Photos: Walt Disney Company and Subsidiaries
HOLLYWOOD, CA – He is a living icon due to his distinctive voice. That level of fame, however, has a dark side that affects even James Earl Jones.
It was the movie that defined a generation and changed Hollywood forever. Star Wars: A New Hope blasted onto theater screens in 1977, and literally every child and teenager in America went to see it. On particularly quiet Saturday nights, gasps of shock and grief could be heard emanating from theaters as fan favorite Obi-Wan “Old Ben” Kenobi was viciously struck down by Mr. Jones’s character, film villain Darth Vader. “People used to throw things at me in the streets whenever I talked and they recognized my voice,” Mr. Jones reflected in a recent interview. “Obi-Wan was such a beloved character.” It was not until sixteen years later that Mr. Jones was to find redemption in the eyes of moviegoers after another of his characters, Mr. Mertle, gave Scotty Smalls a baseball autographed by legendary baseball players in The Sandlot. “After that, I was golden,” he said with a beautiful, baritone laugh.
1994, however, saw Mr. Jones playing another iconic role in yet one more movie to define a generation. “Mufasa is certainly one of the more sympathetic characters I have played,” Mr. Jones admitted frankly. ‘Sympathetic’ might be an understatement for the ages. Studies over the last 20+ years have shown that it takes the average moviegoer approximately 0.06 seconds to fall in love with the wise and benevolent King of the Pridelands. During its initial run, theaters famously had to stagger movie showings as the shrieks and cries of horrified children reacting to Mufasa’s death scene could drown out the audio in other movies.
This role imbued Mr. Jones’s career with a complicated legacy. “People loved Mustafa and hated that he died,” Mr. Jones said. “They did not know who to blame for that.” Not everyone was traumatized, however. “Growing up, I wanted to be the next James Earl Jones,” actor Sean Bean said recently. “I mean, being known as ‘the guy who dies all the time’? One does not simply walk away from that sort of fame.”
One thing is clear, however. Mr. Jones is not afraid of complicated legacies–or death. In July of this year, he returned to the big screen as Mufasa in Disney’s computer-generated, live action remake of The Lion King. He is the only returning actor from the original film. “I did it for the money,” he said with a shrug. “Plus, I was contacted by the head of the American Psychological Association and they said that I could help thousands of underemployed psychologists find work trying to heal this current generation of children.” The American Psychological Association could not be reached for comment on this story. Mr. Bean was not so reticent. “Brace yourselves. More trauma is coming.”