With a career that spans more than seven decades, James Earl Jones has had a remarkable success that spans television, film and stage. Jones has one of the most distinct voices in film history, which he’s used to narrate plenty of documentaries and legendary film characters. Even if you don’t know Jones’ work, everyone knows his voice. Let’s take a look at Jones’ career, and check out the essential films within his impressive resume.
JAMES EARL JONES IN DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964)
GIANT FREAKIN MOVIE SCORE: 9.1/10
The #1 film from James Earl Jones is actually his first film role, as the actor began his career in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 war comedy classic Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Jones didn’t have a huge role in the film, but as B-52 bombardier Lieutenant Lothar Zogg, Jones was integral to one of the film’s most famous scenes. Jones spends the film within a B-52, alongside Slim Pickens’ Major T.J. “King” Kong. Zogg is mostly a secondary character, yet he’s right there when Major Kong rides the nuclear bomb towards Earth near the film’s end. Right from the beginning, Jones was on the frontlines of some classic films.
VOICING LUKE’S FATHER IN STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)
GIANT FREAKIN MOVIE SCORE: 9.05/10
No surprise that James Earl Jones’ highest-ranked Star Wars film on this list is the one that comes with the biggest reveal about his character. As the voice of the iconic villain Darth Vader, Jones’ performance is what makes the end of The Empire Strikes Back so impactful. Of course, The Empire Strikes Back concludes with Darth Vader admitting that he is the father of Luke Skywalker, creating one of the biggest twists in movie history. It’s this downer ending, and the dynamic performance by Jones that makes The Empire Strikes Back the best Star Wars film Jones has worked on.
VOICING DARTH VADER IN STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE (1977)
GIANT FREAKIN MOVIE SCORE: 8.9/10
Yet not far behind is the first appearance of the biggest villain in the galaxy, Darth Vader. While Vader is a commanding figure, James Earl Jones’ voice is what strikes fear in those around him in the first Star Wars film. But even though it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing the voice of Darth Vader, George Lucas originally wanted Citizen Kane director Orson Welles for the part. Realizing that the audience would recognize the voice of Welles, Lucas went with someone less recognizable and chose Jones instead. Jones has continued to voice the character for over forty years.
JAMES EARL JONES’ VOICE IN THE LION KING (1994)
GIANT FREAKIN MOVIE SCORE: 8.9/10
Disney has always had its fair share of tragic parental figures, but few are more traumatic than Mufasa in the animated classic The Lion King. After teaching his son Simba about the Circle of Life, the James Earl Jones-voiced Mufasa dies in a wildebeest stampede at the hands of his brother, Scar. With Simba thinking he has caused his father’s death, he leaves his home of Pride Rock, causing a great period of famine for his family and friends. In the 2019 remake of The Lion King, every character was recast, yet Jones held on to the role of Mufasa for this update. No one could play Mufasa after Jones.
AS DARTH VADER’S VOICE IN STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)
GIANT FREAKIN MOVIE SCORE: 8.25/10
If Darth Vader was a towering villain in the first two films, Return of the Jedi was the film that humanized him. Even though when Darth Vader takes off the mask, the actor is neither David Prowse, nor James Earl Jones, but Sebastian Shaw, it’s that voice throughout Return of the Jedi that reminds us of the fragile man that is hidden inside. After The Empire Strikes Back announced that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father, Darth Vader becomes somewhat sympathetic, a puppet in a larger game that does want to know his son. Again, Jones plays a father with a tragic relationship with his son, but thanks to Jones’ performance, Darth Vader is no longer just a faceless, heartless villain in Return of the Jedi.
JAMES EARL JONES IN THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (1990)
GIANT FREAKIN MOVIE SCORE: 8.25/10
Following an impressive career of action films in the 1980s, with 1987’s Predator and 1988’s Die Hard took to the water with The Hunt for Red October. The first film to star the Tom Clancy character Jack Ryan, then played by Alec Baldwin, The Hunt for Red October centers on Marko Ramius, a Soviet captain headed for the U.S. coast. James Earl Jones plays Vice Admiral James Greer, Deputy Director of the CIA. The impressive ensemble also included Tim Curry, Scott Glenn, Sam Neill, Courtney B. Vance, and Stellan Skarsgård. Yet even in a stacked cast, Jones still stands out as one of the greats.
