Earl Jones was born in Arkabutla, Mississippi, in 1931. He received his
B.A. from the University of Michigan in 1953. He received a diploma from
the American Theatre Wing and studied with Lee Strasberg. He has received
many honorary degrees from universities including his alma mater,
Princeton, Yale, and Columbia. His
numerous awards, including Obies, Tonys, Golden Globes, the National Medal
of Arts, and the John Houseman Award, make too long a list to include in
full here, but a few are Tony Awards for The Great White Hope and Fences,
and the Vernon Rice Award and the Drama Desk Award for Othello. He
also received the latter award for the all-black performance of The
Cherry Orchard, appearing with Gloria Foster at the Public Theatre.
Jones has appeared in several plays by Athol Fugard including Blood
Knot, Master Harold and the Boys, and A Lesson From Aloes. His
career in films is extensive, beginning with Dr. Strangelove in
1963. Almost everyone knows his voice as Darth Vader in Star Wars and
as Mufasa in the film of The Lion King. His many television
appearances on series, specials, and miniseries have drawn praise and many
awards. Both his voice and his acting ability have made him one of the
most recognized actors in present-day theatre. His great performance as
the boxer Jack Jefferson onstage and in the 1970 film The Great White
Hope (with Jane Alexander) will not be forgotten.
CITY, SEPTEMBER 1999
Now before you played in The Iceman Cometh you had been
at Arena Stage and then you brought The Great White Hope to
Broadway. How did it happen that you did The Iceman Cometh? How did
that come about?
Do you want to start with my OíNeill beginning?
Oh, yes, please.
JONES: I think I can fit it better in my mind. The key thing to notice, one summer there were picketers on the Boston Commons. The picketers were members of the NAACP. The NAACPwas picketing a production called The Emperor Jones, because it used the ďnĒword. That is the ass end of it. We didnít give a shit about what they were doing.I didnít. The word ďniggerĒis part of our psyche. And I think Dick Gregory once tried to dispel it by writing a book called Nigger. And if we say it enough it will go away. Not quite true, but closer than getting all uptight about it. But then I can say that because no one has ever called me nigger. I donít know how I would respond if someone did.
that is the ass end of it. The head end of that production, in 1964, was a
gathering of young Turks including Dudley Moore, Ben Shacklin was the
director, and myself and a bunch of great dancers. One of those earlier
heterosexual choreographers and myself and the dancers. The concept that
Ben had was to go somewhere new with The Emperor Jones. I was
bothered from the beginning, and even at the very end, that there were no
drum sounds. Dudley used only a piano.
JONES: The whole score was a piano and whatever percussion sounds you could get out of a piano. Which is not drums, but I said, ďThatís exciting, letís do it.ĒThe choreographer had choreographed some of the greatest young dancers into being all those energies in the play, besides Smithers and Jones and OlíLynn. Lynn, Jones, Smithers, and the old lady were cast with actors. Tom McDermott played Smithers. But every other unit of energy was a dancer. So they could be rocks at times. They could be trees at times, they could be part of a jungle at times. Once when Jones is trying to escape through the forest, I would escape through massive, beautiful, strong, young dancing arms and legs. But we opened there. Actually, that is all we did. We played in Boston outdoors on the Commons. I was in good shape then. I was in my, more or less, my Great White Hope shape so I was presentable in loincloth. And when they hung the Emperor up by his heels you just see him in his drawers. I donít remember any reviews of that production, at the Boston Commons. But, I remember having the feeling, because Kennedy had just been elected, that we had all this young energy. It was like a new order, if you want to use that phrase,of young theatre energy.And in a way,led by Dudley,with his ďIwill not use drums, I will use piano.ĒIt was very exciting to us. We didnít care what the audience thought or what the picketers thought. And thatís the end of that story.
Was it a long tour?
We went all over Europe, yeah, and ended up in Scotland at the
Edinburgh Festival. The best performance, the best communication, was had
with the audiences in Holland, in Amsterdam, because they understood
English as well as Americans did. The Scottish had a little problem with
the accents, with mine in particular and being a Southern African American
accent. They didnít seem to understand the ďsnoogers.ĒBut otherwise,
the Dutch didnít care.
So then after that?
That was it.
