With nearly 200 credits in film and television, and countless more on the Broadway stage, it’s hard to imagine a more recognizable voice than the rich and commanding basso profundo tones of James Earl Jones. Born in Arkabutla, Mississippi, and raised on a farm by his grandparents in Michigan, James Earl developed a stutter at a young age. One of his high school teachers helped him master his stutter by having him recite poetry before the class—and he found his calling in performing.
In 1958, following a stint in the Army after graduating from the University of Michigan, James Earl took to Broadway with a small role in Sunrise at Campobello. In 1960, Joseph Papp cast him as a soldier in Henry V—the first role in a long association with New York’s Shakespeare in the Park, where he would go on to play Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth.
“Doing a voice for animation is acting in its purest form.”
He added film and television to his continuing stage work, making his big screen debut in 1964 in Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant satirical comedy Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. In 1966 he joined the cast of The Guiding Light with a brief turn as Dr. Jim Frazier, and then became the first black man to have a continuing role in a daytime soap opera as Dr. Jerry Turner on As the World Turns.
His continued work in film and television includes Claudine (1974); Roots: The Next Generations (1979); Field of Dreams (1989); the Tom Clancy trilogy with Harrison Ford—The Hunt for Red October (1990), Patriot Games (1992), and Clear and Present Danger (1994); and Cry, the Beloved Country (1995). In 1991 he won two Emmy Awards, for the TV movie Heat Wave and the series Gabriel’s Fire.
In 1977, as the voice of Darth Vader in Star Wars: A New Hope, James Earl helped create perhaps the most indelible screen villain in decades, a role which he has continued to portray in subsequent films in the Star Wars franchise, including Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), and the Disney XD TV series Star Wars Rebels (2014–2018).
In stark contrast to his vocalization as Darth Vader, James Earl voiced the majestic Mufasa in Disney’s The Lion King (1994). “Doing a voice for animation is acting in its purest form. It’s a bit like the ancient Greek form where the actors would wear masks. In our case, the masks are the animators’ drawings and we just simply supply all the behaviors, emotions, and feelings behind that mask,” the actor recalled. His Mufasa would be heard again in The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride (1998) and The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar (2015).
Other Disney credits include Three Fugitives (1989), ABC’s Recess (1998) as the voice of Santa Claus, True Identity (1991), Jefferson in Paris (1995), segment host for Fantasia/2000 (2000), and narrator for the Disneynature film Earth (2009). His voice has been heard in Disney Parks around the globe, including recurring vocal performances as the menacing Darth Vader for Star Tours: The Adventures Continue and as a past celebrity narrator for the Candlelight Ceremony and Processional at Disneyland Park.
In 2019, James Earl reprised his role as the voice of Mufasa in The Walt Disney Studios’ photo-realistic re-imagining of The Lion King.