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From stutterer to star: How James Earl Jones found his voice

James Earl Jones, the 83-year-old acting legend who recently made his return to Broadway in the play "You Can't Take It With You," discusses the highs and lows of his six-decade-long career, from his modest beginnings suffering from a stutter to a celebrated star of stage and screen with one of the most recognizable voices in the world. NewsHour's Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • JAMES EARL JONES:

    1, 2…

    I was to stand there, say the 10 numbers.

    4, 5…

    and then fall over– fall flat over. That was exciting. And the kids liked that, too. That's the one thing they remember—

    9, 10

  • JEFF BROWN:

    In 1969 James Earl Jones was the first celebrity guest to appear on Sesame Street. Since then he has lent his voice to some of the most recognizable characters in popular culture.

  • LUKE SKYWALKER:

    He told me you killed him.

  • DARTH VADER:

    No. I am your father.

  • SIMBA:

    I'm not who I used to be.

  • MUFASA:

    Remember who you are. You are my son and the one true king.

  • JEFF BROWN:

    Beyond the voice, of course, has been the actor. And at 83-years-old he's still going strong, now back on Broadway in a revival of the classic 1936 screwball comedy, "You Can't Take It With You."

  • JEFF BROWN:

    You spend much of this play smiling from ear to ear.

  • JAMES EARL JONES:

    You caught me.

  • JEFF BROWN:

    I did. I know it's the character. But you look like you're just having a great time.

  • JAMES EARL JONES:

    That happens to be true. But also, it happens to be a choice that the director and I made.

  • JAMES EARL JONES:

    Well, you know, it's the first time I've ever been in a comedy.

  • JEFF BROWN:

    The first time, I mean, w– why did it take you so long to get into a comedy?

  • JAMES EARL JONES:

    Well, I don't know. I guess I thought if you if you took acting seriously, you had to take acting as serious, you know, and serious stuff.

  • TAX MAN:

    According to our records, Mr. Vanderhoff, you have never paid an income tax.

  • JAMES EARL JONES:

    That's right.

  • TAX MAN:

    Why not?

  • JAMES EARL JONES:

    I don't believe in it.

  • JEFF BROWN:

    In "You Can't Take It With You," Jones plays Grandpa, the patriarch of an unusually happy — and wacky — family in Depression-era New York whose members live life as they please — not paying income taxes, not working, simply because they don't feel like it.

    One review said Jones "infuses every word with a steady grace." But Jones told us for as long as he can remember he's been uncomfortable with words — a man with difficulty expressing himself.

    How can you think of yourself as inarticulate? You don't— You think of yourself that way?

  • JAMES EARL JONES:

    Uh-huh.

  • JEFF BROWN:

    Really?

  • JAMES EARL JONES:

    Oh, at parties, yeah. I'm– I'm good at listening. That I learned well. And– keepin' up– is– could be– can be a chore.

  • JEFF BROWN:

    It began early during what he's described as a difficult childhood. His father abandoned the family and he was raised by primarily by his grandparents, first in Mississippi and then on a farm in Michigan. And he developed a severe stutter.

  • JAMES EARL JONES:

    People would come to the house and there'd be introductions made and I couldn't introduce myself.

  • JEFF BROWN:

    It was that bad?

  • JAMES EARL JONES:

    Yeah.

  • JEFF BROWN:

    It's kind of remark–

  • JAMES EARL JONES:

    I found it was oh, so good sometimes because silence isn't bad. It's good to listen. And I learned to listen.

  • JEFF BROWN:

    Jones says it was, in part, that very thing, that drove him toward acting. A high school teacher had helped him overcome his stutter by having him recite poetry at the front of the class. In the early 1950's, Jones had just gotten out of the Army and decided to give New York theatre a try.

  • JAMES EARL JONES:

    And I didn't know I was landing in the middle of the revolution that involved theatre being changed to every man. I just came and walked into it like a dummy outta the Army. And this stuff is going on around me. Suddenly, I began to put it together. And it's quite wonderful.

  • JEFF BROWN:

    It was a time when Broadway embraced stories about regular people like Willy Loman, the protagonist in Arthur Miller's "A Death of a Salesman" and Stanley Kowalski in "A Street Car Named Desire," famously performed by Marlon Brando.

