NEW YORK — Twenty years ago, actor James Earl Jones made a stunning Broadway debut in "The Great White Hope," earning his first Tony Award. Having few opportunities in the ensuing years to match his on-stage success, Jones, 56, is once again earning considerable acclaim on Broadway for his Tony Award-winning role in August Wilson's play "Fences." He also has made recent screen appearances in John Sayles' "Matewan" and the independent film "My Little Girl."
"It took 20 years to get from then till now, and that's that," said Jones, in his dressing room at the 46th Street Theater shortly before a recent performance of "Fences."
"In front of the camera or on stage, you're the same actor as you were when you began. . . . It's a continual search, not for the role, but for work as an actor. You can't hang onto your laurels."
In Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Jones plays tough Troy Maxson, the embittered head of a working-class family.
"Actors do not have choices, do not have claims, just because they are considered stars," said Jones, noting that he has simply accepted the roles as they have been offered.
"I'd do junk in a minute, especially to pay the bills. I try to do the best I can with my roles, but (as to those offered) it's really the roll of the dice."
Saying he "cannot be concerned" over whether he is asked to reprise his portrayal in the film version of "Fences"--Paramount Pictures has acquired the film rights for Eddie Murphy--Jones said that he harbors no bitterness about the infrequent opportunities to show off his talent on screen.
But he expressed pride in playing a part in Sayles' "Matewan," a film about a historic 1930s coal miners' strike in West Virginia. Jones portrays a strong-willed, frustrated miner who leads black miners in the dangerous effort to unionize the mines.
"He's the shepherd of the other black characters," said Jones. "But it's all about work and getting a fair shake, not about black and white. . . . The unions of the '30s took care of blacks."
Referring to his roots on a Mississippi farm, Jones spoke passionately of the miners' struggle to find justice. But he seemed more reticent when speaking of their militancy. "I'm a very simple person," he said.
Backtracking to the subject of his career, Jones said: "If I sound lacking in ambition, that's wrong. I want it all--movies, TV, the stage. It's just that I'm a troubadour, going from castle to castle looking for an open door through which to walk and sing for my supper. That's the way it is; it never changes."