Jones isn't just an exemplary actor, or just a versatile, commanding presence on TV, the stage and movie screens for the past half-century. Something else justifies the Life Achievement Award he'll receive on "The 15th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards" (simulcast live on TNT and TBS, Sunday at 8 p.m. EST). An actor's actor, he has long been recognized as the epitome of the acting experience.
Chatting recently about an actor's life, Jones, who turned 78 last week, serves as his own case history. But it's not all about him. The larger truths of acting are what claim his attention. He radiates wonder at being a part of it.
"What fascinates me is that every actor is given a charge, a task," says Jones, thinking out loud in his rich bass timbre - "no matter what your motive was in taking the role, even if it's just to pay the bills.
"You're the only person who will be able to present to an audience what that character is all about! You're the public face of all the other work that's gone into it. Your job is to create a performance that NO ONE else would have thought of.
"And that," Jones sums up with a boyish grin, "is FUN!"
But Jones has done more than have fun all these years. In SAG's view, he has earned its special kudos for "fostering the finest ideals of the acting profession."
This puts Jones in marked contrast to, say, fellow thespian Jeremy Piven, who is up for SAG awards in two categories for the HBO comedy "Entourage." Piven, of course, sparked outrage and ridicule for ditching the Broadway revival of "Speed-the-Plow" last month. His excuse for ducking out: mercury poisoning from eating too much sushi.
The producers have since filed a grievance against the 43-year-old actor, whose fishy excuse is already part of show-biz lore.
Jones has built a different sort of legacy. He was born in rural Mississippi and was infused, early on, with a love of reading (his great-great grandparents had secretly learned to read when they were slaves and indentured servants). He has given voice to Darth Vader and declared authoritatively, "This is CNN," but as a youth he had a stutter that he conquered by delivering speeches to his English class in high school.
After studying drama at the University of Michigan, he came to New York in the early 1950s with an ambitious goal: to be a career actor. And he found work, sometimes piecemeal among the many theaters off Broadway's beaten path: "I would do the first act of one play and the third act of another play across town."
In 1959, he hooked up with the New York Shakespeare Festival, where he culminated in 1963 as the lead in "Othello."
Besides continuing his stage performances, he has appeared in television plays and starred in series, made films, done commercials and voice work. He savors the great roles, but seems to find pleasure in whatever job he lands.
"To be a film actor alone, or a stage actor alone, is to be an actor who walks with one leg," he contends, "while to be both is to be a two-legged actor. I like to be a centipede."
This has led to a distinguished if crazy-quilt roster of credits: "The Hunt for Red October," "The Lion King," "Dr. Kildare," "King Lear," a guest shot on "Two and a Half Men."
"Very little of my life and career was chosen," says Jones. "It happened."
But his 1968 Broadway triumph didn't just happen. He trained and fought to portray the tragic boxing champ Jack Johnson in "The Great White Hope" (then starred in the 1970 film version). And this career milestone fulfilled Jones' dream: to be an actor unencumbered by some other line of work to help make ends meet.
"Before 'The Great White Hope,' I did consider some vocational guidance," he recalls. "I took some tests to see what else I might be good at."
What alternative skill did the testing bring to light?
"Architecture," he reports. "They said I had aptitude as an architect. So I enrolled at Pratt and at Parsons. I got accepted at Parsons."
He never got around to taking those classes.
As recently as last season, Jones was starring in a Broadway revival of "Cat on a Hat Tin Roof" alongside Phylicia Rashad and Terrence Howard.
"A WHOLE lot of fun," chuckles Jones. "Every-night fun!"
And after Sunday and the warm acceptance speech he has in mind, he'll be as game as ever for more of that fun.
"I consider myself a novice, really," says Jones, who continues to embody the best self of an actor. "I really love doing it. That means I'm ready to learn more."
By Frazier Moore