    But in Jones's very first small role on Broadway in 1958, in Sunrise at Campobello, a play based on President Franklin Roosevelt's struggle with polio, an old problem came back to haunt him.

  • JAMES EARL JONES:

    I was playing a houseboy. And I had a scene. I came into Eleanor Roosevelt. I said, "Mrs. Roosevelt, supper is served." Well, I got as far as "Mrs." M– we're often hung on the M word, the mama word or whatever you wanna call it, us stutterers.

    I think the audience knew what was happening. It was a play. They bought tickets. And I'm up there acting. And I can't talk. My line was simple, "Mrs. Roosevelt, supper is served." And I exited. And that's the last time it's ever happened to me.

  • JEFF BROWN:

    It may surprise you that Jones, with undoubtedly one of the most recognizable voices in the world–

  • JAMES EARL JONES:

    This is CNN

  • JEFF BROWN:

    —says he still struggles with stutter to this day. But it hasn't held him back on stage, film, or television. Jones has won three Emmy Awards, an honorary Academy Award and two Tony Awards for his stage performances in the "Great White Hope" about a black boxer, and for August Wilson's play, "Fences" about the African American experience and race relations.

  • JAMES EARL JONES:

    Don't you try and go through life worried if someone had liked you or not. You best make sure that they are doing right by you.

  • JEFF BROWN:

    Jones had several other notable roles, including Othello on Broadway.

  • JAMES EARL JONES:

    People will come, Ray.

  • JEFF BROWN:

    And in the modern film classic, Field of Dreams. Jones told us that early on, his roles were limited because of his race.

  • JAMES EARL JONES:

    I'm going to bust it wide open and the we are all going to go out for a champagne lunch."

  • JEFF BROWN:

    But despite being one of the most prominent African American actors of his generation, Jones has never defined his career in racial terms.

  • JAMES EARL JONES:

    I never thought there was a thing– such a thing as black theatre or African American theatre.

  • JEFF BROWN:

    Race wasn't even a consideration in the current production of "You Can't Take it with You." All the other actors playing members of his family are white. But the 1936 version of the play did have some racial references, one of which made Jones uncomfortable.

  • JAMES EARL JONES:

    My questions were, for instance, okay, these characters, these– these writers wrote in two black people, It's two people who were servants. When the girl who plays my daughter, Penny, says, "Oh, they're so cute. They're a little, like, Porgy and Bess."

  • JEFF BROWN:

    Really?

    "Porgy and Bess", the opera first performed in 1935, portrayed African Americans in ways that some–then and now—felt were racist stereotypes.

  • JAMES EARL JONES:

    I recommended we don't say that line. 'Cause why– why beg the question?

  • JEFF BROWN:

    The line was ultimately taken out.

    Ironically, after all his success on stage and screen in more than 200 roles, jones is probably still best known for being the voice of Darth Vader in the Star Wars trilogy. And the first movie, released in 1977, may have been his easiest gig ever.

    Star Wars was almost, like, for you it wasn't a big deal, right? I mean, you recorded it fairly quickly, I understand.

  • JAMES EARL JONES:

    Oh, in two and a half hours. Yeah.

  • JEFF BROWN:

    Two and a half hours. Yeah. And, yet, it became one of the most well-known voices in the world.

  • JAMES EARL JONES:

    Because the overall theme of that project meant something to everybody.

  • JEFF BROWN:

    Jones says the roles he's most proud of, though, are ones in which he played characters who, like himself, struggle with language. Men like Lennie in "Of Mice and Men" and Hoke in "Driving Miss Daisy."

  • SON:

    She can say anything she like but she cant fire you., you understand?

  • HOKE:

    Sure I do. Don't worry none about it. I hold on no matter what way she run me. When I was nothing but a little boy on the farm butt naked razzle hogs on the ground at killing time and no hog get away from me yet.

  • JAMES EARL JONES:

    Very simple people, people who don't articulate much, people like me, who don't have language, who are inarticulate. I like Hoke in Driving Miss Daisy. Hoke invents a language of his own. He doesn't know how to use English as you and I are doing right now. But he has a way of talking that is quite poetic.

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