The Norman Conquest

Special Features   The Norman Conquest James Earl Jones takes on the irascible Norman Thayer in Ernest Thompson's On Golden Pond.
James Earl Jones in On Golden Pond
James Earl Jones in On Golden Pond Photo by Scott Suchman

"It's an irony I talk at all," the voice of Verizon rumbles resonantly into my Verizon. "I stammered, I stuttered, I had dyslexia - all of which I didn't understand. It made me mute. It was too painful, too embarrassing, for me to speak, so, after a while, I stopped trying."

Such was the childhood fallout of being yanked out of one backwoods burg (Arkabutla, Mississippi) and plopped down in another (Brethren, Michigan) at age five. In the five years that followed, if he spoke at all, it was sparingly and to the immediate family or to farm animals. His best conversations were with a dog. That might well have been that, had his poetic spirit not started stirring - stirring enough to catch the eye of his high-school English teacher, Donald Crouch, and the two worked a miracle.

It didn't start out like a miracle, however: "He caught me writing poetry one day and said, 'This poem is too good for you to have written.' I was outraged that he thought I was plagiarizing; so, to prove I'd written it, I got up in front of the class and recited it by heart out loud. In proving my honor, I started to talk."

James Earl Jones, now 74, is still talking. His is, arguably, the most recognized voice in the business - a sonorous bass that embraces a multitude of faces, from CNN to the Bell Atlantic Yellow Pages, from "The Lion King"'s Mufasa to "Star Wars"' Darth Vader. It has won him two Tonys, two Emmys, a Grammy, a Golden Globe and assorted Obies. And it has made him rich. The "Star Wars" stint took two-and-a-half hours and earned him a flat fee of $9,000, but it opened up the floodgates of commercial voice overs. "They asked me to just 'give us the sound of God.' They were not embarrassed about saying that."

Silence has indeed been golden. From a wordless first decade, The God Jones has made up for lost words and wages with a vengeance. "My English teacher put it nicely. He said, 'Your voice must have changed when you were mute.' And it's true. At one point, I sounded like a child; then, when I started talking again, I suddenly sounded like an adult." Between The Great White Hope and On Golden Pond - between his arrival performance on Broadway and the one he begins April 7 at the Cort - he has done The Ages of Man onstage, but more than 35 years separates his star-making, Tony-winning turn as Jack Jefferson, a black heavyweight boxing champ taking on any and all white hopes, and his thought-filled portrayal of Norman Thayer, a fragile college prof sorting through family conflicts during what's probably a last outing at his summer home.

His reason for playing Thayer comes in two words: Henry Fonda (this was Fonda's last, and only Oscar-winning, role). "I couldn't imitate Henry if I worked on it a year, but his ghost is guiding me through this whole thing. Henry evoked the quiet side of a man who talked all the time, a man who'd been a professor of English and held forth with great power in his university classes, and now feels his vulnerability."

Leslie Uggams's reason for playing Thayer's wife comes in three words - "James Earl Jones" - and she counts herself lucky finally to co-star with him. They've come close before. "We had a TV show for a hot second, called 'Under One Roof,' but we didn't have scenes together. This makes up for that. He's a teddy bear, a joy to work with."

Clearly, Jones is playing in a lighter key than is usually the case. Two of his last Broadway outings have been very heavy-sledding Tony winners: Best Revival of 1982 (Othello) and Best Play of 1987 (Fences). The latter got him his second Tony and is the only August Wilson play to win the Tony (all, save for Off-Broadway's Jitney, have been nominated).

Jones and his Iago, Christopher Plummer, battled royally for the stage, and eventually they confronted each other. "But, my dear boy, it is a comedy," Plummer said as airily as he was playing it. He got the Tony nomination. Jones got Desdemona (Cecilia Hart).

"My wife worked with Henry Fonda in the last play he did [Showdown at the Adobe Motel at Stamford's Hartman Theatre], but I never did." It's news to Jones, then, that he and Fonda shared the same Grammy - for the Best Spoken Word Recording of 1976 ("Great American Documents"), along with Helen Hayes and Orson Welles.

"Funny thing about memory," Jones muses. "I remember the names of the people that I admire immensely, but, if it happens to be a name I don't use often, I have to drudge it up again. And I think the same thing happens with the work. Some work stands out in my mind because it was difficult, some because it was not satisfying, some because it was very satisfying and a great pleasure, but other things just fall away, and I forget them. Which is okay. You can't live on the laurels. You can't live on the past performances."