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Robert Earl Jones, 96; Actor, Father of James Earl Jones

Times Staff Writer

Robert Earl Jones, the veteran actor and father of the more famous actor James Earl Jones whose career spanned stage, screen and television, has died. He was 96.

Jones died of natural causes Sept. 7 at the Actors’ Fund of America home in Englewood, N.J., publicist Dale Olson said.

Jones, who had a deep, resonant voice like his son, appeared in numerous New York theater productions, including “Strange Fruit,” “The Iceman Cometh,” and Zora Neal Hurston and Langston Hughes’ “Mule Bone” on Broadway in 1991.

Jones appeared in several stage productions with his son, including “Infidel Caesar” and “Moon on a Rainbow Shawl” in 1962, and “Of Mice and Men” in 1967.

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He also had guest roles in TV series such as “Kojak” and “Lou Grant” and appeared in more than 20 movies, including “One Potato, Two Potato,” “Terror in the City,” “Mississippi Summer” and “The Sting.”

Jones was born in Senotobia, Miss., on Feb. 3, 1910, dropped out of school in the third grade and worked as a sharecropper. Before James Earl’s birth in 1931, Jones left his wife and moved to Memphis, where he got a job working on the railroad.

After losing his railroad job because of the Depression, Jones told the New York Times in 1974, he moved to Chicago “to seek my fortune as a prizefighter.” His short fighting career included becoming a sparring partner for world heavyweight champion Joe Louis in 1937.

Jones got his first taste of acting after moving to New York and landing a federal Works Progress Administration job working with youths in recreation: Langston Hughes asked to use the recreation group in a one-act play. And when the actor playing the protagonist got a job while they were in rehearsals, Jones recalled in the 1974 interview, he was asked to take over the role.

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“It was kind of natural,” he said. “Langston Hughes’ aunt, Mrs. Toy Harper, taught me how to read my first poem: ‘I am a Negro black as the night is black/ Black like the depth of my Africa’ and several other poems. It was poetic drama, put together by several of his poems. We linked them together by a narrative, and I was that narrator.”

Jones made two early screen appearances as part of the all-black casts in the low-budget dramas “Lying Lips” (1939) and “The Notorious Elinor Lee” (1940), which were written and directed by pioneer black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux.

Jones’ acting career, Olson said, was interrupted in the 1950s when he was blacklisted and called before the House Un-American Activities Committee because of his involvement in the leftist movement in the late 1930s. Jones started studying acting at the American Theatre Wing in New York in 1955, while living with his son in Greenwich Village.

Jones, who was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Black Theatre Festival, also received an Oscar Micheaux Award and was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.

In addition to James Earl, the twice-divorced Jones is survived by another son, Matthew Earl; and a grandson.

Services were private.

The family requests donations be made to the Actors’ Fund of America, 729 7th Ave., 10th Floor, New York City, N.Y. 10019.

dennis.mcclellan@latimes.

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