James Earl Jones’s Favorite Mistake: Losing a Toe Onstage

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James Earl Jones Ian White / Corbis Outline

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.

Well, one night he slammed the pole into my foot and I didn’t scream. I turned purple, and a piece of my big toe skidded across the stage. Paris fainted and fell from his promontory, and they carried me offstage. The audience thought it was wonderful— they had never seen an actor turn purple before.

Unfortunately Hector was so distracted by the incident that during his next fight he missed the parry, and got a slash across his face with a blade. We both ended up in the emergency ward. He said to me, “Jimmy, I’m not going to do any more battle plays or warrior characters. I’m only going to do plays where I sit on the sofa and eat cucumber sandwiches.” I said, “You hit me by accident. My toe got in the way of your pole.” The next day we went on stage, me with a big white bandage on my foot and him with a big white bandage on his head. The play continued.

Ajax was a lummox and a wonderful role. I often get cast as dodos, not just heroic types but big dumb guys, and I love them. You can’t get any better than Ajax with his red hair and big thighs.

I have no regrets and no misgivings. Actors take chances, but there’s always something good about them and something we learn from them.

Interview By Kara Cutruzzula

Career Arc

1964

Begins his acting career in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

1965

Gets injured during a performance of Shakespeare in the Park.

1977

Voices one of history’s greatest villains: Darth Vader in Star Wars.

2011

Receives honorary Oscar for his “legacy of consistent excellence.”

2012

Garners fourth Tony nomination for Gore Vidal’s The Best Man.

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