As James Earl Jones approaches his 80th birthday (“January 17, same as Benjamin Franklin,” he says with a trademark grin), it’s a good time to give thanks for his remarkable career. An early favorite of Public Theater founder Joseph Papp, Jones made his mark as a young man in Othello, The Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth and many other classics. A two-time Tony winner for The Great White Hope and Fences, he has headlined three revivals in the past five Broadway seasons: On Golden Pond, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and now Driving Miss Daisy, co-starring with Vanessa Redgrave. Jones prefers to do interviews in person and has a conversational style that is both warm and magisterial, thanks to his instantly identifiable voice. It’s doubly astounding to realize that he spent eight years of his childhood virtually mute, traumatized by a stutter and by being uprooted from his native Mississippi to live with his grandparents in Michigan. The legendary actor talked about that and cleared up some myths about his career in a recent pre-show chat the Golden Theatre.
Let’s start with the character of Hoke in Driving Miss Daisy. What do you like best about him?
I like that he knows exactly who he is. I have a very simple love for Hoke because he’s a simple character. The whole play is simple. I don’t say that to put it down in any way—simplicity can trick you if you’re not careful. We’ll be discovering things about these characters until the day the play closes.
You are such a commanding presence onstage. It’s a little startling at first for audiences to hear you say “yassuh” and “nosuh” in the dialect of an uneducated African-American Southern man.
Maybe they’ve seen too much Amos & Andy. There are people who cannot talk any other way. I have members of my family who are that way. I know people with no education beyond, in Hoke’s case, age 10 or 11. He couldn’t read, so there’s no way to get a better vocabulary. There’s nothing feeding his mind except his own imagination and his own observations.
Obviously, the play is written from Alfred Uhry’s point of view. Do you feel that Hoke’s perspective is represented well?
Absolutely, because it’s not easy to write a character like this. Look at how hard Eugene O’Neill tried to write people who didn’t speak straight English; look at the dialogue he wrote for The Hairy Ape. Alfred has captured something that I admire, as Howard Sackler did with The Great White Hope [in which Jones won a Tony as boxer Jack Jefferson]. Howard actually invented a language for that Southern man. Alfred said he didn’t invent Hoke’s speech, he remembered it. Hoke was real person—I met two of his nephews, very sophisticated, educated gentlemen, so his urge for their upper mobility paid off.
This role seems a lot more demanding than Big Daddy [in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof], in which you got to come in, steal the show, and then leave.
On the contrary, Big Daddy is a very demanding character because he’s an evil son-of-a-bitch. Hoke has his negatives, but in no way does he mean ill. Big Daddy burnt me out. I'd seen Burl Ives do it; his Big Daddy had a lyricism because he was a lyrical singer. I’m not a singer, so I just got into his gut, and it’s a very bad gut, besides the cancer in there.
When interviewers have asked why you’re still doing eight shows a week, you’ve spoken of being happy to have a job.
I’m the breadwinner of the family. My wife [Cecilia Hart] is a great actress, especially with comedy, which I am not. But she’s had to juggle raising our son [Flynn, 27, who serves as his father’s assistant] and you can’t do that and stay in the hustle. It is a hustle out there, especially for a woman once you get past the leading lady type and they won’t let you play a grandmother because you don’t look like a grandma.
At this point, many actors of your stature would just sit on their laurels.
Laurels don’t count. They’re somebody else’s opinion. I don’t read reviews, but I respect critics who are good writers, like Kenneth Tynan. Some get off on the wrong track, like John Simon. He didn’t have to write that way, but he got trapped in it, and that became what John was known for. There are other people, since John, who sort of get trapped in their own negativity, their own nastiness.
Your energy onstage is so inspiring. It’s clear you still love what you do.
I love the theater, I love movies and I love TV. But I’ve not gotten wealthy from show business. I did better doing commercials for Verizon, quite frankly. I’ve only once earned close to a million dollars for a movie, and you’d be surprised which it was. I won’t say. When I hear of the $20 million that young actors get, I’m happy for them but I’m also sad that somebody else down the line got less because they had to be paid for their star appeal.
Your life story is amazing, particularly the fact that you spent a lot of your childhood in silence. Now you’re everybody’s notion of the voice of God.
That has to go in one ear and out the other as fast as possible! [Laughs.] That’s a very dangerous phrase to hear. The idea of the voice of God—that’s a fantasy; that’s mythology. Do I have a white beard that flows? My beard would never flow with kinky hair.
OK, we’ll just say you have the most beautiful voice of any American actor.
I didn’t talk when I was young. I talked until I was about four, in Mississippi. My grandfather used to say, “Your voice is so pleasant, so beautiful; it’s like a bell.” Then what happened? When I moved from Mississippi to Michigan, I became a stutterer, and it shut me down.
Your success has been a big inspiration to people who stutter.
I’m glad. But I can’t be a role model, because I’m still a stutterer. I don’t know the cure. I started talking again in high school, through the help of a very good English teacher. And at that point, I talked not with a child’s voice but with a bass male voice. My teacher said, “It’s interesting to hear, but you should be the last one to listen to it because you might fall in love with it and then no one else will listen to what you have to say.” That’s best of advice I’ve ever been given about the “voice of God.”
Speaking of your voice, do you mind being known for Star Wars [as Darth Vader]?
I love that association. That’s an example of where the perceived wealth I might have gotten is a myth. I got $7,000 for that first job. Seven. Not seventy. I only got special effects money. I didn’t sign up as an actor because I wasn’t seen. Those who did became millionaires, which is wonderful for them.
So, you don’t feel like saying to people, “You’re talking to me about Star Wars, but I’m one of the greatest Othellos ever.”
I’ve done a King Lear too! Do the kids know that? No, they have the Darth Vader poster to sign. But it’s okay. When you appear before an audience, you learn to accept whatever they give you. Hopefully they give you their ears, as Antony said.
People must come up to you all the time asking you to say their names or repeat something, just to hear it in your voice.
“I am your father.” They know the lines better than I do, so I ask them to say it to me.
You and your wife did Othello together on Broadway. Did you fall in love onstage?
The myth is that I fell in love with all my Desdemonas. I’ve played Othello seven times, and I’ve only been married twice. Both my wives happened to have been playing the role of Desdemona. The first wife, whose name is Julienne Marie, was in the Othello we did in Central Park, which is probably the best one I’ve ever been involved in. Gladys Vaughn directed. I believe that women direct that play with a bit more innate knowledge than men because of an archaic value called love. Men don’t quite get it. If you think your wife is screwing around on you, get a divorce! You don’t have to kill her! Othello kills her. Not very smart.
So, you and Cecilia were together before you co-starred on Broadway.
Cecilia was contending for the role after so many Desdemonas bit the dust. Our director, the late Peter Coe, didn’t know how to cast the role because, frankly, he didn’t understand the role of the female in this play. I couldn’t teach him because I was busy getting myself situated as Othello. When Zoe Caldwell took over [as director], she spoke to my wife, who was then my bethrothed, and said, “I don’t want to put you in this play because when mates are reviewed, it can kill the relationship if one of you gets a good review and the other one doesn’t.” So Cece got in the production on her own, not as Mrs. Jones, and then we got married.
Which stage role has fit you the best? Which one has given you the most pleasure?
Frankly, a man like Hoke. As a stutterer, my love in life is to play men who don’t have language. It started with John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, the role of Lennie. Talk about inarticulate! I love playing people who don’t have a facility with words, because I don’t have it.
So, how are you going to celebrate your 80th birthday?
I’ll go on stage and do Hoke. It's just a pure pleasure.
See James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy at the Golden Theatre.