The Famous Basso behind both Darth Vader and The Lion King’s Mufasa resonates majestically in a San Fernando Valley coffee shop. ”I think Greer is right,” says 63-year-old James Earl Jones, a few blocks from his West Coast home (he and his wife, actress Cecelia Hart, and their 11-year-old son, Flynn, live most of the year on a farm in upstate New York). Decked out in short-sleeved madras and khakis, an amiable Jones is conducting an informal debriefing on his role as Admiral Greer, the flinty CIA deputy director of intelligence in The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, and now Clear and Present Danger. In this latest thriller, Greer serves as the magnet for CIA agent Jack Ryan’s whirling ethical compass. In a critical scene, Greer admonishes Ryan that his allegiance is not to a revenge-addled President, but to the American people. ”If Ollie North had heard that, he’d be in better shape,” Jones says. ”On the other hand, Greer is the kind of guy, if you knew too much about him, you wouldn’t like him. Men who play with that much power cannot be likable by those who might be victims of power.”
Jones prefers stories ”with a moral point of view, even though you might end up playing a bad guy.” On stage, too: He won Tonys for 1969’s The Great White Hope and 1987’s Fences. But full-fledged movie stardom has eluded him, despite a resume that includes everything from Dr. Strangelove (1964) to Field of Dreams (1989).
Still, thanks to his other big summer role — as Mufasa — his amazing voice echoes in the ears of the next generation of moviegoers. ”I don’t know what I got for it, but it wasn’t a great salary,” Jones says, when asked if his fee bettered the anemic $9,000 he was paid to do Vader in Star Wars. ”But, no complaints,” he shrugs. ”I would say if you’re going to get rich with Disney, you don’t ask for a better salary. You buy stock.”
Jones gathers himself to head into the withering Southern California heat. ”If it all ended five minutes from now,” he declares with military fatalism, ”I’d say I had a good career.” Admiral Greer, surely, would approve.