James Earl Jones Finds the Audience Is a Force That's With Him in On Golden Pond

Tony Awards   James Earl Jones Finds the Audience Is a Force That's With Him in On Golden Pond
There is something comfortable and happy about starring in the new Tony Award-nominated revival On Golden Pond, Tony nominee James Earl Jones.

Maybe it's the warmth he feels from the audience. Maybe it's the surprising laughs that the Ernest Thompson play prompts. Maybe it's the universal family tensions that are being played out.

"I have been involved with some wonderful productions — exciting plays, great actors and directors, but I've never been as happy in a production as I am in this little play, with this cast," Jones told Playbill.com.

The actor, currently a popular spokesman for the communications company Verizon, and the uncredited voice of Darth Vader in "Star Wars Episode III — Revenge of the Sith," said he feels "home."

Eight shows a week, "home" is the Cort Theatre and the Maine summer lakehouse set of the play, about retired professor Norman Thayer (Jones) and wife Ethel (played by Leslie Uggams).

The respected Jones already has two Leading Actor Tony Awards under his belt: for The Great White Hope (1969) and Fences (1987). His Broadway debut was in 1958's Sunrise at Campobello. It took 18 years for Jones to return to Broadway, via this Leonard Foglia-directed African-American-cast production that began in fall 2004 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

"I can only say it was an accident," Jones said. "It came out of the blue. I wasn't aware it was a play, I was aware of the film. And then I found out it has been translated, has been a TV movie with Chris Plummer, is done all over. The idea of doing it with an African-American cast, which was not the original idea, interested me."

Norman Thayer is a grumpy old man (an "old poop," Ethel calls him) who, in his eighties, has not resolved issues with his daughter, Chelsea; she was a disappointment to him. In the film version starring Henry Fonda and Jane Fonda as father and daughter, the play was the stuff of painful, tearful, drama — and some of that exists in the play.

But Jones said he was surprised in early D.C. performances by the audience's response to the family — there was laughter in the house, a lot of it.

"When we got laughs in Washington, D.C., I didn't understand it," Jones admitted. "I asked, 'What's funny? Are they laughing at us?' I was told, 'No, they recognize their families in us.'"

What has changed for the septuagenarian actor since his last turn on Broadway is the sheer effort of eight shows a week, he said. This is no passive Norman; he isn't stuck in an armchair. At one point in the play, Jones collapses to the floor of the cottage.

"One has to be careful of energy," he said on the morning of a recent two-show Wednesday. "I should be resting up for the matinee. I protect myself. Otherwise, I do enjoy it. There's nothing quite like being on a stage — it's like skydiving, you fall backwards. You're on the edge of the stage, and you fall off, and flip backwards. You trust the audience, their presence, to bear you up."

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