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"The little-known secrets behind the men & women who shaped America"

Actor known for his distinctive voice overcame severe stuttering problem

By Paul Niemann

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[August 27, 2009]  James was born in 1931 in Arkabutla, Miss., to Robert and Ruth Jones. The couple split up before James was born, and James was 25 years old before he met his father.

When James was 5, he went to live with his maternal grandparents on their farm near Dublin, Mich. The move, though, was so traumatic for James that it caused him to stutter. All through grade school and into high school, James had such a serious stuttering problem that he didn't talk with anyone outside of his family, and his conversations with them were minimal. At school, he was basically a mute.

His grandparents weren't able to solve his problem, but one day in high school a teacher named Donald Crouch helped him overcome his stuttering. Knowing that James had a talent for writing, Mr. Crouch gave an assignment for each student to write a poem. James wrote his poem about the fruit that the government had distributed to local families in an effort to ease the burden caused by a shortage during World War II. He titled his poem "Ode to Grapefruit."

Now, we all enjoy a nice piece of grapefruit now and then, but it's not something that would usually inspire us to write a poem about it. Well, citrus fruit was pretty rare during the wintertime in Michigan during World War II and, apparently, it was worth writing about.

The teacher pretended that he didn't think James could have written the poem himself, so he asked him to prove it by reciting it aloud in class -- by heart. Normally, James would not have been able to do this, because of his stuttering problem, but since he had memorized the words in the poem, he was able to recite the poem flawlessly in front of the whole class.

The class discovered at that point what everyone else knows today -- that James has an excellent voice. To paraphrase a slogan from the E.F. Hutton ads: When James speaks, people listen. His deep bass voice is that distinctive.

James went on to receive his degree from the University of Michigan. Then he served in the military and later became an actor. It was his love of speech that fueled his passion for acting, because for eight years he basically could not speak.

James' first major acting role was that of boxer Jack Johnson in "The Great White Hope," in 1969, a role that earned James a Tony award. Ironically, James' father was a boxer before becoming an actor.

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You probably recognize some of his lines in some of his other work...


This line was from the 1977 "Star Wars" movie, in which James provides the voice of Darth Vader. (By the way, in case you've ever wondered what the name Darth Vader means, here's the answer: In 2005 George Lucas explained that "Darth" is a contraction of "Dark Lord of the Sith," while "Vader" is a variation of the word "father" -- the Dutch word for father is "vader." So Darth Vader translates into Dark Father.)

And on TV, you've probably heard this line at least a hundred times...

"THIS ... IS CNN."

As a result of these three words, James has become known as the voice of CNN.

He was also in "Dr. Strangelove," "Field of Dreams," "The Hunt for Red October" and "The Lion King," among many other movies. He was also the first celebrity to appear on "Sesame Street," in 1969.

James Jones uses his middle name, just like his father, Robert Earl Jones. And like his father, James' middle name is Earl.

As in James Earl Jones. But you knew that all along, didn't you?


Paul Niemann's column has appeared in more than 80 newspapers and counting. He is the author of the "Invention Mysteries" series of books and can be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2009

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