James Earl Jones can turn words into thunderbolts

MICHAEL OLESKER

April 14, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In a little room on Emory Street, with dusk falling like a veil across West Baltimore, the magnificent actor James Earl Jones leans into a microphone and begins to speak the words of a radio commercial.

"This is James Earl Jones," he says in a voice like big bass drums, "urging you. . ."

Everybody knows the voice, from "Field of Dreams" to Shakespeare's "Othello" to "The Great White Hope" to the CNN verbal signature to the telephone book commercials that saturate the TV airwaves.

He sounds a lot like God, if only God had a deeper voice.

But, having voiced the first five words of the radio message, he hears what he has done and finds that it is not good.

He starts again.

"This is James Earl Jones. . ."

You want to weep from the sound of that voice, or ask it to recite sonnets or send men into battle just for the thrill of it.

". . . urging you to visit the Babe Ruth Museum . . ."

He stops again, puzzles over the script, decides to start again.

"Maybe I should stand," he says. "My sinuses are . . ."

He coughs nervously, rises from his chair at a long wooden table, looks around the little room at the half dozen people who are watching him and tries not to feel too self-conscious.

"This is James Earl Jones," he says a third time, "urging you to visit the Babe Ruth Museum, just a long fly ball from Baltimore's new field of dreams . . ."

No good.

In "fly ball," he's put the accent on the first word, as though it's some sort of ball made of flies. He stops, scratches one ear, reads over the script again. It's a 10-second spot, written in a single sentence of 29 words.

"Why am I doing this?" he says, half to himself, half to anyone in the room with an answer. It's unclear what he's asking: Is it an actor's inquiry about emotional motivation, or Jones admonishing himself for taking too long on one sentence?

"Have some fun with it," someone suggests softly.

"This is James Earl Jones. HA, HA, HA," Jones laughs, the words booming across the room like cannon shots. Then, poking fun at himself, he adds, "Fun? I'm just trying to string it all together."

He will do it again, and then again and again, six or eight times before the little message feels right to him, before the words and the inflections and the emotions all come together in some precise way.

It's a brief portrait of an artist at work, looking for magic. You think it comes naturally? Jones, who has starred in two baseball movies -- "Field of Dreams" and "The Bingo Long Travelling All Stars" -- wanders through the Babe Ruth Museum, on Emory Street, like some dazed foreigner.

He's a stranger in the fields of play.

"This is from Babe Ruth's first organized game," says Mike Gibbons, director of the museum.

He's showing Jones a score book, with the inning-by-inning line score and all those funny little symbols the true fans use to keep score through ballgames. Jones peers at it, nods his head appreciatively, then turns to Gibbons.

"Is this some kind of log?" he asks.

"You're not a baseball fan?" someone asks.

"I don't know," he says. "I'm working at it."

He smiles a little embarrassedly, as though afraid he's committed a sin here in the birthplace of Babe Ruth, admitting to a lifetime of unattachment to the national game.

"As a kid," he says, "I lived on a farm. I experienced baseball through a radio hooked up to a car battery. But I found it slow back then. So I'm still working at it."

"But 'Field of Dreams,' " a man says. "You seemed to have such a feel for baseball."

The movie contained a line that became a catch-phrase for a new baseball park a block from Babe Ruth's birthplace: "If you build it, they will come."

"That movie wasn't about baseball," Jones says. "It was about fathers and sons. You never play a scene based on a sport. You play the human emotion. That's all I did."

He makes it sound easy. He's a man of inordinate grace and humility, polite in an old fashioned formality, given to deflecting praise by changing the subject.

After an hour at Babe Ruth's birthplace, where he recorded a couple of these radio spots, Jones is handed a baseball jersey. He's wearing a tuxedo, but he's asked to wear the jersey under the jacket for a special appearance.

"It's the biggest one we could find," he's told. The jersey once belong to an Oriole. The name on the back is "Powell." It slips, barely, over Jones' oil drum of a chest.

From here, he will go to Camden Yards, there to deliver a speech (written by Mike Gibbons) about Baltimore and baseball to an audience gathered to celebrate the new ballpark.

Some who were there say the reading moved them to tears.

And you think back to Jones earlier in the evening, struggling again and again to read a 10-second script until he felt it was perfect. You think of him starring in movies with a baseball background, despite his lack of feel for the game itself.

If you write it, he will read it until he makes it sing.

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