My Favorite Mistake: James Earl Jones

Article excerpt

Byline: James Earl Jones

On going toe-to-toe for Shakespeare.

Actors are known for making asses of ourselves, but that's not necessarily a mistake. That's a choice.

Maybe the only mistake I've made was gaining too much weight. There was a time when I was working with the New York Shakespeare Festival. I had put on a lot of pounds, so many that my thighs rubbed together when I walked. That limited the kinds of roles I could take on, but up comes Troilus and Cressida by Shakespeare. Joseph Papp was directing it in Central Park, and I had a chance to audition for Ajax. Ajax was a brute of a man, as the name suggests, and I was a brute by then. I decided to paint my hair red to suggest he was a half-breed: part Greek and part Trojan.

This play of course told the story of the kidnapping of Helen of Troy and the start of the war that launched a thousand ships. So the war council decided the best way to resolve conflict was to have two men battle. I stepped forward and Hector stepped forward from the other side. Paris, who was the kidnapper and lover of Helen, stood by and watched on the promontory. Because I was so big and dumb, Hector said, "Let's use jousting poles." The signal to fight was given and we went at each other. Hector was very nimble. He would flip that pole like a toothpick from hand to hand as I lumbered around. I could have fallen on him and killed him if I had the chance.

I won't name who the other actors were, I don't want to embarrass them. Besides, I can't always remember. But at one point Hector saw an opening, and he knew that my big toe was vulnerable. If he could just get at it, I'd be finished. He slammed the pole into my foot. I screamed and bellowed, and the fight was over. …