1931 : James Earl Jones Born, Grew Up in Michigan

January 17, 2023 all-day

Picture of James Earl Jones in 2010, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Award-winning actor and voice of CNN James Earl Jones, who grew up in Dublin, Manistee County, was born on Jan. 17, 1931.

In 1936, when Jones was just five, his grandfather set out to move the entire family from Mississippi to northern Michigan, buying a farm — sight unseen — that was advertised to him as being in a Grand Rapids suburb. When he got there, however, the “suburban” farm turned out to be a good hundred miles north of Grand Rapids in southeastern Manistee County near the village of Dublin, Michigan. Despite the false advertising, John Henry decided to make the best of it, and renovated the property’s old commercial chicken house into the family home before sending for James Earl and the rest of the family.

Five-year-old James Earl did not share his grandfather’s enthusiasm for rural northern Michigan. In fact, the move proved so traumatic, Jones developed a debilitating stutter, and the man who would eventually come to have one of the most recognizable voices in all of acting (including being the voice of Darth Vadar) was essentially mute from age six until age 14.

A literature teacher at the local high school in Brethren, Michigan was key to Jones recovering his voice, and James Earl quickly developed a love of poetry. (The young James Earl’s favorite poem was reportedly Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha,” because it was set in the Great Lakes region.) When he was a freshman, James Earl even attempted his own riff on the Longfellow style, writing an “Ode to Grapefruit” after a much-appreciated mid-winter citrus shipment arrived by rail in Brethren from Florida. When the teacher discovered James Earl’s poem, he asked him to read in front of the class, and James Earl surprisingly discovered he could do it without a hiccup. It was the first step in a long road that eventually culminated in a statewide public speaking championship for Jones and a scholarship to the University of Michigan, where he studied for four years before moving to New York to pursue a career in acting.

Jones has won many awards during his illustrious acting career — an Oscar nomination for best actor for “The Great White Hope,” an honorary Oscar in 2011, and Tony Awards for his performances in “The Great White Hope” and “Fences.” His films include “Field of Dreams,” “Cry, the Beloved Country” and “Patriot Games.” Among his most well-known voice work is Darth Vader in the “Star Wars” series and Mufasa in “The Lion King.”

Sources :

Lou Blouin, James Earl Jones, Michigan Irishman, Found Michigan, March 13, 2012.

Zlati Meyer, Michigan History : “Manistee’s Jamse Earl Jones Born”, Detroit Free Press, January 11, 2015.

Chris Clark, “Here James Earl Jones Talk About His Michigan Childhood”, MLive, August 1, 2014.

James Earl Jones Talks About His Mentor Donald Crouch, MLive, August 1, 2014.

John Barnes, “Mufasa, Darth Vader, Terence Mann: They grew up in Michigan, where James Earl Jones found his voice”, MLive, October 4, 2014.

John Barnes, In search of James Earl Jones’ real ‘Field of Dreams’, MLive, October 5, 2014.