Jones: awesome figure onstage and off. `Fences' star overcame stutter to become one of our most eloquent actors

Backstage in the star's dressing room at the 46th St. Theater, James Earl Jones is literally putting on the role that won him the Tony Award for ``best leading actor'' last year. He is already dressed in the gray-green garbageman's uniform he wears as Troy Maxson, the tormented father and husband in ``Fences,'' August Wilson's family tragedy set in 1957. As the interview begins, he circles the room warily, sizing up the reporter behind a fence of small talk. The phone rings: a brief conversation. Then he paces the room again, says he feels more comfortable in a cap, and puts on one like the baseball cap Troy wears in the play. Troy, embittered, had been a baseball star in the ``Negro'' leagues of his day but, as a black, was barred from the segregated major leagues.

Jones prowls the room again, then reaches for Troy's blue bandana, knots it around his neck, ties the laces on his high-top black leather shoes, and finally settles down to talk - but cautiously. It is an hour-and-a-half till curtain, and there is still one more small but exotic fence between him and the interviewer: the carton of Japanese take-out food he is eating with chopsticks for dinner. ``Eel on rice,'' he says.

James Earl Jones has thought a lot about fences since this play won the Tony Award for best play, the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and a New York Critics' Circle Award. But he really doesn't want to talk about them. ``For the same reason that I can't discuss what `Fences' means, I can't read [reviews of] what others think'' about it. ``I can't do that and still keep the pot boiling that I take on stage. That's a visceral part, not an intellectual part.''

Playwright Wilson, who is writing the screenplay for a Paramount Pictures production of ``Fences,'' says that he wasn't thinking of James Earl Jones when he started writing the play. ``I was trying to find out who the character was,'' Wilson says. He adds that, in the middle of writing a passage in the play that called for ``a magnificent presence,'' he heard Jones saying those words, and from then on, whenever he wrote Troy's words, he heard them in Jones's voice.

Jones is a towering landmark of a man, tall as a basketball player but solidly built. He looks formidable onstage or off, with a leashed sense of power reminiscent of heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, nicknamed ``The Great White Hope.'' Jones won his first Tony Award for best actor in the play ``The Great White Hope'' and an Oscar nomination for his knockout performance in the movie. Onstage in his searing performance, he is as fierce as an Old Testament prophet as he rages against discrimination on his job; against the shadow of death that haunts him; against his loving but implacable wife, Rose (Mary Alice), and against the younger son, Cory (Byron Keith Minns), who tries to defy him and take a college sports scholarship that would give him the chance Troy never had.

``James is comfortable with his size,'' says ``Fences'' director Lloyd Richards. ``James is not a little man inside a big man; he's a big man inside a big man.''

When he's sitting for an interview, and not so standing-up-tall awesome, other facets of Jones's presence become more obvious.

He gives out warmth like a great furnace, his hazel-green eyes crinkling up with laughter at times. And when he laughs, in that deep, rich bass, it's a huge sound that shakes the air. But there's also a certain shyness and an almost boyish uncertainty about this actor, whose parents left him as an infant, in Arkabutla, Miss., because of depression-era poverty. He was raised by grandparents there and in Manistee, Mich. From the age of 9 until his mid-teens he was handicapped with a stutter so bad he couldn't speak, but he overcame it in high school and went on to the University of Michigan on scholarship. The Emperor Jones has his tender side, and he talks about it when all the fences are down:

It was a nearly disastrous opening night at ``Fences,'' he says, when all the major critics, instead of being sprinkled through the week, were there in force. ``I felt it going down the tube,'' he says because of the lack of personal response from the audience of critics. And Lloyd [Richards, the director] came back and said, `Jimmy, what's wrong?' I said, `I don't know. I can't get it going.' What I did get going was a meanness - you can call it formidable - a meanness compounded upon itself. And I didn't like playing it that way, but that's what I was stuck with. 'Cause I couldn't tap into my vulnerability in front of that kind of audience.'' But the next night ``we were back, cause we had got real audiences again, that were there to watch the play rather than as journalists. I haven't had that problem since.

``When my wife told me the reviews were positive, I said, `Wow, is it possible that the role the way I played it last night, that uptight meanness, is that possibly what August [Wilson] wrote? And Lloyd said, ``Possibly, but I want both.' I said, `Thank you, Lloyd, 'cause I couldn't play it just as a mean man, so I needed to tap into whatever vulnerability he's capable of. I need to keep that always stirring. But if the critics liked what I did that night, then I say, well, I got away with murder.''

Jones was affectionately dubbed ``Gentle Ben'' or ``Huggy Bear'' by the cast when he starred as ``Othello'' on Broadway in 1982 with Christopher Plummer as Iago. It was his sixth ``Othello.''

The press clips on Jones suggest that he's fallen in love with two of his Desdemonas and then married them both. He'd like to correct the record, noting that he married his first wife long after she had played his Othello's Desdemona, and married his current wife, Cecilia Hart, ``before she played Desdemona to my Othello.''

Jones became a father late in life; he proudly shows us a picture of his son, five-year-old Flynn, a handsome blond boy grinning at the camera from inside a carton. As a father himself, he finds that some of the lines in ``Fences'' about the differences between Troy the father and his two sons have special poignancy for him.

His own father, actor Robert Earl Jones, left him when he was a year old; they met again when James Earl Jones came to New York at 21 to study acting at the American Theater Wing. ``But it was too late,'' he says, for a father-son bond. Instead ``we have become good friends.''

James Earl Jones has played a gamut of roles from kings to garbagemen, investing them all with a special stature. But it is on the stage that he has burnished his reputation, in his two Tony-winning roles as well as ``Master Harold and the Boys'', ``Paul Robeson,'' ``Of Mice and Men,'' ``The Iceman Cometh,'' ``The Cherry Orchard,'' ``Hamlet,'' and ``Baal,'' for which he won another Obie.

In films, he has also been the menacing voice of Darth Vader in the ``Star Wars'' series and the cad of a trashman who loved Diahann Carroll in ``Claudine.'' He's been doing what he calls ``feature roles'' in films. In his most recent film, John Sayles's ``Matewan,'' he gives a memorable performance as the fierce but cautious leader of a group of black miners duped into being strike-breakers in a bloody West Virginia coal dispute. His next film will be ``My Little Girl,'' in which he plays the director of a state home for wayward children.

Director Richards says, ``James is probably one of the most generous actors I've ever encountered. As a leading actor on the stage, he's always `giving stage' - that's our term for an actor who gives other actors their moments for their opportunities, and is very willing to support them.'' And, he adds, ``he is willing to let you see all the way to the core of him, which is essential to any good actor.''

Jones is asked about his statement in interviews that an actor is like a troubadour, wandering through the land, ``looking for a castle door to open, so he can sing for his supper.'' He smiles. Once, he says, he didn't use the word troubador but ``mercenary,'' and that got him ``into a lot of trouble. What I meant was what I played philosophically was a battleground that deals with human conflict. I pick my own [roles], and they're not always in step with the current social-political needs of the people. I often pick things that do less placating than agitating. I like to upset people.''

His next role after he leaves ``Fences'' Jan. 31? ``We don't know,'' says Jones. ``Who knows when the next castle door will open?''

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