits at home in Michigan. He worked as a stage carpenter at Ramsdell Theatre in Manistee in 1953 and as a stage manager and actor from 1955 through 1957.

A black-and-white photo showing James Earl Jones with a suit and tie and short hair.
A headshot of James Earl Jones circa 1960. (Getty Images)

Jones’ acting dreams eventually brought him to New York City. He moved there in 1957, enrolled in the American Theatre Wing alongside Lee Strasberg and quickly became an established player. He made his Broadway debut that same year as an understudy on “The Egghead” and played a featured role in “Sunrise at Campobello” in 1958.

Within years, he quickly became known as one of the city’s great Shakespearean actors, playing the title roles in “Othello” and “King Lear,” along with Oberon in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Claudius in “Hamlet.”

By the mid-1960s, Jones had also earned some screen time. He had picked up bit roles in several TV shows and made his big-screen debut in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film “Dr. Strangelove.”

His big break came in 1968 when he starred as Jack Jefferson in “The Great White Hope.” The play was based on the boxing career of Jack Johnson and the push to find a white fighter who could take down the first-ever black heavyweight champion. He won the 1969 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play and was nominated for an Oscar the following year after the play was adapted into a movie with Jones again taking the starring role.

  • James Earl Jones smiles as he stands next to Darth Vader.
    James Earl Jones poses next to Darth Vader during a charity premiere of “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones” in 2002.
  • James Earl Jones holds up an Emmy trophy in each hand. He is wearing a black tuxedo with a red ribbon pinned to the lapel.
    James Earl Jones holds up a pair of Emmy Awards that he won in 1991. (Getty Images)
  • James Earl Jones stands hand-in-hand with the ensemble cast of "You Can't Take it With You."
    James Earl Jones and his castmates on “You Can’t Take it With You” take one last bow at the show’s final performance in 2015. (Getty Images)
  • Cicely Tyson smiles as Leonard Foglia hands her a bouquet of red roses. James Earl Jones smiles as he looks on and holds Tyson's other hand.
    Director Leonard Foglia presents Cicely Tyson with a bouquet of roses alongside James Earl Jones at the curtain call of the premiere of “The Gin Game” in 2015. (Getty Images)
  • James Earl Jones and Mark Hamill pose with a trophy backstage at the Tony Awards.
    James Earl Jones poses with his “Star Wars” co-star Mark Hamill at the 2017 Tony Awards. (Getty Images)

From there, Jones built on his collection of credits, including some all-time classic films and Broadway performances. He earned another Tony for Best Actor in 1987’s “Fences,” he got laughs in 1988’s “Coming to America,” cemented lines into Hollywood lore in 1989’s “Field of Dreams,” and helped set the tension in 1990’s “The Hunt for Red October.”

But arguably, his biggest roles come from behind the camera. His deep baritone helped bring to life one of science-fiction’s all-time villains in Darth Vader and he became a Disney legend by voicing the paternal Mufasa in “The Lion King.”

At 92 years old, Jones has 190 film and TV credits, and even more from the stage. And while he is winding down his career, Jones said in 2021 that he isn’t sure he will ever stop completely.

Said Jones: “I am an actor, and actors can work until they fall over. As long as you don’t knock over the furniture and remember the lines. And that’s what I intend to do because I love it.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed the date that James Earl Jones was born. We regret this error which has been corrected.

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