When James Earl Jones takes the stage as Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” the Broadhurst Theatre fairly trembles. For all the fussin’ and flitterin’ of Maggie (Anika Noni Rose), Mae (Lisa Arrindell Anderson), Big Mama (Phylicia Rashad), Gooper (Giancarlo Esposito) and the liquored-up Brick (Terrence Howard), it’s the old lion Big Daddy who’s large and in charge.
Since the beloved, Oscar-nominated and Emmy- and Tony Award-winning Jones can class up a “Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins” (2008), it’s not surprising that in a Tennessee Williams classic, he’s as smooth and potent as a mint julep. Known as much for his basso profundo voice booming, “THIS ... is CNN” or various fatherly proclamations as the voice of Darth Vader in the “Star Wars” films and Mufasa in “The Lion King” (1994), Jones has a legacy stretching to Broadway’s “Sunrise at Campobello” (1958) and “The Great White Hope” (1968), and to such films as “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), “Field of Dreams” (1989), Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan military thrillers and more.
In his dressing room between performances after a Wednesday matinee, the 77-year-old actor spoke with Frank Lovece.
Q. Had you done Tennessee Williams before?
Q. That’s amazing! How is it an actor of your caliber has never done Tennessee Williams?
A. (Pause) I don’t want to discuss ethnicity.
Q. What? I wasn’t. I mean, you never did Tennessee Williams in an acting class?
A. Oh! Oh, we worked on everything, yeah. But in the sense of doing a production, no. When I came to New York to study acting, my teachers at the American Theatre Wing said, “Don’t wait or look for the black character that you want to play - look for the character you want to play.” And Big Daddy was one that I really loved working on as a class project.
Come to think of it, I did a production of this play for my (now 25-year-old) son’s school. (Flynn) went to Poughkeepsie Day School, and when I donated a theater to the school, they said, “You’ve got to inaugurate it.” So we got Jane Alexander to do Big Mama, and my wife (Cecilia Hart) did Mae, I did Big Daddy, Jesse L. Martin played Brick and Natasha Richardson did Maggie.
Q. That’s a hell of a PTA!
A. They’re all either Dutchess County people or had some connection to the school. And we didn’t worry about the ethnicity - we just wanted some actors who had the time to give a staged reading. (Yul Brynner’s son) Rock Brynner was Tennessee Williams, reading the stage directions.
Q. Terrence Howard, terrific film actor - this Broadway production of “Cat” is his first play, professionally. Did he come to you for advice?
A. No. Most people know better. (Chuckles) We did meet the day of the (cast) photographs, and he said something about how this wasn’t his world, and he was looking for us to help him through it.
Q. So what do people call you backstage or around the house? James? James Earl? Jimmy?
A. I’m 77. They call me Mr. Jones. (Smiles)
Q. Just wondering: How come you didn’t take a credit for Darth Vader’s voiceover in the first “Star Wars”?
A. The first two. You know the story, don’t you? When Linda Blair did the girl in “The Exorcist,” they hired Mercedes McCambridge to do the voice of the devil coming out of her. And there was controversy as to whether Mercedes should get credit. I was one who thought no, she was just special effects. (Note: The Screen Actors Guild helped her eventually receive credit for her work.) So when it came to Darth Vader, I said, no I’m just special effects. But it became so identified that by the third one, I thought, OK I’ve been denying it, I’ve been saying it sounds like the (7-Up soft drink) uncola nut guy Holder. Geoffrey Holder! ... and I got away with it. But for the third one, I said OK, I’ll let them put my name on it.
Q. People thought it was Geoffrey Holder back then?
A. A lot of people I talked to did. I’d say, “Yeah, it does sound like him, doesn’t it?”
Q. You’re not credited, but in the very last movie (“Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith”), did you voice the newly minted Darth Vader in that last shot?
A. You’d have to ask (writer-director George) Lucas about that. I don’t know. I don’t know nuthin’!
Q. You sound a little coy. Maybe they took an old recording of you saying that one word?
A. Anybody could’ve done that.
Q. Hmm, the Force is strong with this one. You know, when my kids were little, I used to make them laugh with this thing I did called “James Earl Jones at breakfast.”
A. (Smiles) What was that?
Q. (Mimicking his deep voice) “PASS ... the salt!”
A. (Laughs heartily) Now, that’s forbidden language! I can’t say, “Pass the salt!” My wife would shoot me if she caught me eating salt! (Laughs) “PASS ... the salt! PASS ... the pepper!” Look at me! (Laughs) I wasn’t born to be 195 pounds!