James Earl Jones

People Who Used to Suck: James Earl Jones

Quick survey: How many of you recognize this voice:

Or this voice?

If you do, then you probably know the speaker as James Earl Jones, one of the most accomplished actors of our—no, any era. His deep basso profundo voice is instantly recognizable as the chime of an ice cream truck (though not nearly as popular with children). He’s won more awards over the years than you can shake a lightsaber at, and not just for film. James Earl Jones is also an incredible stage actor, and still manages to participate despite being over 80 years old.

But that iconic voice of his almost never came to be.

The Voice That Almost Never Was

His difficulties didn’t come from a lack of skill, but rather a traumatic childhood condition.

When James Earl Jones was a child, he stuttered. He stuttered so badly that he would rather keep quiet instead of talk. You see, his father left right after he was born, and the young James moved into his grandparents’ house when he was five, but it was a difficult transition.

He stayed functionally mute for 8 more years, and while I have no problem with Jar Jar being this quiet, a child as young as James Earl Jones (or of any age, for that matter) should never have to suffer through that.

The Power of Teachers

Fortunately for James, he had a high school English teacher named Donald Crouch, who was Yoda to James’ Luke. Mr Crouch discovered that James had a gift for poetry. Mr. Crouch used it to drive James to overcome his stutter. One method he used was for James to recite poetry in front of the class on a regular basis. He also gave James as many opportunities to speak as he could—debating class, dramatic reading, etc. He would also give James tips on how best to utilize his new voice, as well as how to temper it.

By the time James Early Jones got to Michigan University, he had his stutter under control—although it wasn’t totally gone. He learned to work around it and avoid letters and phrases that would set one off. One advantage to stuttering, he said, was that stutterers develop a larger vocabulary out of necessity, because they need more words at their disposal.

James Earl Jones is now over 80 years old with an illustrious film and theatrical career behind him. Not bad for a kid who barely spoke.

Key Takeaways

  • Personal trauma can still be overcome (although it’s very, very difficult)
  • The right mentor can make all the difference
  • Use your passions to drive self-improvement

Image from Flickr, by U.S. Embassy London.


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