Screen Actors Guild (SAG) announced today that James Earl Jones, whose acting prowess and iconic voice are world-renown, will receive the Guild’s most prestigious accolade—the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award for career achievement and humanitarian accomplishment. Jones will be presented the Award, given annually to an actor who fosters the “finest ideals of the acting profession,” at the “15th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards®,” which premieres live on TNT and TBS Sunday, Jan. 25, 2009, at 8 p.m. ET/PT, 7 p.m. CT and 6 p.m. MT.
In making today’s announcement, SAG President Alan Rosenberg said, “James Earl Jones’ distinguished career on stage, in film, on television, in commercials and as a vocal presence without peer commands our admiration and respect. His long and quiet devotion to advancing literacy, the arts and humanities on a national and local scale deserves our appreciation. It is our honor to bestow the Guild’s highest tribute on this extraordinary actor.
Listening to Jones’ voice—recognized around the world—one would never guess that he spent his childhood as a virtual mute because of a severe stuttering problem. With the help of an outstanding high school teacher, Donald Crouch, Jones overcame his stutter and transformed his weakness into his greatest strength.
Today, Jones’ voice is known by people of all ages and walks of life—the “Star Wars” fans who know him as the voice of Darth Vader, children who know him as Mufasa from Disney’s “The Lion King,” those who hear him intone “This is CNN” while watching the news and the countless people who use Verizon phone services, for which he was the exclusive spokesperson for many years.
Jones’ work in front of the cameras and on stage is as imposing as his magnificent basso profundo. His stature as one of the greatest actors of the past half-century has been underscored by numerous accolades. He received the National Medal of Arts in 1992 and a decade later was a Kennedy Center Honoree. Screen Actors Guild previously honored Jones in 1995 with an Actor® nomination for his portrayal of South African priest Stephen Kumalo in the film adaptation of the Alan Paton classic, “Cry, the Beloved Country.”
In 1969, Jones won a Tony® for his breakthrough role as boxer Jack Johnson in the Broadway hit, “The Great White Hope.” His work in the 1970 film adaptation also garnered him an Oscar® nomination and a Golden Globe® and landed him on the cover of “Newsweek.” He won a second Tony in 1987 for August Wilson's “Fences,” in which he played a former baseball player who finds it difficult to communicate with his son, and a Tony nomination in 1995 for the critically acclaimed revival of “On Golden Pond,” playing crotchety Norman Thayer opposite Leslie Uggams. Jones returned to Broadway this year to portray Big Daddy in a revival of “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof,” starring with Terrance Howard, Anika Noni Rose and Phylicia Rashad.
Earlier this year, Jones was honored with a Drama Desk Special Award as “a commanding force on the stage for nearly half a century,” adding to the five Drama Desk Awards he has earned since 1965 for his performances in “Othello,” “The Great White Hope,” “Hamlet,” “The Cherry Orchard” and “Fences.” In 1962, he earned his first Obie for "Clandestine on the Morning Line," "The Apple" and "Moon on a Rainbow Shawl." He was honored with a second Obie in 1965 for “Baal.”
The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences has honored him with three Emmys®: in 1991 for his performance as Junius Johnson in the TNT telefilm “Heat Wave” and his portrayal of title character Gabriel Bird in the ABC series “Gabriel’s Fire” and in 2000 for the children’s special “Summer’s End.” He also earned six nominations for the telefilm “By Dawn’s Early Light” and his guest roles on “Frasier,” “Everwood,” “Under One Roof,” “Picket Fences” and “East Side/West Side.” He is the recipient of two CableACEs and a 1976 Grammy for “Great American Documents.” He has been honored with two NAACP Image Awards and induction into the Image Awards Hall of Fame.
James Earl Jones was born Jan. 17, 1931, in Arkabutla, Miss., to Ruth Connelly Jones and boxer Robert Earl Jones, who divorced before he was born. He was raised by his maternal grandparents, who moved their family to rural northern Michigan when Jones was 4 years old.
Entering the University of Michigan in pre-med, Jones changed his major to drama. He appeared in student productions and at the Manistee Summer Theatre, where in 1956 he played the title role in Shakespeare’s “Othello,” the first of seven different productions of the play he would tackle throughout his career. After graduation and serving in the military as an infantry officer, Jones moved to New York City, where he supported himself by working as a janitor and struggled to make it as an actor. He made his Broadway debut in 1957 as an understudy in "The Egghead" and returned to Broadway the following year in "Sunrise at Campobello".
