James Earl Jones: “I Felt Like I Was Cursed”
James Earl Jones, best known for his signature baritone voice. His voice has graced some of the best blockbuster movies, from Field of Dreams with Kevin Costner to being the voice of Darth Vader in the Star Wars trilogy, you know James’ voice when you hear it.
But it hasn’t always been this way. James Earl Jones, with one of the most recognizable voices in the world, was almost mute as a child for eight years, thanks to a severe stutter.
“As a small child, I would communicate to my family, or at least those who didn’t mind being embarrassed by my stutter or my being embarrassed. I did communicate with the animals quite freely, but then that’s calling the hogs, the cows, the chickens. They don’t care how you sound, they just want to hear your voice.”
More than 70 million people worldwide stutter, which is about 1% of the population. In the United States, that’s over 3 million Americans who stutter.
James Earl explains that although he was born in Mississippi, his family moved when he was five years old to a Michigan farm, which played havoc with his sinuses – and his speech development.
The move that uprooted his family included his maternal grandparents and his mother (his father was out of the picture before he was born) and 13 cousins was understandably traumatizing.
“I had an Uncle Randy – who passed away last year – who was my brother really. I was the youngest grandchild and he was the youngest child and only four years older than me. Randy stuttered while we lived in Mississippi and I feel that I mocked him,’ he says. ‘I used to imitate him. I don’t know whether I was imitating him to keep him company or to embarrass him. And then I ended up stuttering myself. I feel I was cursed.”
“Stuttering is painful. In Sunday school, I’d try to read my lessons and the children behind me were falling on the floor with laughter. ”
“Well, I knew I was funny. I still know why it is funny. I think stutterers are funny. And I know it’s rude and politically incorrect to laugh at stutterers. But I think it is OK because I know why they’re funny. They make people nervous. People think, when on earth are they going to get the word out, so they start laughing out of their own nervousness.”
“But by the time I got to school, my stuttering was so bad that I gave up trying to speak properly.”
“There was another pupil who sat behind me who was also a stutterer and the teacher, who was young, would shake him, and I’d say, ‘L-l-lll-l-let me teach him’ and I took over his studies, or when he had to talk. I understood him. I understood that shaking him was not going to help. She was relieved.”
James Earl was lucky enough to be taught by English teacher and poet, Donald Crouch, whom he calls…