Oprah Winfrey, James Earl Jones and Dick Smith on Governors Awards (Exclusive Audio)
Jones, 80, made his big screen debut in Stanley Kubrick's classic Dr. Strangelove (1964) and scored a big breakthrough in The Great White Hope (1970), for which he became just the second black man to score a best actor Oscar nod, but he will always be most closely associated with his booming voice and the first part for which it was used but his body was not: Darth Vader in the first three Star Wars films (1977, 1980, 1983). He also gave memorable performances in Claudine (1974), Conan the Barbarian (1982), Matewan (1987), Coming to America (1988), Field of Dreams (1989), The Hunt for Red October (1990), Patriot Games (1992), Clear and Present Danger (1994), The Lion King (1994), The Sandlot (1993), and Cry, the Beloved Country (1995), to say nothing of the countless theatrical productions that have always been his primary focus.
On how he learned that he had been chosen to receive an honorary Oscar...
“I never answer the phone at home… So my son gets this call, and he said, ‘Call from California.’ It was very late our time, and I said, ‘Oh, they’ve gotta be kidding,’ so he didn’t accept the call. And they called back and said, ‘No, it’s very good news!’ So my son told me that… and, ‘They say it’s Phil [Alden] Robinson [the writer/director of Field of Dreams and a member of the Academy’s Board of Governors] talking.’ I said, ‘Oh, it’s a joke! I’ll take a joke call.’ And I said, ‘Phil, what the fuck is going on?! I don’t take fucking calls at this hour!’ And he told me, and I told my wife, and we started laughing with him, and haven’t stopped laughing since—laughing with joy.”
On the stutter that led him to stop talking from age six to 14...
“I’m a walking irony, of course… I attribute it to the move from Mississippi, the deep South, to Michigan, the deep North… I was four-and-a-half, I think… you’d think that the move from Mississippi, the asshole of the nation at that time -- in terms of education, in terms of level of poverty, and everything else… you’d think that that would be a jubilant journey for a young black boy; [but] for me, it was trouble: I was no longer able to touch the soil I touched as an infant… I think that was at the root of my stuttering.”
On the best advice her ever received...
“My father was an actor, Robert Earl Jones. In terms of film, you might remember The Sting? He was Luther, the black guy with the mustache who was [Robert] Redford’s sidekick until he gets killed by Robert Shaw, which sets up the revenge scene for the whole movie... When I entered acting, my father said to me -- he had been not only black, but blacklisted, so he couldn’t get work in Hollywood -- and he said, ‘If you want to do this business, you gotta do it because you love it, not because it’s gonna make you rich or famous. That was the best advice he could give me.”
On providing the voice of Darth Vader in the Star Wars films, for which he earned only $7,000...
“One of those summers that I was broke again, my agent called and said, ‘Do you want a day’s work doing some voiceover?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure!’… She said, ‘It’s a science-fiction movie.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ So I went to work, and I met George Lucas... They had the loops up on a screen, and I said, ‘Gee, I don’t have to match anything, do I?’ He said, ‘No.’ He just wanted to coach me through some of the attitudes he wanted me to have vocally. David Prowse had already done the role and sweated in that costume. So I went to work, and we did it in two-and-a-half hours. I got paid seven thousand dollars for it. Nobody at that time knew that it would become a cult hit… I’m very happy to be a part of that cult, even though I didn’t get paid a lot for it.”
On Field of Dreams, in which he plays a J.D. Salinger-like character...
“One of my most beloved movies. My wife had a chance to read the script before I got home that day, and when I got home she said, ‘Here’s a movie you’ve gotta do! You’ve gotta do it -- but don’t expect to ever get to say those [poetic] lines about baseball, ’cause there’s just too much dialogue; it’ll land up on the cutting room floor’… Well, because the movie was produced by Phil Alden Robinson, and was directed by him, and was written by him, all of that stuff was left in! ‘People will come, Ray’… I start crying as soon as the music starts… because it’s not about baseball -- it’s about fathers and sons, and opportunities missed.”
On one of his proudest moments...
“I was most proud when, during the first Iraq War, two pilots had come back, and they mentioned that when they got back to their base one of the first sounds they heard was, ‘This is CNN’ [the promo for the cable network featuring Jones' voice], and they knew that home was in sight.”
On his greatest film role...
“I am primarily not a film actor -- that’s what’s so ironic about [this honorary Oscar]!... I’m still a novice in film work... I haven’t found that character that I can say, ‘Yeah, that represents me and the best I can do’ ... [Cry, the Beloved Country] probably comes the closest to being the movie that I can say, ‘I’d like to leave that as part of my legacy,’ [but] ... I’m still waiting for it. It might happen, you know? It’s not yet a lifetime -- I am only eighty.”
(Click below for the interview with Dick Smith.)
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