People to Know 2016: James Earl Jones
For all the speaking James Earl Jones does—and with one of the most iconic voices in Hollywood history, talking is his livelihood—he spent years staying mum about his diabetes. That’s all changing now. The 85-year-old actor has teamed up with pharmaceutical giant Janssen to spread the word about diabetes and to urge people to take a leading role in their health care. And he’s talking about his type 2 in the process.
James’s was a chance diagnosis. It happened back in the ’90s, a busy decade for the Oscar-nominated actor, who starred in dozens of TV shows and movies, including classics like The Sandlot, Patriot Games, and The Lion King. He’d been attending a diet and exercise program with the hope of losing weight. “I fell asleep on a bench in the middle of the gymnasium, and the doctor who was there told me that was not normal,” he says.
That led to a blood test—and a diagnosis. “There it was: type 2 diabetes,” he says. “It hit me like a thunder bolt.”
In hindsight, he clearly sees the risk factors he missed: He was getting older, his mother had type 2, and as an African American, he belongs to an ethnic group at higher risk for the disease. James admits his hectic career made staying on top of his health difficult. “Being busy can be a distraction,” he says. “It became easy to ignore the problem.”
As his career continued to soar post-diagnosis, James learned to ask for help. “Once you’re diagnosed with diabetes, your whole family becomes a diabetic family,” he says. “I rely on them.”
James took the disease’s seriousness to heart. He committed to lifestyle changes, focusing on being active and on making wise food choices.
He continued working steadily in the decades since his diagnosis, appearing in film and TV as well as on stage (he received a Tony nomination for his 2005 performance in On Golden Pond and another for his 2012 role in The Best Man). His job is now a motivation for good diabetes management. “I’ve been working steadily for the past years, and I want to keep working. I love working,” he says. “And there’s a great deal of energy I have to muster to go on stage [multiple] times a day.”
If he doesn’t stay on top of his diabetes management, James can end up with high or low blood glucose, which can affect his performances. “Having low blood sugar is pretty distracting,” he says. “It’s hard to focus. It’s hard to muster the nervous energy to perform.”
James is no stranger to adversity. As unbelievable as it sounds, he spent much of his childhood barely speaking, a result of a debilitating stutter, which he still struggles with today. But he learned to overcome: Decades later, his deep and regal voice is one of the most recognizable in the world.
If you’ve ever heard James speak—and chances are you have—you’ll understand why Janssen tapped him for its latest campaign. There’s nothing quite like learning about diabetes from the voice of The Lion King’s Mufasa. (Though if you prefer the scared-straight method of diabetes management, go ahead and imagine the push toward better diabetes care comes from Darth Vader himself.)
James offers up this advice for people with diabetes: Find what works for you and take an active role in your care. That’s what he does. “My job is to try to live well with type 2 diabetes, to stay active.”
Tracey Neithercott is senior editor of Diabetes Forecast. As a kid, the death of The Lion King’s Mufasa, voiced by James Earl Jones, introduced her to the art of clandestine movie theater crying.
James Earl Jones lends his voice to Star Wars’Darth Vader once again, this time in the film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, releasing in December.
Hear more of James's story—and take a quiz to find out your role in diabetes management—at ICanImagine.com.