Actor James Earl Jones has one of the most recognizable voices in Hollywood. From the haunting villain of Darth Vader in Star Wars‘ to the courageous Mufasa in The Lion King, he has an impressive resume. Even more so is his service with the US Army as an officer, making him a decorated soldier both on- and off-screen.
James Earl Jones’ early life
James Earl Jones was born on January 17, 1931 in Mississippi, but raised by his grandparents in Michigan after his father, who was also an actor, left. Jones says the trauma of losing his family as a child was so intense that he developed a severe stutter and would rarely speak. It wasn’t until his high school English teacher, Donald Crouch, encouraged him to pursue his gift for writing poetry and sharing it in class that Jones finally overcame his speech impediment.
After high school, Jones attended the University of Michigan, where he originally enrolled as a pre-medical major. He also joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), where he not only did extremely well, but also enjoyed the structured environment and brotherhood of his fellow cadets.
“My only semblance of a social life came in the fraternity of my fellow ROTC cadets in Perishing Rifles and Scabbard and Blade,” Jones remarked on his early experience in the US military.
Service with the US Army
Eventually, James Earl Jones realized medicine wasn’t the right path for him and switched his program to join the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance. At the time, the Korean War was raging and Jones thought he should be in a program he enjoyed before, he assumed, he was called up to fight in the conflict.
While awaiting his orders, Jones worked as a part-time stagehand at a local theater. He was commissioned in mid-1953, shortly after the end of the war, and reported to Fort Benning, Georgia, where he attended the Infantry Officers Basic Course and US Army Ranger School. Jones was assigned to Headquarter and Headquarters Company, 38th Regiment Combat Team. He was a leader in his battalion, which became a training unit based in the cold and rugged Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
The actor shared his thoughts on the experience in an interview, saying, “I took to the physical challenge, so much so that I wanted to stay there, testing myself in that awesome environment, mastering the skills of survival. I loved the austere beauty of the mountains and the exhilaration of the weather and the altitude. I didn’t mind the rigors of the work or the pioneer-like existence. I thought it was a good life.”
Jones was promoted to first lieutenant, but when deciding whether to fully commit to the military he knew he was destined for another path. He realized he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father, Robert Earl Jones, and pursue acting. His commanding officer told Jones to follow his dream and reminded him that he could always return to the Army if things didn’t work out.
James Earl Jones’ successful acting career
Jones packed up his belongings and moved to New York City in the mid-1950s, working as a janitor while trying to find acting opportunities. He’d previously starred in several shows back home, including the role of Othello in the Shakespearean play of the same name. While in New York, he continued to take on leading roles in such productions, eventually becoming one of the most famous Shakespearean actors of the time.
By 1957, Jones had scored his first role on Broadway and, in 1964, made his first on-film appearance in Stanley Kubrick‘s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. He later appeared alongside the brightest stars of the 1960s, including Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
In 1970, Jones’ leading role in The Great White Hope scored him a historic Academy Award nomination, making him the second Black man in history to be nominated in the category.
In 1977, James Earl Jones appeared in one of his most iconic roles, even though he insisted on being uncredited for it. He played the voice of Darth Vader in George Lucas‘ Star Wars: A New Hope. Vader’s character was physically played by David Prowse, with Jones’ voice dubbed over. He reprised the role in the other two films within the trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983).
His iconic voice has also appeared in animated classics like The Simpsons (1989-present) and The Lion King (1994), as well as full-fledged roles in films like The Hunt For Red October (1990) and Conan the Barbarian (1982).
Awards and accolades
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In 1992, President George H.W. Bush awarded James Earl Jones the National Medal of the Arts. Years later, President George W. Bush also awarded him the Kennedy Center Honors and the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award.
Jones has also achieved the prestigious “EGOT” title, which means he’s been awarded all four major awards in Hollywood: an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award – although his Oscar was honorarily awarded. Even after all of his success and awards, Jones, who is 91 years old, still fondly remembers his time in the Army as some of the most formative and meaningful moments of his life.