11 things you might not know about Michigan-raised James Earl Jones

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 02: Actor James Earl Jones attends the 2012 Tony Awards - Meet The Nominees Press Reception at Millennium Broadway Hotel on May 2, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/WireImage for Tony Award Productions)

By Lucas Henkel

October 12, 2023

He’s known for his silky smooth voice that brought characters in hits like Star Wars and The Lion King to life, but this beloved actor also has deep ties to the Mitten State.

MICHIGAN—Long before James Earl Jones became known for his deep baritone voice and award-winning performances on screen and stage, he was a young Michigander who struggled with school. With the help of his high school English teacher, Jones’ life would change forever. This mentorship would give Jones the confidence to pursue local theater roles and, eventually, land him leading roles on stages and screens across the world.

Ahead of the unveiling of a life-size statue of Jones at his former high school, we’ve gathered eleven facts about the Michigan actor. 

He moved to Michigan with his family as a child

James Earl Jones was born in Arkabutla, Mississippi, on January 17, 1931 (big Capricorn energy). His maternal grandparents had moved north as part of the Great Migration—a mass movement of approximately six million Black people trying to escape racial violence and pursue economic and educational opportunities outside the Jim Crow South. The couple would settle in Jackson, Michigan. At only five years old, Jones moved to Jackson to live with them on their farm.

His father was an actor and a professional boxer

Robert Earl Jones in Langston Hughes’ Don’t You Want to be Free? (23 June 1938; photograph by Carl Van Vechten) via WikiMedia Commons.

Robert Earl Jones and Ruth Connolly, James’ mother, separated before his birth. Jones and his father didn’t meet until the mid-1950s. Robert Earl is best known for playing Detective Wenzer in Lying Lips (1939), Luther Coleman in The Sting (1973), and Judge in Kojak (1976).

He suffered from a severe stutter in his youth 

This major move and life transition to live with his grandparents was traumatic for the young Jones. He suffered from such a terrible stutter that he was nearly non-verbal for almost eight 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 recalled in an interview with The Daily Mail in 2010.

He found his voice through poetry – with the help of his teacher

In the mid-1940s, James Earl Jones attended Brethren High School (then known as Dickson Rural Agricultural School) in Manistee County. Jones credits his English teacher, Donald Crouch, with helping to end his silence by having him read poetry out loud in his classroom. 

His first poem was about grapefruit

After discovering his young student’s writing talents, Crouch encouraged Jones to write poetry. His first poem, Ode to Grapefruit, was dedicated to the hard-to-find citrus fruit he craved while living in Michigan’s cold climate. This would be the first poem that Jones was able to read out loud to his high school classmates without stuttering.

He attended the University of Michigan 

After graduating high school, Jones attended the University of Michigan in 1953 as a pre-med major. After finding success in the university’s ROTC program and a short stint in the US Army, Jones eventually decided medicine wasn’t for him—he graduated from U of M with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Drama in 1955. 

He performed at the Ramsdell Theatre in Manistee

LOS ANGELES – OCTOBER 21: Look Up and Live, a CBS television religious and inspirational Sunday morning series. Presentation of The Cue for Passion. Features excerpts from Shakespeare’s works on the themes of man versus fate. Soliloquies from the tragic plays of Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear. Initially broadcast Sunday, October 21, 1962. Pictured is James Earl Jones (as Othello). (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

Jones would begin his theater career as an actor and stage manager for Ramsdell Theatre in Manistee shortly after graduation. His first role? The title character in the theater’s production of Othello. During the early to mid-1960s, Jones acted in various works of William Shakespeare, becoming one of the best-known Shakespearean actors of the time. 

He’s the voice of Darth Vader – but almost wasn’t 

James Earl Jones & Darth Vader during Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones Charity Premiere – New York at Tribeca Performing Arts Center in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage)

Jones is known for being the original voice of the ruthless cyborg Sith Lord Darth Vader in the original Star Wars movies. However, Star Wars director George Lucas initially expressed some hesitation over casting Jones as the movie’s antagonist—he didn’t want to have the only Black actor involved with Star Wars portraying a villain—but after listening to countless tapes of different voices, including that of Orson Welles, no one could compete with Jones’s profound baritone voice.

He’s talented and humble 

NEW YORK, NY – JUNE 11: James Earl Jones and Mark Hamill attend the 2017 Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on June 11, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)

Despite the success of the original Star Wars trilogy, Jones didn’t attach his name to the project until the final film, Return of the Jedi. This was out of respect for the man beneath the mask—David Prowse.

Despite concerns that his voice would be too muffled underneath Vader’s mask, Prowse performed all of Darth Vader’s lines underneath the iconic costume. Lucas reassured him that the audio would be usable but eventually hired Jones to record all of Prowse’s lines during post-production editing of the film.

After recording all of Prowse’s lines from the first Star Wars film in just two and a half hours, Jones took home $7,500. Jones claims that he viewed his role as nothing more than “special effects,” stating that Prowse “is Vader.”

He’s an award-winning actor with an impressive resume

PASADENA, CA – AUGUST 25: James Earl Jones holding two Emmy Awards at The 43rd Primetime Emmy Awards on August 25, 1991 at Pasadena Civic Auditorium in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Craig Sjodin/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)

In addition to voicing Darth Vader, James Earl Jones is also known for being the voice of Mufasa from The Lion King movies and prequels. Jones is known for his on-screen roles as King Jaffe Joffer in Coming to America with Eddie Murphy, former civil rights activist Terrance Man in Field of Dreams, sinister serpentine sorcerer Thulsa Doom in Conan the Barbarian, junkyard owner Mr. Mertle in The Sandlot, and more!

He’s getting a statue at his former high school to honor his accomplishments

MANISTEE—OCTOBER 22: James Earl Jones statue with reference photos of the actor on a board in the background. Source: Arts and Culture Alliance of Manistee County via Facebook.

Jones and his former Brethren high school English teacher, Donald Crouch, will be honored with a set of bronze, life-size statues in front of the Brethren Middle/High School in Brethren. The statues were commissioned by the Arts and Culture Alliance of Manistee County and sculpted by Bernadette Zachara-Marcos. She hopes the theme of the installation, “Mentorship Can Be Life-Changing,” will inspire onlookers. 

Author

  • Lucas Henkel

    Lucas Henkel is a multimedia reporter who strives to inform and inspire local communities. Before joining The 'Gander, Lucas served as a journalist for the Lansing City Pulse.

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