Why didnít it ever play here?
They didnít want it. I donít know why it didnít play
Oh, so then after this time, was it considerably after this
time, that The Iceman Cometh was performed?
The Iceman Cometh came out of a complex situation. I
have a long history with Ted Mann from the Circle in the Square and my
father did also with the Circle in the Square. And I think Ted wanted to
do an Athol Fugard play. I knew that Ted wanted to do it, but I made the
mistake of mentioning it to Lloyd Richards. And so Lloyd made his bid
right away and of course, what he offered Athol was the same that he
offered August Wilson: a place to work away from New York, an ivory tower.
And Athol had to take it. So I thought that I had betrayed Ted in a way.
So he and I kept the friendship and we were talking about two other plays.
He said, ďI am doing OíNeillís The Iceman Cometh, you want to
think about Hickey?ĒI said, ďI canít get Jason (Robards) out of my
mind.Ē Because it was the first piece I saw after my Broadway tour, my
grand tour, with my father. He took me to see everything, the ballet,
opera, drama, comedy. And then I saw my father play Joe Mott in The
Iceman at the old Circle in the Square, and I said, ďI cannot, and I
donít know if anybody can, get Jason out of their mind.ĒAnd it
wasnít just that another actor couldnít do that. But another actor
would have to have the quixotic energy that Jason did. Jason created it by
tapping his fingers and a lot of really fast talk, salesman type
fast-talk. I am lethargic. I am not that kind of temperament. And I said,
ďI worry, Ted.ĒBut I said, ďI would consider it if you will give me
a chance to do Of Mice and Men at your theatre.ĒHe said ďOkay,
itís a deal.ĒAnd that didnít work out either, because I ended up
doing Mice and Men with Ed Sherin on Broadway. Okay, back to The
Iceman. He gathered a group of young actors; there were no stars. So
in a way, Ted became the star. This producer, who was very successful, was
going to do his best as a director. He and Joe Papp were the worst
directors possible. But they were great producers, and they were always
trying to direct and always failed. But Ted was determined to give it one
more try and he succeeded.
He cast sort of no one who would shine, do star turns on him,
but just young actors to do the play.
Do you remember who some of them were?
Steve McHattie was one of them. Steve played the young kid,
thatís the first one that comes to mind. Stefan Gierasch played the old
man. And when it opened Ted got the hit reviews and it was what he needed,
you know. And I wasnít trying to do star turns anyway, because I kept
saying to him, ďI canít find that temperament in me. So what I do
might take the play down, might make the play too heavy temperamentally
and maybe emotionally.ĒI think thereís an insanity in Hickey and with
Jasonís kind of quixotic energy you get a flash of that. I think that
with that young man on Broadway, Kevin Spacey, you get something similar.
Did you see it?
Yeah, I loved it. But I couldnít help but compare it with
Jasonís. I mean Kevin is close enough to Jasonís energy. There was
something almost amateur about that production contrasted to the one
off-Broadway. Something British got into it, the British didnít put it
together,didnít quite understand about the play and about America and
about American characters. But it worked and Kevin was spectacular. Kevin
played it like an avenging angel. Jason
played it like a seducer. And I donít know what I played it like; I
havenít yet figured it out. You have to ask others! It was not
successful for me.
No, I saw some good reviews of it. I saw some that were a
little reluctant, but I didnít see any negative. I looked it up.
Really, Iíd stopped reading reviews by then.
No, you are wrong, if I may say so sir. Many of the critics
thought you were wonderful.
I donít read reviews, so I donít know. But I know that it
was not successful just from the way it felt. But it is a good play. There
I met a great play.
How long did you run it?
It was a limited time engagement, several months.
SHAFER: And that was all you were playing, it wasnít repertory?
That was in the new theatre?
As an experience of playing it, you didnít play the whole
play uncut, did you?
Yeah, oh yeah.
The whole play? There wasnít any cutting? And it was
four-and-a-half hours or so every night. So did you do matinees, too?
Uh huh, as far as I remember, yeah. Yeah, and just like
Kevinís, thatís a long sit. But the audience didnít seem to mind. I
didnít mind sitting there. You get transported.
As far as the character and getting into it, what did you try
to do since you didnít feel that it was suited to your nature?What did
you do to try and come up with some other alternatives?
