"People think actors have fascinating stories," Jones rumbles. "Well, the reason I was cast in that film is the only fascinating one I have. I was doing Shakespeare in the Park," he recalls of New York's summertime festival in Central Park. "I was the Prince of Morocco and George C. Scott was playing Shylock in 'The Merchant of Venice.' Kubrick wanted George to play the general in 'Dr. Strangelove,' but decided he wanted to see him act first. Afterwards he came backstage and said something like 'Yeah. I do want you to play the general--and I'll take the black one too!' He wanted a black member of Slim Pickens' bomber crew."
Jones was born on a farm in Arkabutla, Miss., 59 years ago. At the age of 6, he moved to Michigan to be raised by his mother's parents, John and Maggie Connolly, seeing his mother, an itinerant tailor, only occasionally. His father, Robert Earl Jones, left the family and farming before James' birth to become a prizefighter in the Memphis area, earning a living as "Battling Bill Stovall."
Soon after arriving in Michigan, Jones developed a stutter so serious that, in the one-room grammar school he attended, he could only communicate with his teacher and classmates with notes. "I was a stutterer, a stammerer, totally impaired vocally," he recalls, "and I still am. I worked on it all my life and I still do.
"From the beginning of high school through the end of college," he says, "my extracurricular activity was using my voice. That, necessarily, took me into all kids of classes in such things as interpretive poetry reading and the like . . . I am a rotten debater because there is something built in, some sort of dyslexia, where you're constantly thinking of a word that you can get out.
"This smattering of exposure to the art of acting and the art of speaking that I got through those years sort of stuck with me," he adds. In 1953, Jones graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in drama (he originally planned a medical career) and joined the Army where, two years later, the young first lieutenant was forced to decide what to do with his life. "My regimental commander said, 'Do you want to go for your captaincy?' and I said I didn't know. I liked the Army. He said, 'Is there anything on the outside that you ever wanted to do?' "
Jones' father, by then, had given up his boxing career for one less painful. "During World War II, he got a few jobs being a sparring partner of Joe Louis in USO films," Jones recalls, "and he realized that in movies you don't get hit quite as hard or as often. He thought 'This is for me.'
So Jones told his commanding officer, 'Yeah, my dad's an actor, and I'm curious about that.' So he suggested I give it a try and on that advice, I did."
Robert Earl Jones cautioned his son about acting's rewards. " 'Look,' he told me, 'you've got to be realistic. I've not made a living of this. You're taking your chances.' But there were odd jobs. My dad was also a floor finisher, which he did throughout his acting career to sustain himself, and I joined him at that . . . we were janitors in several Broadway theaters. But," says Jones, who before his first marriage to actress Julienne Marie in 1967 was living (by choice) in a $19-a-month cold-water flat on Manhattan's Lower East Side, "I was always able to set my standard of living according to what (money) was coming in--not according to some dream or lifestyle."
Two years of study at Manhattan's American Theatre Wing (financed by the GI Bill) under Lee Strasberg and Tad Danielewski prepared him, but the day-to-day life in New York's theatrical milieu of the '50s and '60s honed his talent.
"New York was my workshop," he recalls. "I would run from being an actor in a play to being an actor in another play to being in the audience at another. It was a rich, rich time. I did simple things (his income averaged $45 a week), but every young actor must go through a certain process." He believes New York is still America's theatrical mecca: "If I had come to Los Angeles, then it would have been a joke . . . it still is. The idea of going to New York and getting your journeymanship in acting is still valid. There are wonderful audiences out here, but there isn't the volume of work on stage, in workshops, everything."
"I gave him a part in 'Henry V' in 1960," says Papp. "It was a small role, 20 lines. But I felt he made it the leading part in the play."
Jones still believes the turning point of his career was the role of Deodatus Village in the 1961 Off-Broadway production of Jean Genet's savage drama of race relations, "The Blacks." "What was special about 'The Blacks,' " he says, "was the heightened consciousness about racial politics, about liberty and freedom. There was a strong focus on the issues. I am of a generation that included Lou Gossett, Roscoe Lee Browne, Raymond St. Jacques, Cicely Tyson, Billy Dee Williams . . . many of us ended up in 'The Blacks,' and it put us all on the map."