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The world of medicine lost a potential great in the summer of 1953, but the U.S. Army and the world of film and television benefited from its loss. That was the year James Earl Jones graduated from the University of Michigan and was commissioned a second lieutenant instead of going to medical school.
Jones would have entered the Army that summer, regardless of his future plans. He attended Michigan as a pre-med student, funded by the university’s Reserve Officer Training Corps. While in college, he became disillusioned with the idea of becoming a doctor but found that he thrived in the military culture.
Jones was an exceptional cadet, a member of the Pershing Rifles Drill Team and the National Society of Scabbard and Blade. The same performance ability that let him excel with the Pershing Rifles led him to the Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance. He knew he wanted to be an actor, but he once referred to his fellow cadets as “the only semblance of a social life.”
He initially left the university without completing his degree. With the Korean War raging at the time, he thought he would be sent overseas. But it ended in an armistice later that year, and although he returned to graduate in 1955, Jones’ life took a different course.
After graduating from college, he was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, for the Officers Basic Course and to attend Ranger School. Jones was assigned to the 38th Regimental Combat Team, where he led the setup of a cold weather training command at Camp Hale near Leadville, Colorado.
“Our regiment was established as a training unit, to train in the bitter cold weather and the rugged terrain of the Rocky Mountains,” Jones told the Army in an interview. “I took to the physical challenge, so much so that I wanted to stay there, testing myself in that awesome environment, mastering the skills of survival. I loved the austere beauty of the mountains and the exhilaration of the weather and the altitude. I didn’t mind the rigors of the work or the pioneer-like existence. I thought it was a good life.”
Jones was a good officer and soon was promoted to first lieutenant. When the time came to decide whether the Army should be his career, his commanding officer asked him a poignant question: “Is there anything you feel like doing on the outside?”
His father, Robert Earl Jones, had been an actor performing in plays on stage while James was a young man. Jones told his commanding officer he had always thought about following his father’s path. His commander told him he could always come back to the Army, but he should pursue his dreams.
After his discharge, Jones packed up and moved to New York City, where he studied acting at the American Theatre Wing using his GI Bill benefits while working as a janitor to support himself.
His first acting jobs came in Michigan at the Ramsdell Theatre in Manistee, where he had once worked as a carpenter and stagehand. Just two years later, he was a lead actor. By 1957, he was on Broadway. In 1964, he made his film debut as Lt. Lothar Zogg, a B-52 Stratofortress pilot in Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”
James Earl Jones’ first leading role was in the 1970 film “The Great White Hope,” a part he’d previously played on stage. His performance led to his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, making him the second Black man to receive the nod.
After a career spanning more than 60 years, Jones has been called “one of the greatest actors in American history” and “the best known voice in show business.” He received the National Medal of the Arts from President George H. W. Bush, Kennedy Center Honors from President George W. Bush and the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award. He also has achieved the “EGOT” — winning at least one Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award.
But after a lifetime of success, he still remembers his time in the Pershing Rifles as some of the best years of his life.