Well, rather then the seducer or the avenging angel, I was
somewhat a preacher I guess, somewhat self-righteous and having found the
answer, which was kill the one you love, thatís the answer.
(Laughs.) And then you kill the thing that you love. It was dark
and I could not help but play a dark Hickey. The dark both physically and
judgmentally, and therefore not as enjoyable as the other interpretations.
Did you think that the comedy at the beginning played, though?
There is some comedy there.
I donít know, I canít even tell a joke.
But you were funny in Great White Hope.
Well, and in Fences people were laughing for the better
part of that.
But thatís because of the writing. You give me an irony and I
canít do an irony. And sometimes it makes you nervous and you laugh.
Often, inappropriately, which is a problem for me! No, I didnít look for
the comedy in it. I was willing, I think, because I had just had the
experience with The Great White Hope. And I hadnít learned that you
donít bend your character to be entertaining or to be accessible to
the audience or to be palatable to the audience. I havenít learned that
totally, none of us do. Because we always want the audience to like us. I
think I trod lightly, thatís the only accommodation I made. I wasnít
dooming anybody because after all in OíNeillís world he had a black
guy in the play. And the
black guy was not running things. He was an important member of that
group, but he was not running things. My black guy comes in and he was
running things. And I felt, I said, ďFirst of all, Ted, Hickeyís a
Hoosier, that is not only a Caucasian, but itís a very particular
German-background Caucasian, really Aryan American, the Hoosiers.ĒI
guess they are a German derived, arenít they? Anyway they have certain
almost Calvinistic attitudes about sex and pleasure and playing cards and
stuff. So Hickey is working out of a great social depression, social
psychic depression and I was able to get in touch with that to some
extent, but only like a reformed preacher. A preacher ready to join the
devil, rather than God.
Do you remember now who played Joe Mott in that?
Arthur French. I see him all the time.
To you, was it odd, the business that you say that hereís
this black man that was part of the group and then you come in?
No, that was not at all odd. The same thing happened in Of
Mice and Men. I played Lenny as a black person. I asked when Steinbeck
was alive, I said, ďSir, I would like to play your Lenny, but I am
black.Ē (I wrote to him.) I mean you rarely, as an actor, get to talk to
a live writer who might want to change things. Who might be inclined to
change a few words here or there to accommodate a different ethnicity. He
said, ďJim, donít change a thing. Lenny if he is black doesnít know
heís black.He doesnít know what the word Ďniggerí means, he
doesnít know any of the social contexts. Just play in the middle of it
all.ĒAnd it worked and in a way, Ted pretty much advised me to do the
same thing with Hickey. Play Hickey, do not play a black Hickey. I think
that the sort of preacher syndrome was the closest I came to anything
ethnic. I tried not to do the huffing and puffing preaching, but thatís
where I was coming from. My fatherís father happened to be what we
called a ďjack-legged preacher,Ēunordained.
Men who get the calling and go out preaching without a license. So
there is some of that tradition in the family.
Well, I think that this is so wonderfully interesting that your
father was in The Iceman Cometh and that you were in The Iceman
Cometh. I think thatís probably not a very likely thing to happen.
My father and I have a weird professional relationship, that
stuff is always happening. (Laughing.) Weíre always doing something
like thatóit was nothing unusual.
I think that some people would recognize him from being in the
movie The Sting.
That one movie I mention, even with young people, they know,
ďOh thatís your dad, the one with the mustache,Ēthey say,
ďhandsome guy, wasnít he,Ēand I say, ďYes, he was very handsome
and a fitting sidekick for and a fitting cause for the revenge theme.Ē
Can I take it back a little further again to this Emperor
Jones . . .?
(Laughing) Which one?
They sort of run together.
One of the things that the audience wouldnít think of is how
much work that role is for the actor. The audience just sits there and
sees it happening and itís fine, you know, but they donít think about
what the actor is doing.
I almost said that when I mentioned the production in Europe
with Donny McKayle, he gave us one night off, one night on. It was a great
relief because I would lose weight every night in that role.
Because after the first scene, which is a glorious and dramatic
scene . . .
