James Earl Jones: 5 Significant Roles Not as a Star Wars Villain or A Disney Lion

A look back at this iconic actor and his contribution to entertainment.

By now you’ve mostly likely heard that The Lion King is coming back, this time as a live-action film, and the best news to come out of that production so far is the casting of none other than Mufasa himself, James Earl Jones, taking up the part he so elegantly made his own. While the film as yet has no release date, we know so far that the movie will be in the same style as last year’s The Jungle Book, and directed by Jon Favreau, who helmed that remake. The only other casting confirmed is Donald Glover, set to play the voice of Simba.

Most might know Jones from his portrayal as the voice Darth Vader of the Star Wars franchise beyond his work as Mustafa, but to say the man has other accomplishments on his acting resume would be an understatement. Starting in television in 1952, he made his feature film debut in Stanley Kubrick‘s now classic Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb in 1964 and has gone on to great success since. That said, let’s look at 5 significant film roles of James Earl Jones you might not know about.

The Great White Hope (1970)

James Earl Jones
The Great White Hope, 1970 © 20th Century Fox

Based on real-life boxer Jack Johnson, Jones plays Jack Jefferson, set in the years between 1910 and 1915. Handily beating white fighters in the ring, the press and those who long for a return of white dominance in the sport, call for a “great white hope” to rise up and defeat him. When Jack gets involved with a white woman (Jane Alexander), things only spiral out of control as racists groups conspire to frame him for sexual assault. What follows is a tragedy and a tale of broken dreams. While a bit melodramatic for modern cinema, nonetheless, Jones is astonishing to watch, a huge physical presence that dominates the film, bringing to the screen the same intense performance he showed in the stage production (alongside Alexander). The role that opened doors, for any fan of Jones, and ones who are curious about how a legend was born, this is where to start.

Conan The Barbarian (1982)

James Earl Jones
Conan the Barbarian, 1982 © Universal Pictures

This first film adaptation of the Robert E. Howard stories about a young warrior in a world of fantasy and dark magic seemed tailor-made for Arnold Schwarzenegger when it debuted, he a hulking, muscle man perfectly cast in the role. So good was he in the part, it’s almost hard to remember there was anyone else in the movie (except maybe Sandahl Bergman as Valeria). Jones plays the main antagonist despite not having much screen time. Thulsa Doom is a servant to the serpent god Set, and in the film’s stunning opening moments slays Conan’s parents, including his mother while holding the kid’s hand. It’s some chilling badassery and while he disappears for most of the film afterward, he makes a powerful impression, even if he up against one of the biggest stars of the decade.

Field of Dreams (1989)

james Earl Jones
Field of Dreams, 1989 © Universal Pictures

A baseball movie that isn’t a baseball movie, the film follows a young farmer named Ray (Kevin Costner) who begins to hear voices in his corn field, telling him if he builds it, he will come. ‘It’ turns out to be a baseball field and ‘he’ turns out to be, well, if you haven’t seen the movie, that’ll be for you to discover. Jones plays Terence Mann, a once influential writer who is now a recluse, hiding from society, experiencing a similar fantastical phenomenon as Ray. The two set out to discover what it means and uncover some pretty magical stuff. While Costner carries the film, in arguably his greatest performances, Jones is his equal, especially in his early scenes as he is faced with a strange truth he thought no one else shared. This is a bit lighter for Jones, but he is again, a considerable presence throughout, his sense of drama and flair for comedic timing making this a great performance.

Clear and Present Danger (1994)

James Earl Jones
Clear and Present Danger, (1994) © Cinecom Pictures

In the 1990 action film The Hunt for Red October, the first in the Jack Ryan series, and starring Alec Baldwin as a CIA analyst thrust into action, Jones appears as his superior Admiral Greer. It was mostly an extended cameo, and he shows up again a few years later in Patriot Games, now starring Harrison Ford in the Ryan role, and again in a limited role, but here, in this film, has a much more impactful part to play. Again able to mix a bit of good humor with some very serious drama, Jones delivers an emotional turn as a man facing a challenging future, giving up his post and handing it off to Jack, who he worries is not prepared for the people who are the most dangerous, those he works with. While it’s only a supporting role, it’s really a good one, and it gives some excellent background and a nice layer of humanity to the story.

Matewan (1987)

Matewan, 1987 © Cinecom Pictures

In 1920s West Virginia, coal miners are trying to unionize but face the wrath of the Stone Mountain Coal Company, who threaten to cut wages and bring in “scabs” to work for less money, foreigners who are hungry for jobs. Starring Chris Cooper as Kenehan, in his film debut, he witnesses an attack on black men who were brought in to break the miners, but goes on to lead a heartfelt plea in favor of the union, stating that they are just replaceable tools to the industry leaders, no matter the color of their skin. Jones plays a worker named Few Clothes, an honorable man who draws the short straw in a plot to kill Kenehan after he’s wrongly implicated in a sexual assault. A relationship develops as Kenehan speaks of his past, bending Few Clothes impression of the man, becoming confused about his mission. Jones is the film’s standout, in a powerfully impassioned performance that is stirring to watch. Fan or soon to be, this is his best work and will help give face to the voice to generations who only know him as a Dark Lord and the King of the Jungle.