James Earl Jones

A walking irony

He may be one of the most commanding actors of all time, but James Earl Jones is still trying to make the spoken word his strength.

By Naila Francis

A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters” has long been a favorite among actors.  James Earl Jones is no exception.

The theater veteran has enjoyed playing the staid and conscientious Andrew Makepeace Ladd III to the free-spirited and tempestuous Melissa Gardner — childhood friends whose relationship is traced through their 50-year correspondence, from their first meeting in second grade through the triumphs and disappointments of adulthood — in three previous productions, starring opposite Mary Tyler Moore, Elizabeth Taylor and his wife, Cecelia Hart.

“It’s ideal for two actors who can just get up on the stage and read. They don’t have to memorize the lines. There’s no preparation and production, although the lighting is important because there are moods and there are transitions,” says Jones, who is reprising the role once more for a benefit production at the Bucks County Playhouse Saturday and Sunday, starring another screen and stage legend, Tyne Daly, whom he’s known since she was a young girl.

Still, he considers “Love Letters” a play, not just reading.

“Both characters are affected deeply by their parents and their parents don’t appear onstage but they represent their parents in more ways than one. They speak of them and they represent them by their nature,” says Jones. “There’s a lot of chaos in (Melissa’s) life. There’s too much order in Andy’s life. And she’s always at him about that, and he’s at her about her chaos. But their love is abiding.

“For me, it is a solid drama because of what they go through with each other. And I tell you, I haven’t experienced many productions where I’m literally torn up at the end emotionally … It’s a heartbreaker.”

But beyond the deceptive simplicity of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated drama and the minimal commitment required of its actors, the play carries a more personal resonance for Jones.

“I’m still a stutterer and the written word is important to me. That’s how I learned to communicate as a child,” says the actor, whose distinguished five-decade career in show business was born not so much out of a love for theater but a greater facility in speaking words other than his own.

To him, Gurney’s classic piece celebrates the value of letter-writing.

“I don’t mean it as a tradition. I don’t believe in traditions really but as an action, as a way of communicating,” says Jones, who acknowledges occasionally writing things down that he knows he won’t be able to convey as well in a phone conversation. “Words are so fleeting. We turn the TV on and go about our business and words are pouring out of that box and it doesn’t stop… Nothing is eternal but a letter can be eternal. That’s why people save them sometimes.

“When I do write letters, it becomes very important, not enough to give them to the Library of Congress or anything like that. I have no intentions of doing that but there are some that I save because I want to remember what I said.”

It was writing that was Jones’ own refuge growing up on a farm in rural Michigan. After developing a stutter as a child, the Mississippi native consigned himself to a functional muteness, barely speaking at all between the ages of 6 and 14, until a high school teacher, Donald Crouch, discovered his gift for poetry. When Jones turned in a poem written in the vein of Longfellow’s epic “The Song of Hiawatha,” Crouch challenged him to recite it from memory before the class to prove he hadn’t plagiarized someone else’s work.

“I never know to this day whether he was just tricking me to read my own stuff or whether he really just thought I was a cheater but either way it was a left-handed compliment he gave me: ‘This poem is too good for you to have written it,’ ” recalls Jones. “I stood up and recited it because it was my words. I was talking to myself. It was talking to other people that was the problem.”

Yet poetry, in a way, proved his salvation. Crouch encouraged him to perform dramatic readings of Edgar Allan Poe after school and Jones would do so, standing in the gym, candle in hand, before an attentive group of his peers.

When he quit his pre-med studies in college and decided to pursue theater, he says it was because “It was just something I thought I could do. If I couldn’t express my own words without making a mess of it, if I could simply memorize the words of wonderful writers who had wonderful things to say and great words to say them with that I could never imagine saying myself — that appealed to me.”

That he would become one of his generation’s most accomplished actors, beginning with his 1959 Broadway debut in “Sunrise at Campobello,” may seem a marvel. Jones’ celebrated performances over the years have included Howard Sackler’s “The Great White Hope,” which won him his first Tony Award in 1968, Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold and the Boys,” the New York Shakespeare Festival’s “King Lear” and August Wilson’s “Fences,” which earned him his second Tony.

His versatile career also spans dozens of film and TV appearances, from his 1964 big-screen debut in Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” to “Field of Dreams” and the trilogy of thrillers, starting with “The Hunt for Red October,” based on Tom Clancy’s popular novels. Memorable TV portrayals include Alex Haley in “Roots II” and the title role in the ABC drama “Gabriel’s Fire.”

“I’m a walking irony, but I’m not the only one,” says Jones, who at 81 picked up his fourth Tony nomination this year for his turn as former U.S. President Arthur Hockstader in “Gore Vidal’s The Best Man.” “A lot of people who have weak muscles and set about to strengthen those muscles, those new strengthened muscles define them. (Broadway star) Gwen Verdon had polio before she started dancing … I’m still trying to make (mine) a strength. I cannot assume I can handle a single line when I go out onstage.”

It was, of course, his work offstage that heralded his voice as one of the most authoritative in entertainment history. In 1977, Jones’ few hours of uncredited voiceover work for the character of Darth Vader in “Star Wars” made him the go-to actor for commanding voices.

“I love being part of that cult,” he says of the trilogy. “I think everybody’s seen ‘Star Wars.’ My son hated it when he first saw it. He said, ‘Papa, how could you be the bad guy?’ Now he loves it, of course.”

The films may have immortalized his voice, but Jones admits when it comes to the stage, it’s not the most ideal.

“I learned that the bass voice in American theater and in British theater for that matter is harder to hear than (higher)-pitched voices…so I have to pitch my voice up for a lot of things I do,” he says.

Perhaps not surprisingly, his most cherished roles are those of the inarticulate, Lennie in “Of Mice and Men” for instance — “He has very few words yet he has to express himself like any human being does and within those limitations, he’s quite effective and a little scary,” says Jones, of the character he played in a 1974 Broadway revival — and chauffeur Hoke Colburn in “Driving Miss Daisy.”

Jones will reprise the role of Hoke opposite Angela Lansbury in the Australian premiere of Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play in February, after starring with Vanessa Redgrave in the both the Broadway and West End productions. The part, he says, is one he’s longed to play ever since he saw the film adaptation starring Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy.

“Hoke is inarticulate. He is illiterate. He is like many southern people, and I being from Mississippi, I know people like that. … I probably was a person like that. I probably still am a person like that,” says Jones. “(Hoke) creates language. He takes the English language he has learned that works for him and he throws the rest away…He just gets the idea in his head and gets it in his mouth and whatever words he can find to use, he says them. He’s quite poetic, as many southern people are, as many inarticulate people are.”

It was with the Broadway revival of “Driving Miss Daisy” that Jones first met Jed Bernstein, producing director at the Bucks County Playhouse. Bernstein, who served as producer on that show, was the one who pushed Uhry to remount it on Broadway after plans for another project they’d been working on fell apart. He says he and Jones were eager to work together again before the actor took the show to Australia, and “Love Letters” was the perfect vehicle.

“James effortlessly and without fail brings heart and depth to any role he plays. We couldn’t have asked for a better actor to deliver this emotional story on the stage at the Bucks County Playhouse,” says John Tilliinger, the Tony-nominated director who is helming the New Hope production.

Jones, it appears, has no interest in curtailing his workload though he admits to the inevitable changes that come with aging, such as his difficulty hearing.

“I don’t think of age as a determining factor with roles,” he says. “As long as I’m standing, I’m not slowing down.”

– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer