‘Star Wars’: James Earl Jones Worked Through a Stutter to Become an Iconic Film Voice

Star Wars just wouldn’t feel the same without the commanding voice of James Earl Jones. The celebrated actor never appears onscreen in the blockbuster franchise, but his presence dominates the story through his role as the voice of Darth Vader. Jones’s impact on the series was so significant, that Disney brought him back for small roles in Rogue One and Star Wars: Rebels, rather than recasting.

Despite all this future success, Jones struggled to find his voice early in life. As a child growing up in Michigan, the actor developed a major stutter that took a toll on his self-confidence.

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James Earl Jones at the 2017 Tony Awards. | Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

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Jones was born in Mississippi, but he soon moved to Michigan and was primarily raised by his maternal grandparents. From a young age, he grappled with a stutter that left him mostly mute for nearly eight years, according to the Stuttering Foundation.

“As a small child, I would communicate to my family, or at least those who didn’t mind being embarrassed by my stutter or my being embarrassed,” Jones told The Daily Mail. “I did communicate with the animals quite freely, but then that’s calling the hogs, the cows, the chickens. They don’t care how you sound, they just want to hear your voice.”

Jones also recalled being mocked by fellow students at Sunday school when he attempted to read aloud during class. This bullying led him to almost give up on normal speaking once he started attending normal schools.

He overcame his stutter with the help of a high school teacher

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Jones largely accredits his breakthrough to one of his high school English teachers, Mr. Crouch. At the time, Jones had begun writing poetry, and the teacher saw a way to use this budding hobby to encourage his student to push through his difficulties with speech.

“I had started writing poetry in high school and he said of one of them, ‘Jim, this is a good poem,'” Jones explained. “‘In fact, it is so good I don’t think you wrote it. I think you plagiarized it. If you want to prove you wrote it, you must stand in front of the class and recite it by memory.’ Which I did. As they were my own words, I got through it.”

Near the end of his high school education, Jones’s progress with his stutter was far enough along that he took on electives for dramatic reading and debate, according to Carolina Pediatric Therapy. These programs were no doubt instrumental in leading the future Star Wars icon down the path to becoming the beloved performer he is today.

Even years later, however, Jones has been unwilling to say that he was ever “cured” of his stutter, telling NPR that it never fully goes away.

“I don’t say I was ‘cured,'” Jones said. “I just work with it.”