Finding His Voice: James Earl Jones

UPDATED: July 29, 2009
PUBLISHED: July 29, 2009

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.

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.

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.”