James Earl Jones, who recently turned 90, had been non-verbal for many years before a kind teacher helped him find his voice.
There are few people whose voice becomes their identity, and James Earl Jones is one of them. Jones, who turned 90 on January 17, has given his voice to characters like Darth Vader in Star Wars and Mufasa in The Lion King. He is also known as the voice of CNN and hundreds of other programs, but the voice artist and actor almost never spoke when he was a young child.
The 90-year-old has had an almost seven decade-long career but as a child, he refused to speak because of his stutter. The changes in his life had been too disorienting for him, writes Honey 9. Jones, who was born in Mississippi, went to live with his grandparents in Michigan at age five, and he became almost speechless for many years.
"As a small child, I would communicate to my family, or at least those who didn't mind being embarrassed by my stutter or my being embarrassed," Jones told the Daily Mail in 2010. "I did communicate with the animals quite freely. They don't care how you sound, they just want to hear your voice. But by the time I got to school, my stuttering was so bad that I gave up trying to speak properly," he added.
It was not easy for him to overcome this challenge. It haunted him in many facets of his life. "Stuttering is painful. In Sunday school, I'd try to read my lessons and the children behind me were falling on the floor with laughter," he added.
The actor also said that initially, he was just "imitating" his Uncle Randy, who was only four years older than him and had a stutter. "I don't know whether I was imitating him to keep him company or to embarrass him. And then I ended up stuttering myself. I feel I was cursed," said the Scary Movie 4 narrator.
It has been many years since then and the actor said that even though he knows it's "rude and politically incorrect to laugh at stutterers" he knows why it's "funny."
"I think it is OK because I know why they're funny. They make people nervous. People think, when on earth are they going to get the word out, so they start laughing out of their own nervousness," he added.
Eventually, it was in high school when a teacher helped him discover his talent that led him down this journey as a voice artist. His English teacher, who happened to be poet Donald Crouch, became "the father" of Jones' voice. Crouch, a contemporary of Robert Frost, mentored the young Jones after reading his poetry.
"He said of one of them, 'Jim, this is a good poem. In fact, it is so good I don't think you wrote it. I think you plagiarised it. If you want to prove you wrote it, you must stand in front of the class and recite it by memory.' Which I did. As they were my own words, I got through it," he said. His teacher told him that he has to be able to say his words aloud if he wants to be "involved with words."
Crouch got him to participate in the debating class, the dramatic reading class, and more. "He got me talking, and reading poetry - Edgar Allan Poe was my favorite," he said. However, he wanted his student to be tempered about his love for his voice.
"He said, 'You have gone from having the voice of a child when you last spoke, to a voice of an adult when you resumed speaking. Don't be impressed. It's easy for you to start listening to yourself. If you do, nobody else will.' And what he meant was that if you become so conscious about it you become too busy making all those deep S-O-U-N-D-S," he added.
He went on to study at the American Theatre Wing. He was mentioned for one of his early works in the 1957 play The Congo from New York's Equity Library Theater company. "James Earl Jones plays the preacher. He has a good voice, capable of effective contrast, but muffled diction makes him occasionally difficult to understand, which is a drawback for Lindsay's pulsating beat," the review of the play had said, according to Honey 9.
He eventually moved on to the screen and even won a Tony for best actor in The Great White Hope. He went on to win Emmys, Grammys, and an honorary Oscar, making him an EGOT winner.