The Actor Who's the Voice of Darth Vader Was Almost Mute as a Child for Eight Years Due to Stutter

Manuela Cardiga
May 05, 2019
08:38 P.M.

James Earl Jones opened up about his childhood and the trauma that left him speechless.


Legendary actor James Earl Jones who gave voice to "Star Wars" arch-villain Darth Vader revealed that he once suffered from a childhood malady that kept him literally mute.

The man who has become known as much for his thunderous voice as his powerful physique was once afflicted with a severe stammer.



It is a powerful bass voice that hints at Mississippi roots and resonates with confidence.

Yet it has not always been this way. Incredible though it may sound, James Earl Jones, owner of one of the most recognisable voices in the world, was almost mute as a child for eight years, thanks to a severe stutter.


May the voice be with you: James Earl Jones' 'darker voice, the voice of a villian' saw him cast as Darth Vader in Star Wars

It is an irony not lost on the American award-winning actor who gave us the voice of Darth Vader in Star Wars and Mufasa in The Lion King.

Today, he is starring in the West End as Big Daddy, in Tennessee Williams's Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, and his stutter is the first thing mentioned under his name in the programme which describes how James Earl has ' transformed his weakness into his greatest strength'.


James Earl explains that although he was born in Mississippi, his family moved when he was five years old to a Michigan farm, which played havoc with his sinuses - and his speech development.

The family upheaval that included his maternal grandparents and his mother (his father was out of the picture before he was born) and 13 cousins was understandably traumatising.

'I had an Uncle Randy - who passed away last year - who was my brother really. I was the youngest grandchild and he was the youngest child and only four years older than me. Randy stuttered while we lived in Mississippi and I feel that I mocked him,' he says. 'I used to imitate him. I don't know whether I was imitating him to keep him company or to embarrass him. And then I ended up stuttering myself. I feel I was cursed.'

However, if like James Earl, a child does not receive help by the age of about seven then the chances of it going completely are very low.


But the problem is much more complex than mere speech productionand although more studies are needed, research has shown that the activation of the brain in those who stammer is no different from those who do not.

However, there are clear differences during speech in the activation in various regions - the speechdominant left brain is less activated in stutterers and the right brain is more activated.

Well-known stutterers include King George VI, Rowan Atkinson, singer Carly Simon, writer Margaret Drabble, designer Bruce Oldfield and most recently, Government Minister Ed Balls.

The stuttering and subsequent loss of James Earl's voice confounded his grandfather, to whom he was very close. 'He once said, as I was following him around the farm, "You had the most beautiful voice, and it was clear as a bell. What happened to it?" He was lamenting.'

But what exactly does James Earl mean by mute? Did he ever talk to anyone?

'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. 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.'


And with that, he makes whooshing noises as if he's calling in a whole flock of something or other and the strength behind his voice is astonishing, especially in the modest confines of a dressing room.

'Stuttering is painful. In Sunday school, I'd try to read my lessons and the children behind me were falling on the floor with laughter. '

'Well, I knew I was funny. I still know why it is funny. I think stutterers are funny. And I know it's rude and politically incorrect to laugh at stutterers. But I think it is OK because I know why they're funny. They make people nervous. People think, when on earth are they going to get the word out, so they start laughing out of their own nervousness.

'But by the time I got to school, my stuttering was so bad that I gave up trying to speak properly.

Stuttering is painful. In Sunday school, I'd try to read my lessons and the children behind me were falling on the floor with laughter

James Earl was lucky enough to be taught by English teacher, and poet, Donald Crouch, whom he calls 'the father of my voice'. He was a contemporary of Robert Frost, and memorised a poem every day in case he ever went blind so he might have poems he could read in his head.


'I had started writing poetry in high school and he said of one of them, "Jim, this is a good poem. In fact, it is so good I don't think you wrote it. I think you plagiarised 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.'

His teacher argued that if James Earl wanted to be 'involved with words' he would have to be able to say them and read to the class and work on the stuttering problem.

'And he got me engaged in the debating class, the dramatic reading class and so on. He got me talking, and reading poetry - Edgar Allan Poe was my favourite.'

Evidently, he also knew that his pupil's enthusiasm for his newfound voice might go to his head.

'He said, "You have gone from having the voice of a child when you last spoke, to a voice of an adult when you resumed speaking. Don't be impressed. It's easy for you to start listening to yourself. If you do, nobody else will."

'And what he meant was that if you become so conscious about it you become too busy making all those deep S-O-U-N-D-S,' and he lets the word echo in his booming voice.


James Earl went on to study drama at Michigan University, by which time, he says, he had got a grip on his stutter. Not that it will ever go. He says that although some people grow out of their speech impediment, he will always be a stutterer.

How does he feel about his voice --something that has presumably made him his fortune?

'I don't know, because I don't listen to my own voice,' he says frankly. 'Any human being does not hear their own voice as others hear it. We hear our voices through our cranium and it is a different sound.'

Film director George Lucas clearly thought it was the right sound when he needed 'a darker voice, the voice of a villain' after he had cast actor Dave Prowse in the role of Darth Vader in Star Wars.

'He thought about using Orson Welles but realised he might be too recognisable, so he hired me to do the voice, by just reading the words off the page. I did it in a couple of hours.'

Star Wars 'paid little' but a string of commercials that followed 'took good care of me', he says. In a career that kicked off on Broadway in 1957 and has seen him play title roles in Othello, Macbeth and King Lear, James Earl has been fortunate to have only ever stuttered once on stage.


His early years are still with him and James Earl stares, pausing before one final thought. 'When you are mute, you become a good listener - it's all one-way. You appreciate the written word. You appreciate the sound.'


It is not known exactly what causes stuttering but experts suggest a number of factors may be involved. One is genetics - children of parents or other family members who stutter are more likely to stutter themselves. It is also four times more common in boys than girls.


Around five per cent of children will stammer at some time and while most overcome it, one per cent will continue into adulthood. It usually begins between the ages of two and five, when speech and language skills are developing.

The stutter may depend on the child's surroundings and if severe, a child might decide --as with James Earl - not to talk at all.

Research suggests that the rates of speech improvement are very high if parents can get help for a young child with a stammer from a speech therapist when it first appears.

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