Broadway’s finest came together to honor stage and screen icon James Earl Jones at the American Theatre Wing’s annual gala, held Monday, September 28, at the Plaza Hotel.
“His presence is so indelible, his talent so immense. He’s managed to make some of his most memorable film roles without even showing his face,” said Heather Hitchens, President of the American Theatre Wing, before introducing the first performance of the night, a musical tribute to Jones’ “Lion King” performance with five Mufasas including the Broadway originator Samuel E. Wright. “On behalf of all the Mufasas all over the world,” Wright said, “we would like to thank you for the inspiration in our lives. Musical tributes continued with Kerry Butler, Brandon Victor Dixon, Norm Lewis, Ruthie Ann Miles and Patina Miller in the evening.
Special guests celebrating Mr. Jones included Angela Lansbury, Samuel L. Jackson, George Lucas, Magic Johnson, Jeff Daniels, Cicely Tyson, Sydney Lucas, the cast of Hand to God, and many more.
At the end of the evening George Lucas and Samuel L. Jackson took the stage to honor stage legend and voice of Darth Vader, James Earl Jones. “I knew the voice had to be very, very special,” Lucas said. “It was a tough choice, but in the end, it was a really easy choice. It was really a choice between Orson Welles and James Earl Jones. James Earl Jones won hands down. He created, with very little dialogue, one of the greatest villains that ever lived.”
Jackson presented Jones with an award for his extraordinary contribution to the American theater. “Thank you for giving us the courage to attack a role, and not simply enter it,” Jackson said.
Two-time Tony winner Jones was born in Mississippi, and grew up in Michigan. After moving to New York, he worked as a janitor to support himself while working as an actor. In 1969, he won a Tony for his breakthrough role as Jack Johnson in “The Great White Hope.” He won a second in 1987 for August Wilson’s “Fences.” In addition, he was won three Emmys, a Golden Globe, two Cable ACEs, two OBIEs, five Drama Desks, and a Grammy. In 2011, he also received an honorary Oscar, making him part of the exclusive EGOT club.
“I am so old,” Jones boomed, accepting the award. “I’m so old that my gratitude for the American Theatre Wing embraces more than the thanks for this night’s wonderful celebration. I go way back.” An alumnus of the American Theater Wing’s Professional School, he thanked his alma mater for giving him the tools to succeed. “They taught us not to put ethnic or gender limits on the characters that we studied,” he said. “They taught us speech for Shakespeare, and speech for Arthur Miller, and speech for Tennessee Williams, and speech for George Lucas,” Jones deadpanned.
“I can’t thank you enough,” he added. “No matter how old I get.”
Additional reporting by Variety