The autobiography of The Voice The stuttering kid who grew up to be James Earl Jones

September 23, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

Washington -- When James Earl Jones was 14 years old, he traveled from rural Michigan, where he lived with his grandparents, to visit his mother in St. Louis. There, four young hoodlums welcomed the visitor to the big city: They cornered him on a street and demanded his money.

Young James Earl Jones complied. Then he went back to his mother's apartment and got the junior stick-up men more change.

"The fact that I went home and got more change suggests that I did not fully understand that I was being mugged," Mr. Jones writes with understatement in his newly published autobiography, "Voices and Silences" (Charles Scribner's Sons, $24).

Nearly a half-century after his introduction to the mean streets, the actor can't stifle a chuckle when he recalls the incident. "I don't think I was really afraid," Mr. Jones, 62, explains during a recent publicity-tour stop. "It was just that I didn't feel it was all worth fighting about. Or maybe I was just a country boy who didn't know what . . . was going on."

He might have been a country bumpkin, but Mr. Jones overcame serious stuttering problem as a child to become one of the most acclaimed actors of his time, performing in such seminal plays as "The Great White Hope" and "Fences." Zelda Fichandler, the producer for the original 1967 production of "The Great White Hope" at the Arena Stage in Washington, says she never even considered another actor to play the role of Jack Jefferson, the brash black boxing champion whose relationships with white women made him a pariah in America.

"It was something in him -- his look, his eyes that said he would empathize, would embody this lonely fighter who is trying to enter the human race through the boxing ring," says Ms. Fichandler, now artistic director of the Acting Company in New ++ York.

And then there is The Voice.

His rich, deep voice has become a staple of our popular culture. Turn on the TV and you'll hear it on commercials for Bell Atlantic's phone books and on intros for the Cable News Network. This year he introduced Michael Jackson during the Super Bowl halftime show and recited "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the All-Star Game in Baltimore. And what would "Star Wars" have been without Mr. Jones providing the bone-chilling voice-over for the evil Darth Vader?

And who, for that matter, could make seemingly effortless slides from Shakespeare and other serious drama, to film, to television, and then to TV commercials? "Is it because of the magnitude of his presence?" asks Ms. Fichandler, partly rhetorically and partly in wonder. "Is it the aura that makes him doing a phone-book commercial seem noble?"

But on a rainy day last week in Washington, James Earl Jones' magnitude and aura are receiving a severe test. Due to overly ambitious scheduling by his publisher, the actor and his co-author Penelope Niven have been booked for nine appearances -- radio talk shows, print interviews, book-signings and appearances on local TV.

Mr. Jones seems to handle it all graciously, if a bit wearily. He apologizes for being late for an interview and for having to down a chicken-salad sandwich and a glass of wine while he talks. But then he somehow slips in another 15 minutes for the interview.

Through his acting, he says, he was used to searching for self-discovery, but he found that writing an autobiography was another thing. He was working without a collaborator, and felt blocked.

"At the beginning I was doing my interviews with Robert Stewart, my editor," Mr. Jones relates. "Until I met Penny, I was not as forthcoming -- about the good and the bad. I tended to concentrate on the bad, and it was beginning to sound like sour grapes or something -- that I had had a horrible career, that it was totally unsatisfying. That wasn't true, but that was what was coming out. I was beginning to worry about it until Penny came on board after the first year."

In "Voices and Silences," Mr. Jones writes of a scarred childhood that included abandonment by both parents -- his father left before his son was born to become an actor in New York, and his mother moved to St. Louis when he was a toddler. Mr. Jones was raised in Michigan by his wife's parents. Though he grew close to his stern but loving grandparents, the upheavals in his life took their toll: He developed a stutter, then, as he writes, "From the time I was six until I was about fourteen, I was virtually mute."

He basically was unable to talk to anyone outside his family until an understanding teacher encouraged his pupil to read a poem he had written -- "I could read from the paper the words I had composed as fluently as anybody in the class," Mr. Jones writes. From then on, he read aloud constantly, and by reciting Shakespeare in fields he developed an interest in the stage.

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