James Earl Jones Celebrates 93 And Beating Challenge That Had Him Swear Off Speaking

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James Earl Jones has much to celebrateJames Earl Jones has much to celebrate

On Wednesday, actor James Earl Jones celebrated turning a monumental 93 years old. This milestone follows an ongoing career that’s been going on for seven decades, kicking off in 1953. Known for the deep timbre and commanding power of his voice and presence, Jones in his youth contended with a challenge that nearly had Jones refuse to ever speak at all.

James Earl Jones was born on January 17, 1931, in Arkabutla, Mississippi, which census records report having a population of below 300. When he was five, he went to live with his grandparents who owned a Michigan farm. The farm animals provided one of the few reliable audiences Jones felt comfortable talking to, as Jones felt self-aware due to his stammering speech pattern. But it shaped him in many other crucial ways too.

James Earl Jones was emotionally impacted by his stutter

Since he was a child, when Jones spoke, he would stutter. It got to the point where the young Jones would outright refuse to speak aloud, except in very special circumstances.

“As a small child, I would communicate to my family, or at least those who didn’t mind being embarrassed by my stutter or my being embarrassed,” he shared with the Daily Mail back in 2010. “I did communicate with the animals quite freely. They don’t care how you sound, they just want to hear your voice.”

There was only so much that could help with. “People would come to the house and there’d be introductions made and I just couldn’t introduce myself,” he added. “I resigned to it as a kid… I became a non-verbal person.”

A mindful teacher helped James Earl Jones find his voice and embrace speech

James Earl Jones resigned himself to swear off speech when he was very youngJames Earl Jones resigned himself to swear off speech when he was very young
James Earl Jones resigned himself to swear off speech when he was very young / (c)Paramount Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

Today, Jones, who once committed himself to staying in his safe bubble where he could not be judged, has three Tony Awards, two Emmy Awards, and a Grammy Award, in addition to a Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award and induction into the American Theater Hall of Fame. How did he get from there to here?

First, he continued to turn inward; Jones spoke as little as possible and so to communicate, he wrote – and wrote beautifully, especially poetry. That was just the start he needed.

Jones recalled the definitive moment for him on the Dick Cavett Show. “I had an English teacher in high school who discovered that when I read my own poetry I didn’t stutter, because I wasn’t in confrontation with other peoples’ feelings or thoughts, but my own,” he shared. “And it came out better so I practised reading poetry for a while and I think that’s what got me into a feeling for reading dramatic interpretations.”

Jones says he still has a stutter but works through itJones says he still has a stutter but works through it
Jones says he still has a stutter but works through it / © ABC/courtesy Everett Collection

Jones says there was an element of karma to his fate in his youth. “When I arrived in Michigan… it’s very complex. … Stuttering is not dissimilar from … I guess medically from petite mild epilepsy. Things trip in the brain so that the speech mechanism trips over itself. But I used to imitate Uncle Randy,” Jones admitted, “Duke we called him, was a stutterer for a while. He also had petite mild epilepsy. I used to imitate him, mock him we used to say, and so in a way, I was cursed for mocking him.”

He still stutters, Jones revealed, and has not been “cured” of it, but rather, works with it. Like living on a farm. “Being raised as a farm kid, it was all about making do,” he explained. “Putting one foot in front of the other. You had to plow a field, you just put the horse in the row and you got behind the plow and you did [one] row at a time. And eventually, you got it done — one foot in front of the other. And you take up a profession in this business, you got to accept that there’s a certain journeyman stage to it.”

He added, “For me, it never ends. I’m still a journeyman actor. But you’re on a journey — and it’s one foot in front of the other.”

Here’s to many more great steps!

James Earl Jones's stutter saw him turn to poetryJames Earl Jones's stutter saw him turn to poetry
James Earl Jones’s stutter saw him turn to poetry / Melissa Moseley / ©TNT / Courtesy: Everett Collection

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