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James Earl Jones has achieved worldwide acclaim for performances on stage, screen and television. The two-time Tony winner has played roles as varied as Shakespeare’s Othello and the voice of Mufasa in Disney’s The Lion King.
His commanding basso profundo voice has been described as one of the most recognizable in entertainment history. Millions of TV viewers hear him daily announcing, “This is CNN.” And he may be most famous as the voice of Star Wars’ Darth Vader. But as a youth, James Earl Jones was almost mute.
“One of the hardest things in life is having words in your heart that you can’t utter.”
Raised by his grandparents after his parents’ breakup before he was born, the family moved when he was 5 from his native Mississippi to Michigan. The move was so traumatic that Jones developed a stuttering problem and all but stopped speaking, except with his family. To express himself, he began secretly writing poetry.
In high school, an English teacher named Donald Crouch drew Jones out and helped change his life forever. Jones tells the story in The Person Who Changed My Life: Prominent Americans Recall Their Mentors edited by Matilda Raffa Cuomo.
“Your own need to be shines out of any dream or creation you imagine.”
“Professor Crouch discovered that I wrote poetry, a secret I was not anxious to divulge, being a typical high-school boy. After learning this, he questioned me about why, if I loved words so much, couldn’t I say them out loud? One day I showed him a poem I had written, and he responded to it by saying that it was too good to be my own work, that I must have copied it from someone. To prove that I hadn’t plagiarized it, he wanted me to recite the poem, by heart, in front of the entire class. I did as he asked, got through it without stuttering, and from then on I had to write more, and speak more. This had a tremendous effect on me, and my confidence grew as I learned to express myself comfortably out loud.”
On the last day of school, Crouch gave Jones a copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance. “This was invaluable to me because it summed up what he had taught me—self-reliance,” Jones says. “His influence on me was so basic that it extended to all areas of life. He is the reason I became an actor.”