Approaching age 80 this January, actor James Earl Jones demonstrated his humility, kindness and humor on Monday, when New York Times theater reporter Patrick Healy interviewed him as part of the paper’s Times Talks series at The Times Center building at 242 West 41st Street. Jones stepped out wearing an ascot with a jacket and slacks, looking very much the gentleman, to talk about his upcoming lead role on Broadway in “Driving Miss Daisy”, which will begin performances at the John Golden Theatre at 252 West 45th Street on October 7 and open on October 25. He will be playing opposite Vanessa Redgrave and will be joined by Boyd Gaines.
Healy began by asking Jones about his stuttering problem and how he had managed to overcome it, to which Jones remarked, “I’m still a stutterer.”
He explained that he moved from Mississippi to Michigan and went from a one-room schoolhouse to a regular school. He attended an agricultural high school and had a teacher, Donald Crouch, who taught Latin, English, literature and world and American history. Crouch saw that Jones did not speak a lot. “He discovered I had a love for words, though. I was constantly writing poetry. He told me, ‘If you love words, you’ve got to be able to say them out loud to communicate.’ I could talk to the horse or dog on the farm, but I couldn’t introduce myself to people who came to visit our farm–that was a confrontation. Mr. Crouch told me to memorize one of my poems and say it in front of the class, and the spell was broken.”
Jones shared that his first acting experience came in high school–he played a horse’s rear-end. (That brought a laugh to the packed auditorium.) He went on to attend the University of Michigan and joined the off-campus theater company.
Healy asked Jones if anyone told him how special his voice sounds, to which he humbly replied, “I remind myself that I’m still a stutterer and my main thing is to communicate as well as I can.” When asked which of his past roles in theater he preferred, Jones responded, “They are all my children–even the roles that were horrible.”
Healy talked about Jones being cast in 1968 as boxer Jack Johnson in “The Great White Hope” on Broadway, where he played opposite Jane Alexander. The audience was treated to seeing a very young and powerful Jones portray this aggressive character. Healy inquired as to the reactions Jones received from the public.
“Jane told me that she got hate mail,” he said. “I was confounded by the reactions during the show. In one scene, I’m beating Jane with a wet T-shirt and I would hear the Black women in the audience shout, ‘Whip the b—!’ I couldn’t understand why they were saying this. I was already whipping her. I would confront the women, and my fellow cast members told me that I should just accept what the audience gives me and don’t say anything, because it made it hard for them to go out there and follow behind me.”
Jones’ work in the “Star Wars” films was mentioned, of course, and Healy shared that those films were how he was introduced to Jones as a child. Jones worked steadily on Broadway from the 1960s through the ’80s. Healy spoke of Jones starring in “Fences,” and Jones explained that August Wilson said he wrote the Troy character with him in mind. The audience then got to watch a very amazing Jones on screen with Courtney Vance in the Broadway production.
“That is the classic August Wilson–all the passion–and I love Courtney in that role,” Jones said as he wiped tears from his eyes. Healy talked with Jones about his performances in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “On Golden Pond,” the “un”-traditional casting of him playing what has normally been a white role. Jones explained that skin color your wasn’t important because these plays are about family.
He admitted with “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” that Big Daddy was a cruel character in some ways and that when he continued the role in London, he became physically ill having to play the character because he increased the character’s meanness toward Big Mama.
Regarding his newest role in “Driving Miss Daisy” as Hoke Colburn, the role that everyone associates with the movie starring Morgan Freeman, Jones said he is ready to play it because he knows many people who are like that. “I know Hoke, and I can do him. Hoke is a throwback. He doesn’t have the powers of speech. He hasn’t grown because he doesn’t read. He’s been educated by life,” Jones explained.
Talking of his character and Miss Daisy, played by Vanessa Redgrave, he explained, “Hoke is not a fighter, he’s pushed into it. Miss Daisy likes to fight. Her concept of life is survival and self-reliance,” he said.
They’re currently in rehearsals for the show, and Jones would not say much about it. The floor was opened to the audience. Some asked questions about his stuttering, sharing that they stuttered or knew someone who did and said that he was someone who inspired people with this problem.
Speaking of the show, Jones shared, “I’m not nervous. We’re all falling in love with our characters and the other characters.”
“Driving Miss Daisy” is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Alfred Uhry. For more information, go to www.daisyonbroadway.com.