Renowned Broadway producer Joseph Papp gave Jones one of his first major breakthroughs, casting him as Michael Williams in the title role in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” in 1960. A true visionary, Papp was credited with injecting a “dash of social conscience” into the performance by casting an African-American in the role. This marked the beginning of Jones’s long affiliation with the New York Shakespeare Festival, eventually counting the title roles of “Othello,” “Macbeth” and “King Lear” among his many distinguished performances for the company. In addition to his celebrated Shakespearian work, in New York he starred in 1964 in the U.S. premiere of Jean Genet’s controversial “The Blacks,” with Maya Angelou, Roscoe Lee Browne, Louis Gossett Jr. and Cecily Tyson, and he began a long-standing collaboration with South African playwright Athol Fugard, acting in “The Blood Knot” (1964), “Boseman and Lena” (1970), “A Lesson From Aloes” (1980) and the critically acclaimed “Master Harold…and the Boys” (1982). He portrayed Lennie in a 1974 Broadway revival of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" and performed the controversial one-man show "Paul Robeson" first on Broadway (1977), as his London debut the following year and in a PBS television production in 1979.
Based on his success in the theater, Jones began to be cast in small television roles. In the 1960s, he was one of the first African-American actors to appear regularly in daytime soap operas (playing a doctor in both “The Guiding Light” and “As the World Turns”). He made his film debut in 1964 in Stanley Kubrick's “Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”
The 1970s began with his Academy Award-nominated turn in “The Great White Hope,” included performances as the first black president in “The Man” (1972), as Diahann Carroll’s love interest in “Claudine”, in “The River Niger” opposite Cecily Tyson and the comedy “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings,” portraying a character based on Hall of Fame Negro League catcher Josh Gibson opposite Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor. He also narrated the Martin Luther King documentary “Montgomery to Memphis” and the television biography of Malcolm X.
In 1977, George Lucas, reluctant to employ a recognizable voice such as Orson Welles for “Star Wars” arch-villain, cast Jones for a day of uncredited vocal work as Darth Vader, neither aware that by the time Jones was acknowledged for the role in 1983’s “Return of the Jedi,” his would have become a voice known around the globe.
Jones’ film performances of the 1980s included his work as an oppressed coal miner in John Sayles' “Matewan “ (1987), as an embittered writer in “Field of Dream” (1989) and as African King Joffe Joffer in the Eddie Murphy comedy “Coming to America.” The '90s found him in the thick of the Tom Clancy blockbuster trilogy—“The Hunt for Red October,” “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger.” His most recent role was as Martin Lawrence’s father in this year’s comedy “Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins.”
Jones’ career also includes a wide range of television work. He played Alex Haley in “Roots: The Next Generation” in 1979. He created the title role in the early Stephen Bochco police series “Paris,” played the title role of the trailblazing Alabama minister in “The Vernon Johns Story” and was one of the three wise men in Franco Zeffirelli's “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jones has guest-starred in series ranging from “The Defenders” and “Dr. Kildare” to “Touched by an Angel” and “Homicide: Life on the Street.” He has provided voices for three episodes of “The Simpsons,” including his narration of the show’s take on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.”
Jones was appointed to the National Council on the Arts in 1972 and to the James Madison Council of the Library of Congress in 1993. He currently serves on the Actors Fund of America’s Board of Advisors. He introduced President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Lincoln Memorial during the 1993 Inaugural festivities. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from the University of Michigan (his alma mater) in 1970 and Honorary Doctorates in Fine Arts from Princeton University in 1980 and Yale University in 1982, He is the recipient of the Medal of Spoken Language from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1981), the Joseph Plateau Life Achievement Award from the Flanders Film Festival (1995), the Eleanor Roosevelt Center Val-Kill Medal (1998) and a career award from the National Board of Review (1995). In 2004 he was honored with the Harvard Foundation Humanitarian Award and the Actors Fund’s Julie Harris Lifetime Achievement Award.
James Earl Jones has long been an advocate for literacy. For many years, as the spokesperson for Verizon, he was an integral part of the Verizon Foundation’s Literacy Initiative, which gave him the opportunity to travel the country reading to kids while talking to them about the importance of reading in their lives. Jones is often called upon to speak on the subject and regularly lends his name and talent to a variety of endeavors that encourage young readers. The roots of his passion for the value of literacy run deep.
“In my family, we say the love of reading and book learning is in our bone memory,” Jones says about the significance reading has had in his life “We would never think of not learning to read and getting an education. My great-great grandparents secretly learned to read when they were slaves and indentured servants. They passed on their love of reading to my great-grandfather who, as a free man, amassed a modest library and encouraged his family to read his books and revere them.”
He continues, “Growing up, I was mute to the outside world, but there were hundreds of conversations in my head. And that is the beauty of reading that exists for people to discover. For me, reading was a key to self-possession … a treasure that gave me the ability to be my own person. Reading gave me a way to move past my silence and to live all the vicarious lives though the words I found in books. The written word became my own private mentor, teaching me and guiding me forward. Through a love of reading, I was able to overcome my muteness and pursue a career in which my voice would be my most prominent asset.”
Jones has been married since March 1982 to actress Cecilia Hart. Their son, Flynn, is 25.