DURHAM, N.C. - James Earl Jones' commanding bass is so recognizable, even a hermit could place it immediately.
It's Mufasa, the papa lion in Disney's hit The Lion King, it's Darth Vader in Star Wars. It has an air of compassion, of wisdom and omnipotence. And yet this Hollywood star spent the better part of his childhood with his mouth closed, plagued by a severe stutter.
"It was so bad that I didn't speak at all," Jones, 74, told 200 students at a literacy celebration this week in Durham. "I couldn't even introduce myself."
Jones found the courage to speak up when, at age 14, he was accused of cribbing a poem he'd handed in for a school assignment. If it's yours, the teacher said, recite it now. So he did. "You can imagine how scared I was," said Jones, who has been touring to promote literacy, in a partnership with Verizon.
The event, coordinated by the Durham Literacy Center and titled Poetry Out Loud, was a prelude to Black History Month. The center announced a writing contest with cash prizes for GED students. And Verizon, for whom Jones is a spokesman, donated $35,000 to the center.