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Famed Actor Who Voiced 'Star Wars' Darth Vader Is Army Vet

Dec. 8, 2021 | BY David Vergun , DOD News

James Earl Jones is an actor whose deep bass voice is one of the most recognized in Hollywood. But before he achieved fame as an actor, Jones was an Army officer.

Man poses for a photo.
James Earl Jones
Actor James Earl Jones poses for a photo in 2013.
Photo By: Courtesy of James Earl Jones
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Jones, who is 90, was born in Arkabutla, Mississippi, on Jan. 17, 1931. He excelled in school and, in 1951, attended the University of Michigan as a pre-med major. He was also a member of the university's Reserve Officer Training Corps.

Jones said he felt comfortable within the structure of the military environment and enjoyed the camaraderie of his fellow cadets in the Pershing Rifles Drill Team and Scabbard and Blade Honor Society. 

While at the university, Jones said he lost interest in becoming a physician and, instead, set his sights on becoming an actor. He switched majors and attended the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance.

In the summer of 1953, Jones was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army and reported to Fort Benning, Georgia, for the Officers Basic Course, followed by Ranger School.

Following training, Jones was assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 38th Regimental Combat Team. His first and only assignment was to help establish a cold weather training command at the former Camp Hale near Leadville, Colorado. 

A man and a woman pose for a photo.
Driving Miss Daisy
Actors James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury rehearse for the stage production of "Driving Miss Daisy" in Sydney, Australia, in 2013.
Photo By: Courtesy of James Earl Jones
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Man poses for a photo.
Robert Earl Jones
Actor Robert Earl Jones, the father of James Earl Jones, appears in a 1938 promotional photo for the Langston Hughes play "Don't You Want to Be Free?"
Photo By: Courtesy of James Earl Jones
VIRIN: 381001-O-D0439-001M
After that assignment, Jones received an honorable discharge as a first lieutenant. He moved to New York City where he studied at the American Theatre Wing, working as a janitor to support himself.

His Broadway debut was in 1957; he performed in several Shakespeare plays including Othello, Hamlet, Coriolanus and King Lear.

Jones made his screen debut in Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film "Dr. Strangelove." In 1968, he won his first Tony Award for his role in "The Great White Hope."

Jones starred with Diahann Carroll in the acclaimed 1974 romantic comedy-drama film "Claudine," for which he received a Golden Globe nomination. 

He won his second Tony Award in 1987 for his role in playwright August Wilson's "Fences." He became well known as the voice of Darth Vader in the original "Star Wars" film trilogy, released between 1977 and 1983. 

An actor in a Darth Vader costume reaches his hand out during a scene.
Darth Vader
James Earl Jones is the voice of Darth Vader in the 1980 film "The Empire Strikes Back."
Photo By: Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
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Throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, Jones appeared in a number of successful films, including: 

  • "Conan the Barbarian" (1982) 
  • "Matewan" (1987) 
  • "Coming to America" (1988) 
  • "Field of Dreams" (1989) 
  • "The Hunt for Red October" (1990)
  • "The Sandlot" (1993)
  • "The Lion King" (1994) 
  • "The Best Man" (2012)
  • "You Can't Take it With You" (2014)
  • "The Gin Game" (2015)

A woman and two men pose for a photo.
Medal of Arts
President George H. W. Bush, right, and First Lady Barbara Bush present the Medal of Arts to James Earl Jones in 1992 at a White House ceremony.
Photo By: George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum
VIRIN: 921001-O-D0439-001

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush presented Jones with the National Medal of the Arts.