James Earl Jones had an incapacitating stutter

James Earl Jones

He talks about his severe stutter in an NPR audio interview. It was so bad that from age 8 – 14, he was mostly mute and avoided people because speaking was just too painful and difficult. It’s a long way from that to doing the voice for Darth Vader.

He got interested in poetry. A teacher encouraged it, and finally got him to read poetry he’d written in class. That was the start of him getting over it. While you don’t hear it in his acting, he does have a slight stutter in the interview. At least, I noticed it.

But then. I’ve been there too. My stutter, which is now also virtually gone, was incapacitating in my adolescence too. As an example, I was turned down for a job pumping gas at a gas station when I was 20 even though I had experience. My dad asked the owner why. He said, ‘I’m sorry Mr. Morris but I just can’t hire someone who stutters that badly.’ I could barely say my name sometimes, other times I couldn’t say it at all.

For me, several things converged and helped me get over it.

First, I stopped smoking pot (which always screwed my speech up even more than it already was screwed up.)

Second, I’d read that brain scans showed that the speech centers of stutterers are different even when they aren’t stuttering. Mentioned this to my therapist saying this meant I was screwed. She said, ok, maybe sometimes your brain neurons just fire differently than other people’s. Maybe so, I thought. And started to relax.

Finally, and maybe most important, I saw A Fish Called Wanda. Michael Palin played the role of a guy who stuttered. In one scene John Cleese has to get important information from Palin, who goes through the world’s worst stuttering paroxysm, flailing around the room, gasping for air, while Cleese tries to remain understanding and helpful. Finally, Palin gets the words out. Then pauses, breathes, and repeats them again perfectly without stuttering. Well, for the first time in my life, I just howled in laughter at my own stuttering, because Palin had it down perfectly. (And it turns out, his father stuttered, that’s how he knew. Humor often comes from pain.)

After A Fish Called Wanda, I really relaxed about my speech, and that’s when it started to vanish for keeps. Thanks, Michael.