Star Wars legend James Earl Jones turns 88 today: 5 best things to listen to


He’s the voice of one of the best villains as well as one of the best Disney dads. To celebrate James Earl Jones, here are some of his best performances.

There are few actors in Hollywood today that have instantly recognizable voices, no matter where you might hear them. Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans might be good modern examples, thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but long before the rise of the MCU, there was another, deeper voice, one that can strike fear into the hearts of fans of Star Wars and The Lion King alike. We’re talking, of course, about James Earl Jones, who is 88 today.

His career has spanned six decades, which only makes it hard to narrow things down to just five clips of his best performances. This is a man who has worked in everything from soap operas to comedies to science fiction movies, and through them all, he brings a certain gravitas. It’s partially the voice, but it’s also just his skill in acting.

Kick back, put your headphones on, and listen to a master at work.

The Lion King

There’s a lot of good voice work in The Lion King; make no mistake about it. (Nathan Lane’s Timon is perfect, even before he sings the hula song.) But without Jones’ voice, we don’t think anyone would have cared quite as much about Mufasa. Certainly, Simba’s dad has a lot to teach him, even from beyond the grave, but Jones’ voice gives him an extra layer of wisdom and caring, one that makes his death scene all the more tragic.

Here’s proof that his performance is iconic. Disney hired him back to play Mufasa again in the upcoming live-action version, now joining the likes of Beyoncé and Donald Glover.

You can rent or buy The Lion King on Amazon or YouTube.

Othello at the White House

Even former president Barack Obama knew the power of the voice, and so, in 2009, he invited Jones to come to the White House Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word. (That’s right: the same night that Lin-Manuel Miranda came to perform part of what would become Hamilton.)

But rather than turn to his own material, Jones came prepared with something more familiar both to him as an actor and to his audience: a speech from Othello. “Rude am I in my speech,” Othello says, but even as you see Jones get back into the role, he never loses the rhythm — slow at times, and fast in others, but always rolling together. Keep a close eye on the audience; they’re spellbound.

Coming to America

Is there any more appropriate reaction to James Earl Jones at your door than screaming like Arsenio Hall? We’re honestly not sure, but slamming the door is definitely not an appropriate follow-up. In this film, Jones plays Jaffe, the king of Zamunda and Akeem’s father. He doesn’t appear often, but when he does, it’s serious business.

As with The Lion King, Jones will likely return for the sequel film.

You can rent Coming to America on Amazon or YouTube, or watch with a Starz subscription.


Unfortunately, there’s no way to watch the entirety of Jones’ performance as Troy Maxson in Fences, though he originated the role on Broadway and won a Tony for doing it. What we do have is a clip from the Tony Awards. Yes, that’s a young Courtney B. Vance playing Troy’s son.

It’s probably no surprise that many of the comments on YouTube involve fans saying how terrified they would have been if their dads had spoken like that, but there are others who note that there’s a certain “tenderness” to some of the vocal and physical choices made here.

Star Wars

There are many good clips from Jones’ performance of Darth Vader’s voice in the Star Wars saga, but there are few scenes that hit you as strongly as Vader’s first lines. From his interaction with Princess Leia to how his questions escalate, Vader is all about barely concealed rage here. But the more we see him, the more Jones, without the benefit of showing his face and with the added challenge of matching his vocal performance to someone else’s movements, reveals layers to the man once known as Anakin Skywalker.

For another great example of this, check out Return of the Jedi, where Luke and Vader have a conversation before Vader takes his son to the Emperor.

All of the Star Wars films are available for purchase on Amazon.

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Happy birthday! May there be many more, and may the Force be with you.