You get a wonderful exit line there: ďWell, if dey ainít no
whole brass band to see me off, I shoígot de drum part of it.Ē
Thatís one of the great scenes, I think, in writing. After
that he is on the run, and really on the run. Iíd run back offstage and
tear part of my clothes off and Iíd come back and I am on the other side
of the stage. And the audience knew this guy is running around like this
and that. But there is no other way of doing it, that part should be a
movie. The only way to achieve the Emperor Jones after the first
scene is to go right to the film. Right to the videotape, because there is
no way to create it.
About the costume, now that is another part that the audience
doesnít think of. Youíve actually got all of these pieces that are
being changed while you are acting.
Yes, you start out in full regalia uniform and you end up in
your drawers. By the way, Paul Robeson probably had done not only the
definitive Othello of the Western world, but probably the definitive
Emperor Jones. Youíve seen the movie, Iím sure. He is gorgeous and
glorious as a specimen of man and a black man and a man with all those
talents and endowments. He brings you a Brutus Jones that youíd like to
get to know. (Laughing.)
With your costume, for example, did you actually take something
off and put on something else?
No, the crew backstage would do it, I just ran. They were
grabbing things and velcroed things.
It is a very exciting role to play isnít it?
Well, yeah, but the excitement of the first scene is very
different from the excitement of just keeping on like a marathon.
Keeping moving, because if you let the audience think about it too
much they will start thinking, ďWell, where is he now?ĒIn a way, that is
why heightening the musical aspect of it, as Dudley did, and heightening
the ballet aspect of it, that Dudleyís choreographer and
Donald McKayle did, that helps. It gives the audience something to focus
on. It gives them something thatís been stylized.
With the performance that you gave following these things (much
later really) of Robesonóis there material in that about OíNeill?
You know, I donít think we even mentioned The Emperor
Jones in that. We mentioned OíNeill only in relationship to All
Godís Chillun. We pointed out the irony, I was again in Boston, and
again pickets. This time some asshole with Rastafarian hair, fake, had
picked up the cry that Paul Robeson, Jr., had said that this production is
a fraud, you know. This production is a desecration of my fatherís
image. So they had policemen on horses outside the theatre, this is
Boston, this is many years ago. And so I walked into the theatre. This man
kept following me around and I said, ďAre you a member of the
cast?ĒAnd he said, ďNo, Iím your man who is carrying a pistol.ĒAnd
I laughed; I just broke out laughing. That happened to Paul Robeson in the
theatre downtown (New York) in the production of All Godís Chillun. There
were so many letters and so much agitation going around about the black
guy playing opposite a white woman on the stage. To have a black guy on
the stage in a hero role was bad enough. OíNeill hired him a bodyguard
and Paul said he was the shortest man with the biggest gun heíd ever
seen in the business! (Laughs.)
Did you meet Paul Robeson?
I met him three times, me and my father. I canít say that I
knew the man, I just met him. Like a fan, and I certainly was a fan!
Now as you look back at such plays as All Godís Chillun
Got Wings and Emperor Jonesóthose were important
opportunities for him as an actor.
And it brought out one of those ironies, too, that he was on
the make. He wanted it; he was hungry for life. He was not a seducer,
women came after him, and he didnít chase them. But life, he chased
life. He wanted his life. And when the chance came to replace Gilpin, I
think, I donít know what his conscience said to him, but I think he
tried to have no problem with that. His career was now moving and if
something got pushed aside, okay. It was only later, after London, after
he saw how full of holes the whole Western dream was, and he saw Spain
with Franco when he went there, then he changed. He was no longer
interested in being a millionaire as he had been. He gave it all up. And
from Spain on until the day he died. He put himself, in a way, on hold.
It is, it is indeed. And as you say, women pursued him, people
were fascinated by him when he had those opportunities in the two
OíNeill plays. I mean all the people described him as beautiful and with
the greatest voice of any actor of the time. I am sure people would say
that about you now.
No, my father was a Paul Robeson protťgťin a lot of ways,
except musically. Neither my father nor I can sing and thatís what is
remembered more than Paul the activist. Or Paul the one endowed with all
the great talents. Thankfully, we can hear on records.
