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How James Earl Jones found his voice after years of stuttering

James Earl Jones Stephen Chernin/AP

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How James Earl Jones found his voice after years of stuttering

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James Earl Jones has a distinctive presence on stage and film, from award-winning Broadway performances to the famous voice that brought Darth Vader to life.

You’d probably identify him by his voice even if you didn’t know his name. After all, Darth Vader from the original “Star Wars” trilogy and Mufasa from Disney’s animated masterpiece “The Lion King” are both voiced by James Earl Jones. Jones had a stuttering issue and was functionally mute from the age of five to fourteen, something you may not know. It wasn’t until a high school teacher took an interest in him and supported him that he began to conquer his fear of public speaking and embrace his voice—a voice that would go on to become one of the most well-known in the entertainment industry today.

Though it has been suggested that an early childhood tragedy led to Jones’ stammer, he has never spoken about it in depth or publicly confirmed it. Jones’ stuttering caused him so much stress and low self-esteem that he went silent, only speaking when absolutely required and only to close family members—or the animals on his family’s farm.

He recently made his Broadway comeback in the play “You Can’t Take It With You.”

The drama is set during the Great Depression, at which time Jones was growing up in Mississippi and rural Michigan.

He had a good relationship with his grandparents, who later adopted him, but he acquired a stammer and spent most of his youth in silence.

“You know, I’ve told that story so much. I’m so fascinated by it because I don’t understand it,” Jones says. “I didn’t want to talk — bad enough that I just gave up. I couldn’t introduce myself to people who visited the house, and it was too painful.”

“John, it is your style, and I appreciate that, but I am a stutterer still,” Jones said.

“I don’t say I was ‘cured,’ ” he says. “I just work with it.”

“I didn’t want to talk — bad enough that I just gave up. I couldn’t introduce myself to people who visited the house, and it was too painful.

During his trials, he found solace in reading and poetry, and he acquired a passion for writing, eventually becoming a brilliant poet. Mr. Crouch, Jones’ high school English teacher, had Jones get up and recite one of his poems aloud to the class one day. He delivered his poetry fluently and without stuttering, indicating that he was well-versed in it. This experience inspired him and Mr. Crouch to look into poetry as a method to regain his speech. Mr. Crouch served as his de facto speech therapist. Jones’ speaking had improved so much towards the conclusion of his high school career that he had enrolled in an optional dramatic reading class and a debating class.

“I don’t know about you, but the first year of English literature in college was a horror for me,” he remarked of learning to write at the University of Michigan. “It was for older University of Michigan students in the liberal arts department. Because the demands of technique were so rigid, content is up to you, and one day I turned in a paper… the teacher, in front of the class, cited it. He said, “Here’s a paper. I won’t tell you who wrote it, but it has the worst technique I’ve ever seen, but the best content I’ve ever seen.” So I was hopeless. I was hopeless. If I could just get through that class, I could move on and try to be a doctor.”

It reminds him of his childhood on the family farm.

“Being raised as a farm kid, it was all about making do,” Jones says. “Putting one foot in front of the other. You had to plow a field, you just put the horse in the row and you got behind the plow and you did [one] row at a time. And eventually you got it done — one foot in front of the other. And you take up a profession in this business, you got to accept that there’s a certain journeyman stage to it.”

“For me, it never ends. I’m still a journeyman actor. But you’re on a journey — and it’s one foot in front of the other.”

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