New York — Darth VADER is terrified. Well, not Darth Vader, of course, but James Earl Jones. The strapping actor has been iconized as the powerful Prince of Darkness striding through the galaxies in the "Star Wars" franchise. So it's surprising to see him sitting in his dressing room, blinking behind glasses and speaking softly -- an unprepossessing demeanor that reminds one more of Jones' performance as the simple-minded Lenny in "Of Mice and Men" than of the other colossi of his resume: The Jack Johnson-like champ in both the stage and film versions of "The Great White Hope," the tragic Shakespearean heroes Macbeth, Othello and Lear, and of course Troy Maxson, the former baseball player in August Wilson's domestic epic "Fences," which won Jones his second Tony in 1987.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 10, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
James Earl Jones -- An article in the April 3 Calendar section implied that James Earl Jones wrote to John Steinbeck in 1974 during preparations for a production of "Of Mice and Men." Jones had written years earlier to Steinbeck, who died in 1968.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 17, 2005 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
James Earl Jones -- An article April 3 implied that James Earl Jones wrote to John Steinbeck in 1974 during preparations for a production of "Of Mice and Men." Jones had written years earlier to Steinbeck, who died in 1968.
"I'm scared right now," says the 74-year-old Jones, just days before he is to begin previews as the star, with Leslie Uggams, of the revival of Ernest Thompson's "On Golden Pond" at the Cort Theatre. "You see, when you're trying to find your way through this strange land that a play can be, then your old tricks don't work. So, yeah, I'm having problems with him, so much so that it doesn't even pay to talk about it. I don't want to depress myself."
"Him" is Norman Thayer Jr., the bullying 80-year-old curmudgeon at the center of Thompson's elegy about an old couple coming to terms with mortality -- and family dysfunction -- in a Maine summer house. He was created by Tom Aldredge on Broadway in 1979 and immortalized in the Oscar-winning 1981 film in a valedictory performance by Henry Fonda. That alone might give Jones pause were it not that this revival, directed by Leonard Foglia and also starring Linda Powell as the rebellious daughter, Chelsea, has already had well-received tryout stops at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and in Wilmington, Del. Critics have applauded Jones' return to the stage after 16 years, with the Washington Post's Peter Marks leading the charge. "James Earl Jones ignites the stage like something doused in kerosene," he wrote. "You can't take your eyes off of him. He remains a force to reckon with."
Despite the praise, Jones is wary. It's not that the hiatus from the stage makes him feel rusty. ("I don't think there are different rules for different media; you're still trying to be somebody else," he says.) It's that he's still trying to find the right balance between Norman's irascibility and his vulnerability. "I can't enjoy compliments," he says. "I don't dare. It's not about compliments. It's about trying to be as accurate about the character as you can be."
Foglia says that Jones' hard-driving integrity has hovered over the company since he enlisted the actor in what morphed from what was to be a concert reading of the play to a full production. The latter depended on Jones' hectic schedule as the spokesman for Verizon. "He's the busiest 74-year-old man I know," says Foglia. "When I first met James Earl Jones, he was firing questions about the character before we even reached the couch in his living room. There are no games. You go right to work."
Jones did have one startling demand: that he be allowed to play Norman as the bigot he appears to be. At one point in the play, the "old Poop" rhapsodizes to the postman about Maine as a land free of "Jews and Negroes," implying that the Thayers enjoy their summers there as a way to escape "all that." Jones also insisted that a white actor be cast as the postman. "Ernest and I were surprised," says Foglia, "especially since in other productions of the play, that section was often the first to be cut and it had nothing to do with a black playing the part. People are scared of it, they want a 'kinder, gentler' play." The director adds that the actor explained to him that he saw the scene as an expression of black snobbery. In the course of the interview, however, Jones says the exchange is an example of Norman's snide humor. "He's not expressing bigotry, he's expressing his view of Maine in as cynical terms as he is capable of," says Jones. "The danger is that the audience won't get the joke, but I don't think we should be tender-footed about it. If you take it seriously, the problem arises, how could a man who is a professor of English, responsible for young minds, have been a bigot for all those years? He's not a bigot, he's a realist. His wife says to him, 'Oh, you have a tie on.' And he says, 'Yes, I know, I put it there.' Now, only recently was I advised that might be a joke. What I really think is, Norman's a literalist."
Jones' concern with confusing the audience came up as well during preparations for the 1974 production of "Mice and Men," in the course of which the N-word was used. The actor said he wrote John Steinbeck to ask him what Lenny's reaction might be to hearing the offending word. "Mr. Steinbeck wrote back, 'Jim, Lenny wouldn't know what the word ... meant, so you should go ahead and play it as if color were irrelevant,' " recalls Jones.