Inspirational Stories VIV : James Earl Jones & His Voice

By Ellesse

Let me ask you a question : What’s the similarity between Mufasa, the suave and courageous lion in the movie The Lion King and Darth Vader, dark lord of the Sith in longest running Star Wars film series?

The title of this article has probably given it away.

Yes. Both of them were voiced by multiple Emmy & Tony awards winning actor, James Earl Jones with his renowned deep baritone voice. But did you know that before James became famous, he used to suffer from a debilitating stutter that almost ruin his childhood?

Let us trace his footsteps to decades ago and find out how he managed to overcame it in this story.

Heeelloooo My My Name Name is Jam-es

As he opened his mouth to recite the Bible verses, James could hear snuffling laughter at the back of the congregation. A sudden flash of embarrassment reddened his face as he continued. But he knew it was hard.

James Earl Jones, born in Arkabutla Township, Mississippi in Tate County, the only child of a seamstress and an actor, moved in with his maternal grandparents since he was very young. His father left the family and her mother was unable to find work due to the Depression. The whole transition coupled by his grandparents’ subsequent move to a farm in Jackson, Michigan created so much trauma for the kid that he gradually developed a stutter at the age of 5 that literally muted him for the next 8 years.

First Steps in the World of Literacy

Although James hardly spoke a word to anyone in public, he would talk to the animals in the farm and bury himself in his own world of books. Due to his strong interest in reading, by the time he enrolled into high school, he was regarded as a very hardworking albeit quiet student.

He did well in school, particularly in Science and English and was active in sports such as basketball and track & field. His love for English was extended beyond the books by his English teacher Donald Crouch, a retired college professor who gave assignments that tapped on their creativity. During one of the assignments, James wrote his own poem “Ode to a Grapefruit” drawing inspiration from a work by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Great Discovery

In a bid to uncover his latent talent, Crouch claimed that James copied the poem from somewhere and wanted him to recite it in front of the whole class to prove his innocence. James obliged and gave a stutter free recitation, much to both his and Crouch’s amazement. Only then did they realize that the most effective way to counteract stuttering was public speaking.

His confidence grew as he began to experiment with his new founded voice. As a result, he joined the debate team, became a class representative cum editor of the year book and also gave poetry recitations before the whole school. Impressively, he even became the valedictorian for the year!

Continuous Improvement and Reinvention

He went on to pursue premed studies under a scholarship at the University of Michigan. While doing so, he registered for acting lessons to enhance his speaking skills and soon nurtured a love for the art. Eventually, he made a switch to major in drama and clinched roles in several college plays and and even Ann Arbor community theatre. None of his teachers and classmates was aware of his former stuttering problem. They couldn’t tell.

After graduation, he left for New York City, where he saw his dad again and was acquainted with Paul Robeson, a well respected African American actor and outspoken activist. At the same time, he was continuously improving himself, taking as many acting classes as he can while working part-time as a janitor and a kitchen help. He realized his deep seated muteness past allowed him to interpret language differently from what other people do, increasing his fascination with expression.

Yes! He Did it!

All his efforts were finally paid off when he was given his first leading Broadway role in a new play The Great White Hope. It won him a Tony award and allow him to springboard to another level : Hollywood, by playing a same role in a movie version. He was nominated for an Academy for that as well.

Now, not only is James Earl Jones a household name, he’s also a representative voice. His perseverance has won him a medal tally of 4 Emmy Awards, 2 Tony awards, 1 Grammy, the National Medal of Arts, and honorary doctorates from ivy league colleges such as Yale, Princeton and Columbia universities. He’s also actively involved in public education on literacy and the importance of reading.

Though his stuttering still comes back once in a while, it’s not as rampant and serious as when he was still a kid. Despite that, he views it as a daily challenge to remind him of his uniqueness and spur him on to greater achievements.

What Did I Learn From This Story?

That though it may take a stroke of genius to discover one’s innate potential, it wouldn’t flower if he doesn’t continuously test, experiment and reinvent.

(1) Self Conversations

Do you take the time to talk to yourself? In the busy commercial life that we live in, it’s a luxury to be able to afford a quiet moment with yourself, reflecting the day’s events. Partly due to its scarcity, a lot of people overlook things that matter very much to them and let them slip by because how little they knew about themselves, their wants and dislikes.

When James was in a silent world of his, his solitary moments became opportunities to connect with his inner self, turning it over to find his voice and inspiration in the world of books. Even when he began to speak and act in dramas during college, he would often engage in meaningful self discovery, allowing him to hold a deeper appreciation for the language which other actors have taken for granted.

I’m someone who strongly advocate self conversations. In fact, it’s through such that I’ve discovered my changing career interests, acknowledged my character deficiencies etc. Be truthful, but don’t be too harsh on yourself if you want to have great self conversations. No one’s perfect, anyway.

(2) The Power of Reinvention

One thing lead to another. Because of James’ relentless self conversations, he was able to take his new founded speaking skills to different levels by reflecting and experimenting with his language expression to form a unique speaking and acting style. It’s this ability to reinvent himself that distinguished him in a world where conformity is accepted as the norm.

I’m sure you’ve heard of advice that in order to be successful, you’ll have to just imitate the successful people. I agree. Following the steps of certain successful people does allow you to obtain the same level of achievement that they’ve garnered. But if you’re able to learn from them, reinvent the wheel and continuously test, experiment towards greatness, you can be OUTSTANDING and be even better than them!

But I must admit that society doesn’t reward reinvention every time. At times, they may even abhor it. Look at how some people scorn at the sight of fashion fanatics who dare to display their outrageous fashion sense in public or college dropouts who left school to pursue their dreams. Who knows if any of them will ever become the next Giorgio Armani or Bill Gates?

The fact remains. No one knows.

But because you’ve taken the initiative, you could be one step closer.


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