Jones, James Earl

Jones, James Earl
(1931– )
   The African-American actor who played Lothar Zogg in DR. STRANGELOVE (1964) was born in Arkabutla, Mississippi, January 17, 1931. His father, Robert E. Jones, was a boxer-turned-actor. James Earl Jones attended Norman Dickinson High School in Brethren, Michigan, and earned a bachelor’s degree in drama at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in 1953. After serving in the U. S. Army from 1953 to 1955, Jones studied acting at the American Theater Wing with Lee Strasberg in New York from 1955 to 1957. He debuted on the New York stage in 1957 and joined Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival in 1960. STANLEY KUBRICK saw Jones playing the prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice in New York’s Central Park in 1963, opposite GEORGE C. SCOTT. Jones recalls in his autobiography that Kubrick offered Scott a role in Dr. Strangelove, then added,“I’ll take the black one too. ”
   Jones played the bombardier, Lt. Lothar Zogg, in Dr. Strangelove. The film tells the story of how the emotionally unstable Gen. Jack D. Ripper (STERLING HAYDEN) issues the command to B-52 bombers to attack Russia. Maj. T. J. “King” Kong (SLIM PICKENS), a pilot from Texas, commands The Leper Colony, the only bomber to reach its Russian objective. Jones explains in his book that Dr. Strangelove was the first film that opened up the threat of nuclear war to comedy. One curious thing was that Kubrick often had the flight crew eating:“Every time he’d cut to us, we’d be eating a Twinkie. That was a comment about how people deal with fear. I think he liked the mundane aspect of horrific events. ”
   Zogg was a key role in the original script for the film; he was the one who questioned whether the “go-code” which the crew receives to attack Russia is valid or not. Jones remarked,“I think all I say in the movie is,‘Well, could it be some sort of loyalty test?’ I guess Stanley didn’t want the one protesting the combat mission to be a black guy. ” Jones remembers receiving a revised version of the script one day and finding that his role had been considerably reduced. He went to Kubrick and inquired about it, saying, “Gee, I took the role for all that good stuff ” that had been excised. Kubrick replied, “We don’t need it. ” That was it;“it was a command decision,” Jones comments. Jones recalls that, although Kubrick seemed quiet and unassuming on the surface, he was a powerful director. But he did not express it externally. He would not walk on the set with a riding crop, as Cecil B. DeMille sometimes did. In fact, “his manner was casual. Very laid back. Cool. ” Kubrick was irritated with Jones one day when Jones had overlooked a section of the script he was supposed to memorize. Kubrick snapped, “You don’t know these words? Why don’t you know these words?” Jones concludes, Kubrick was “pissed off quietly; but he was pissed off. ”
   In the course of the film the navigator aboard the bomber reports that a missile is tracking the aircraft, so Kong institutes evasive action that results in the plane’s being damaged but not destroyed. Indeed, in this scene, in which Jones figures,Kubrick creates a marvelous sense of realism when the missile strikes: the voice of the navigator grows more and more apprehensive as he watches on his indicator the distance between the missile and the plane rapidly closing and announces this over the intercom. The shock of the explosion follows and the plane is filled with smoke and flames as it sways, trailing smoke.
   The viewer is aware—as Kong and his crew are not—that if The Leper Colony reaches its target inside the Soviet Union, it will automatically detonate the Russians’ retaliatory Doomsday Machine. As the plane approaches its objective, Lieutenant Zogg finds that the bomb doors will not open. Zogg methodically moves toggle switches and presses buttons, reporting to Kong on the intercom,“the detonator is set, but the bomb door circuit—negative function. ” He switches on the backup circuit, then engages the emergency power, only to have to report laconically, “Still negative function, sir. ” Kong declares, “Stay on the bomb run, boys; I’m going to get those doors open. ” He sits astride one of the bombs and fusses with wires, until he makes one final adjustment that causes the bomb bay doors to open. The bomb is released, with Kong riding it like a bronco to its Soviet target far below,waving his cowboy hat all the way down. There follows a blinding explosion as the screen goes white.
   Admittedly, Jones did not have a memorable role in Dr. Strangelove, but the picture’s enormous success helped him win meatier roles on the stage and screen. He scored a triumph on Broadway as Jack Jefferson in The Great White Hope in 1968, playing a character modeled on Jack Johnson, the first black American heavyweight champion, and repeated the role in Martin Ritt’s 1970 screen version of the play. Jones’s resonant bass voice was heard to great advantage when it issued from behind the visor of the villainous Darth Vader in the Star Wars trilogy (1977–1983). Although the malevolent Vader was played by another actor (DAVID PROWSE), Jones’s dubbing of Vader’s lines demonstrates that an expert actor can shape a characterization by his voice alone. Among his many, varied films are Field of Dreams (1989), in which he played a reclusive writer, opposite Kevin Costner; Patriot Games (1992), as the mentor of CIA agent Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford); and the sequel, A Clear and Present Danger (1994). He married Julienne Marie Hendricks in 1967 and, after his divorce from Hendricks, Cecilia Hart in 1982.
   ■ Jones, James Earl, with Penelope Niven, Voices and Silences (New York: Scribner’s, 1993).

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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  • Jones, James Earl — born Jan. 17, 1931, Arkabutla, Miss., U.S. U.S. actor. He studied acting in New York City and made his Broadway debut in 1957. He was praised for his performance in Othello (1964) and in roles with the New York Shakespeare Festival (1961–73). He… …   Universalium

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