BACK AS DARTH VADER IN ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016)
GIANT FREAKIN MOVIE SCORE: 8.1/10
Again, James Earl Jones’ part in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story wasn’t a major one, yet it’s probably the most memorable part of this first Star Wars movie spinoff. Rogue One follows a lineup of unknown Star Wars characters, as they try to steal the Death Star plans in order to find its weakness. Yet in the film’s final moments, we see an example of the great powers Darth Vader has, as he wipes out waves of those who oppose him. Even though some have complained that this final moment proves that any Star Wars story has to tie in characters we already know, it is also an impressive display of the power Darth Vader wields.
JAMES EARL JONES IN MATEWAN (1987)
GIANT FREAKIN MOVIE SCORE: 8.05/10
Set in the coal country of 1920s West Virginia, Matewan is the story of union organizer Joe Kenehan – in the first film role from Chris Cooper – as he tries to unite the workers and fight the coal company that is crushing worker’s rights. James Earl Jones plays one of the coal workers named “Few Clothes” Johnson, who refuses to join the union. This tragic but powerful story by director John Sayles is easily the smallest film on this list, yet Jones gives one of his finest performances in Matewan, an extremely underrated film that deserves more attention.
HIS VOICE IN STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005)
GIANT FREAKIN MOVIE SCORE: 7.75/10
As the Star Wars prequels concluded, it was clear the story of Anakin Skywalker had to end with the character becoming Darth Vader. As Skywalker finally put on the helmet near the end of Revenge of the Sith, it’s only when we hear the heavy breathing from James Earl Jones that we know Skywalker has truly become Darth Vader. Once more, Jones doesn’t have a lot to do in this Star Wars installment, but his addition makes the film even more impactful.
JAMES EARL JONES IN THE SANDLOT (1993)
GIANT FREAKIN MOVIE SCORE: 7.05/10
For those who grew in the 1990s, The Sandlot became an essential film about childhood and nostalgia for days gone by. Yet in this film of baseball, childhood and the 1960s, once more the towering character that stands out is James Earl Jones, who plays the mysterious Mr. Mertle. The yard of Mr. Mertle is legendary, due to how many baseballs have been hit into it and unclaimed, with many likely eaten by Mertle’s dog, known simply as the Beast. But in the end, Mertle is very much the heart of the film, a misunderstood and fascinating man who makes this nostalgic trip worth taking.
The Legacy Of James Earl Jones
These 10 movies aren’t the only films worth exploring from James Earl Jones. The actor received his only Oscar nomination for the 1970 film, The Great White Hope. Jones also is fantastic in the 1974 film Claudine, as an unlikely father figure for the title character’s children, and1977’s The Greatest, where Jones plays Malcolm X.
Beyond Star Wars and The Lion King, James Earl Jones has played even more iconic roles. Jones was Thulsa Doom in 1982’s Conan the Barbarian, King Jaffe Joffer in 1988’s Coming to America (but not in the sequel Coming 2 America), and Terence Mann in 1989’s Field of Dreams. Jones has appeared in such other films as Patriot Games, Sneakers, Clear and Present Danger, Judge Dredd, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, and he will next be seen reprising his role of Jaffe Joffer in Coming 2 America, coming out in 2021.
James Earl Jones has won three Tony Awards, two Primetime Emmys, a Grammy, and has received the National Medal of the Arts. He’s received an Honorary Academy Award and the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award. Jones has even been called “one of the greatest actors in American history.” After watching some of these great films from him, it will be easy to agree.
The GIANT FREAKIN MOVIE SCORE is calculated using rating averages from Rotten Tomatoes and the Internet Movie Database.