With those two roles, there came a turning point for African
American actors in the American theatre. Do you feel that now sometimes
people look back and they say that Jones is a stereotype and the play is
filled with stereotypes? And that in All Godís Chillun Got Wings, the
guy loses everything, he doesnít come out ahead in any way? I mean
people take a negative attitude about these plays.
Thatís true, thatís still true. It took the longest time
for the black guy to ever win the girl. The black guy always ended up dead
or lost. So OíNeill gave us the first fully heroic African American
character for the stage. And you might say, yes, so the Emperor Jones ends
up hanging by his heels. Thatís not the point.If OíNeill set out to
write a straight play about a deposed dictator from a Caribbean island,
like Haiti, it might never have been produced.
And it sure wouldnít have been a whole lot of fun. So he gave me
something that was going to be a whole lot of fun. So he gave you
something with a whole lot of fun and a great commentary on
American capitalist sentiment. Maybe sentiment isnít right. But Brutus
Jones was the ultimate capitalist, the ultimate exploiter. And thatís
not black, thatís American. And OíNeill was exploring that, I think,
with Brutus Jones.
Thatís a very interesting viewpoint.
Whatís the phrase, ďgreed is good?ĒSelfishness, ultimate
selfishness. The long green.
Yeah, the long green. And, ďI puts my Bible on the shelf,Ē
huh? (Both laughing.)
Yeah, thatís what OíNeill was writing about. He wasnít
writing about a black guy who overreached himself and failed, ended up on
his heels. He was writing about the American spirit.
Wonderful, thatís very nice.
And it was going on in the Caribbean countries, too. We did a
lot of stuff down there in the name of money.Hawaii, you know the history
of Hawaii, oh God. We were doing that all the time, we were all Brutus
Joneses in different colors. Guys down there and in South America are
still reeling from our exploitation. And thatís what OíNeill is
So you think that the play holds up?
I donít know!
But in terms of what he was attempting?
The NAACP may have cooled off a little bit about the use of the
word ďnigger,Ēbut otherwise the play is not archaic. It is not a play
that doesnít work anymore. It is, How does the play work after the first
Can I just ask you, I know you have got to go, have you seen
other OíNeill productions that you remember, that you enjoyed?
Iíve only seen The Iceman Cometh. Both Jasonís and
Kevinís. I have never seen any other production. And Paul Robesonís
movie, The Emperor Jones. I remember once trying to, I
missedówhoís the actor from Charles Playhouse up in Boston, he played The
Yeah, Willem Dafoe. And I think that he must have been a
wonderful Hairy Ape, too. I remember trying at a fundraiser with Ted
(Mann) to read some scenes out of The Hairy Ape and I thought Iíd
knock this off. But, boy! OíNeillís dialogue is often very difficult,
because he over-ethnicizes, he puts in too much accent. And the actor is
busy trying to stay on top of that bucking bronco, rather than the
dialogue whatever way it comes out. I found that with Hairy Ape, I
found that dialogue very difficult.
Really, thatís very interesting. And Robeson played that
Oh, Hairy Ape, no, no, Robeson I donít think he ever
played it, did he?
I just read that myself in the Dictionary of Black Theatre and
I was surprised. It was in 1931.
Well, he should have, yeah. The Hairy Ape is this
stevedore in the hull of this ship, this freighter, and heís the darkest
kind of a human being, heís an animal. If Robeson played it, thatís
good to hear.
So those were the only times that you had anything more to do
with OíNeill? At this benefit? So, I guess that in the overall arc of
your career, OíNeill hasnít been any central force, but has given you
some interesting experiences.
And also acknowledging that he probably led a whole wave of
creativity that went to Miller and Williams, but then opened up a whole
road for the avant garde theatre which is of my time. And all the plays of
avant garde theatre donít last. I mean Beckett has a few that are worth
doing. But they are all experiments and OíNeill started it. Suddenly
now, theatre is proletarian. It is not for the Barrymore characters.
Itís not tea and crumpets, itís not pickled salmon and coffee tables
and lace fans. Itís about human problem-solving and I think that,
because he was more or less a socialist himself, I think that he opened
the door to the theatre to being proletarian as it is now. You donít
have to have descended from the Barrymores to be an actor, you can just
walk off the street and get yourself together and be an actor.
But you descended from an actor.
JONES: Yeah, I did, and a good one, too!
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