James Earl Jones: The Man Behind The Voice

The great James Earl Jones talks about how he created the best-known voice in the history of film--Darth Vader's--and describes a life in which this accomplishment reverberates with one irony after another.


It's impossible to tell whether the incredibly successful Star Wars trilogy would have captured the imagination of the world the way it did if Luke Skywalker or Han Solo or Princess Leia had been played by actors other than Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford or Carrie Fisher. But it seems almost certain that if the voice of Darth Vader, the evil core of the trilogy, hadn't been as rich, ominous, spooky or penetrating as it was, the power of the film would have been diminished. That voice was priceless. Invaluable. And since it only cost $7,000, it ranks as one of the greatest bargains in the history of cinema.

As if that irony were not enough, add to it the fact that the voice belongs to James Earl Jones, one of Americas truly great cultural treasures. In the theater, Jones has mesmerized audiences in plays like Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones and The Iceman Cometh, Howard Sackler's The Great White Hope, Shakespeare's King Lear, Macbeth and Othello, and August Wilson's Fences (for which he won the Tony for Outstanding Actor). On-screen he's appeared in nearly 60 films, from Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb to The Great White Hope, from Field of Dreams and Patriot Games to Cry, the Beloved Country. He's also done extraordinary work on television, in Roots: The Next Generation, Gabriel's Fire and Paul Robeson. But none of this great work is what he will be best remembered for; Darth Vader is.

There's another irony in the fact that the man who created Darth Vader's commanding voice suffered from a monumental stutter as a child. Jones's childhood as a whole is a painful, triumphant story that began in 1931 in Arkabutla, Mississippi, when he was born to a 20-year-old woman and a father who had already left. Jones was raised on a farm by his grandparents, who moved him with them to Michigan. The geographical displacement was a shock for the young James Earl, and soon after, he began to stutter. In high school, when he was forced to recite a poem he'd written, he did so without faltering, and that, plus the experience of hearing Paul Robeson sing, turned Jones toward a life of acting. Married to actress Cecilia Hart since 1982, Jones has a 16-year-old son and lives in upstate New York.

LAWRENCE GROBEL: How did George Lucas choose you for the voice of Darth Vader? JAMES EARL JONES: He knew he wanted Darth Vader to have a bass voice. He was right--with that great entrance, Darth Vader coming out of the smoke, you had to have a voice to go with it. Well, how many bass voices are there? There was Orson Welles, and the rumor is that he considered Welles, but decided that voice might be too recognizable, so he called my agent and asked, "Would Jim like a day's work?"

Q: Didn't you originally deny being the voice of Darth Vader?

A: When Mercedes McCambridge did the voice for the "possessed" Linda Blair in The Exorcist, I was on the Board of Directors of the Academy and the debate was: should Mercedes be a co-nominee for the Oscar? I thought it was a silly argument. When will people just accept that they are special effects? So when it came to the voice of Darth Vader, I said, "I don't want credit." You have to understand, at that time I didn't know we had anything. Even Lucas didn't know what he had. I declined credit for number one and number two. Only when I knew that Darth was going to die in number three I said, "OK, let's give myself credit."

Q: Did you net any royalties from the first Star Wars?

A: No, I got a flat fee, $7,000. Lucas, out of his own graciousness, gave me an equal amount for a Christmas bonus that year. But there's no way that I could have become as wealthy as people assume I did.

Q: Do you regret the way your contract was negotiated?

A: Everybody wishes they could have won the lottery, but you can't sit around and have regrets about it. I'm a realist.

Q: What was your first meeting with George Lucas like?

A: I'll tell you about two directors who, from the outside, seem very unassuming. Stanley Kubrick, who directed the first movie I was in, Dr. Strangelove, chewed gum and was casual. But you learned later that he was totally fascinated by the use and abuse of power, as a filmmaker as well as a person. Lucas, on the other hand, is genuinely unassuming. When he chews gum or buys a bag of popcorn it's not an act. He relaxes you. You don't feel that he's going to kick your ass. And he's got a good mind.

Q: Did Lucas "explain" Darth Vader to you?

A: No, I heard very little about the movie. It was filmed mostly in England. He had a tradition of keeping everything quiet.

Q: But didn't he give you the background of the character, to help you figure him out?

A: He said it wasn't a matter of the actor making the character more interesting--it was exactly the opposite. Darth doesn't have inflection. He speaks from a very narrow band, or else he sounds too human. Darth's more than human. The difficulty for the second and third movies was how to keep that narrow band of inflection. For The Empire Strikes Back, [director] Irvin Kershner put down his own track for Darth Vader to give me an idea of where he wanted to go with it. He had a great, squeaky, cracky voice. And it worked unusually well--it's even scarier, because you don't expect it.

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