He has one of the most recognizable voices in the entertainment business and it all began with a grapefruit and a dedicated teacher. James Earl Jones was born in Mississippi in 1931. His parents separated before his birth and his grandparents raised him. When Jones was five, his family moved to Michigan and settled in the small town of Dublin, in Manistee County.
The trauma of his young life left Jones with a serious – almost incapacitating – stuttering problem. For years, he refused to speak more than a few words-even to his family. In school, Jones pretended to be mute and communicated by writing. That was until Donald Crouch, a Manistee High School English teacher, helped him overcome his debilitating problem. Crouch challenged his students to write a poem. Jones wrote his “Ode to Grapefruit” in the epic meter of Henry Longfellow’s “Hiawatha.” Crouch then challenged Jones to read the poem before his classmates. He read it flawlessly. With Crouch’s encouragement, Jones competed in debates and oratorical contests. As a senior, he won a public-speaking contest and earned a scholarship to the University of Michigan.
Jones planned to study medicine, but he was attracted to the theatre. After graduating in 1953 with a degree in drama, he arrived in New York City to pursue an acting career. It wasn’t easy. Jones scrubbed floors, lived on $19 a month and sought the few opportunities available to black actors.
After a series of lesser roles, Jones won acclaim in the mid-1960s for his lead role in Shakespeare’s Othello. In 1964, director Stanley Kubrick cast Jones in Dr. Strangelove, his first movie. In 1968, Jones won a Tony award for his Broadway performance of The Great White Hope, a story based on Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion. Two years later, the film version won Jones an Oscar nomination.
Jones has appeared in more than fifty films, returns regularly to the live theatre and provided the voice of villain Darth Vader in Star Wars and Mufasa in The Lion King. Today, James Earl Jones is one of Hollywood’s most versatile actors and one of its most distinctive voices.
To learn more about other important African Americans in Michigan, order the book African Americans You Need to Know or subscribe to Michigan History or Michigan History for Kids by calling (800) 366-3703 or visiting www.michiganhistorymagazine.com.