James Earl Jones on stammering

The actor James Earl Jones and Darth Vader

4th May 2020

The legendary actor James Earl Jones, the voice behind Darth Vader, refused to speak as a child because of his stammer. This Star Wars Day (May 4th — think about it), here are some quotes from the multi-award winner himself explaining how his voice became one of the most recognisable in cinema.

 '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.'

'People would come to the house and there'd be introductions made and I just couldn't introduce myself,' he told PBS News in this video interview.

'I resigned to it as a kid… I became a non-verbal person, I became a writer. I enjoyed being quiet – a lot of people didn't bother me or probe me, it was a nice place to be.' He said in this interview with the American Academy of Achievement.

You become a good listener  it's all one-way. You appreciate the written word. You appreciate the sound.

Describing the turning point on the Dick Cavett Show, he said, 'I had an English teacher in high school who discovered that when I read my own poetry I didn't stutter, because I wasn't in confrontation with other peoples' feelings or thoughts, but my own. And it came out better so I practised reading poetry for a while and I think that's what got me into a feeling for reading dramatic interpretations.'

Jones went on to study acting and got his first role in Broadway in 1958, in the play Sunrise at Campobello. 'I had a scene in which I had to say, "Mrs Roosevelt, supper is served". Well I got as far as "Mrs". We're often hung on the M word, us stutterers. I think the audience knew what was happening. It was a play, they had bought tickets and I was up there acting and I couldn't talk' (PBS).

Despite that, Jones has gone on to win three Emmy awards, two Tony Awards, a Grammy and an honourary Academy award. His most famous vocal performances include one the best villains in film history, Darth Vader in Star Wars and Mufasa in The Lion King.

'I'm still a stutterer. Sometimes I guess our vocabulary might be a little larger than it would ordinarily have been, because we have to find the word we won't trip on, or that begins with the right consonant' (American Academy of Achievement). 

Now 89 and looking back on his childhood, he said, 'When you are mute, you become a good listener  it's all one-way. You appreciate the written word. You appreciate the sound' (Daily Mail).

In 2017, James Earl Jones received an honorary Doctor of Arts Degree from Harvard University and concluded his acceptance speech with the words, "May the Force be with you" (Wikipedia).

(Images: James Earl Jones by Stuart Crawford on Flickr, CC BY 2.0/ Darth Vader by Tommy van Kessel on Unsplash.)