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SAG AWARDS

This is James Earl Jones

The distinguished actor and cultural icon (Vader's voice!) will be honored by his peers Friday. Sure, it's a lifetime achievement award, but Jones says he's not ready to retire yet.

January 07, 2009|Greg Braxton

James Earl Jones may be tempted, but he's been warned by his wife not to make fun of the lifetime achievement award he'll be receiving from the Screen Actors Guild during its 15th annual award ceremony on Jan. 25.

After all, he says, he still has a vibrant career and projects he hopes will add to his lengthy line of distinguished films, including his breakthrough "The Great White Hope," "Field of Dreams" and "Patriot Games." Last year, he headed an all-star cast on Broadway in a revival of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

Still, the Shakespearean-trained actor who became a cultural icon thanks to the deep intonations of his voice (notably as "Star Wars' " Darth Vader and his "This is CNN" channel identification announcement) said that he was grateful for the award and that he is looking forward to the festivities. In a phone interview from his New York office, he reflected on his career.

What are your feelings about being honored by SAG?

I did this movie with Richard Harris (1995's "Cry, the Beloved Country"), and the only recognition we ever got was from SAG. We were very grateful. I love to see actors' work. I love to surf channels late at night and accidentally run into movies I hadn't seen before. It makes me very proud of the profession.

How critical are you of your performances?

I think self-criticism is sort of a given when you're an actor. It's also about being curious and not being flippant. Anyone who accepts being in this noble profession is automatically self-critical.

Are you surprised that your Darth Vader voice became so iconic?

A little. I couldn't make him sound human. Whenever I did a new one, the director would say there is a very narrow band of inflection. There were no special tricks, just getting to the deepest register of my bass voice and being as menacing as possible.

What is the biggest change you've seen through the years in terms of the status of blacks in Hollywood?

To get too involved with advantages or disadvantages is a very narrow thing. It leads to bitterness. I avoid the whole issue. One could make a better assessment when talking about the writing more than the acting. Writing can give full meaning to characters and avoid pure stereotype. That's why it's such a shock when Sidney Poitier slaps the white man in 'In the Heat of the Night' after that man slaps him. He wasn't thinking in terms of racial, he was thinking of it man to man.

What gives you the greatest pleasure, acting in movies or the theater?

I love it all, even commercials. I'm trained for the stage, so I kind of know what I'm doing there. I still consider myself a novice as a film actor. I have a lot to learn. I would love to create a character on film where I can say, 'This is my legacy.' Like 'Cry, the Beloved Country.' Did you see it? No one did. But that's among the roles I most cherish. Others are 'Claudine,' 'Gardens of Stone.' 'Field of Dreams' is a favorite of many people. I even loved being in "The Sandlot" and the Tom Clancy movies.

What about playing the first black president of the U.S. in "The Man"?

I have misgivings about that one. It was done as a TV special. Had we known it was to be released as a motion picture, we would have asked for more time and more production money. I regret that.

What's next for you?

Actors never discuss future plans. With this economy, plans might be scuttled. I just let it happen.

What are your feelings about a possible SAG strike?

I don't want to take sides. I know too little about the issues. Right now, my name would go into one pile or another, and I would prefer not to do that.

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greg.braxton@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

BOOMING TALENT

James Earl Jones may be the only actor alive who is potentially better known for his voice than his face, an amazing feat for a man who once stuttered as a child. But don't imagine for a second that the actor's on-screen work hasn't been recognized until this year's SAG Life Achievement Award.

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OSCAR

1971: Nominated as lead actor for "The Great White Hope."

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EMMY

1991: Won two awards, lead actor in a drama series for "Gabriel's Fire," and supporting actor in a miniseries or special for "Heat Wave." He's had six other nominations through the years.

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GOLDEN GLOBE

1971: Won most promising male newcomer for "The Great White Hope" and has had four other nominations over the years.

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SCREEN ACTORS GUILD

1996: Nominated for lead actor for "Cry, the Beloved Country."

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SAG ON TV

The 15th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, the only televised award show to solely celebrate performers, will be held Jan. 25 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles and will be telecast on TNT and TBS beginning at 8 p.m.

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