Darth Vader’s Stuttering Therapy
James Earl Jones began his career in theater, but his first breakout film role was in “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Since then, his meteoric rise to fame has included numerous voiceovers for roles like Mufasa in “The Lion King.” “Star Wars” fanatics everywhere can immediately identify Jones as the infamous, deep voice of Darth Vader. But the man who would give Darth Vader his trademark voice had previously lost his. In fact, James Earl Jones suffered a debilitating speech disorder in his childhood. Because of it, Jones remained functionally mute for eight years. If it hadn’t been for the tenacity of a high school English teacher, Darth Vader might have had a much less impressive voice.
“Star Wars” is the kind of movie franchise that spans generational gaps. It has attracted a range of actors from the rugged and sarcastic Harrison Ford to the eco-friendly vegan Natalie Portman. Love it or hate it, it’s been a household name for decades. But you might not know that James Earl Jones didn’t actually play Darth Vader. The role was played by David Prowse, a British actor with a rather unintimidating voice. Jones did the voiceover. Had James Earl Jones not learned to conquer his speech disorder, “Luke, I am your father,” might not be one of the most quoted movie phrases of all time.
James Earl Jones’ Stutter
James Earl Jones was raised by his maternal grandparents. His parents had separated. When he was five years old, his family moved from Mississippi to Michigan, and Jones subsequently developed a stutter. It’s been hinted that early childhood trauma may have been a contributing factor. Whatever the cause, it gave Jones so much grief that he developed selective mutism. Until he was 14 years old, James Earl Jones rarely spoke, except to his family and to the animals on his grandparents’ farm. Instead, Jones found safety in the written word and developed a deep-seated love for reading. He was also a gifted poet.
Overcoming His Speech Disorder
One day, Jones’ high school English teacher, Professor Crouch, made him read one of his poems aloud to the class. Jones already knew the verses very well, and shocked himself by reading them aloud perfectly without a hint of a stutter. Needless to say, Prof. Crouch was quite pleased and told Jones that they would use his poetry to reclaim his speech. Prof. Crouch began to function as a de facto speech therapist. Throughout the rest of high school, James Earl Jones practiced talking by reading Shakespeare and Poe aloud. He also participated in the dramatic reading class and the debating class.
Although you wouldn’t know it to listen to him, Jones insists that he still wrestles with his stutter to this day. In particular, he has trouble with “m’s” and a few other consonants. Instead of letting that discourage him, Jones used that to his advantage. He built up a vast vocabulary that allowed him to avoid trouble sounds.
So the next time your little one becomes discouraged about his speech difficulties, sit down and watch “The Lion King” or “Star Wars” with him. Then tell him that the actor with that great, booming voice also had a speech disorder, but now he has one of the most highly treasured voices in Hollywood.