James Earl Jones entered the small, dim room inside the Theatre Center Building, and for about one second, there was silence.
Then the awe wore off, and the audience of nearly 100 students and faculty rose to applaud.
The legendary actor flashed a wide smile, walked toward his chair and in his infamous booming voice, asked if he may sit.
Jones, 74, visited USF Tuesday afternoon and chatted with students and faculty, answered questions and even critiqued a short performance. A highly acclaimed and regarded actor on both the screen and the stage, the charming Jones led a mostly lighthearted discussion, intertwining sage advice with stories and on-the-money one-liners.
“I thought I liked science until I got to college,” said Jones, who attended the University of Michigan. “But no, it was too hard. So I thought I should do something I like before I die.”
Then he paused.
“Plus, there were a lot of pretty girls in the theatre program.”
One student asked Jones how he maintains his deep, baritone voice, which is familiar to many as the voice of Darth Vader.
“Vocal exercises are very important,” Jones said. “It’s very important to warm up your equipment.”
Ironically enough, Jones grew up with a severe stutter and, as a result, didn’t speak much.
“When I read to kids, I tell them I’m not an expert reader,” Jones said. “I’m dyslexic and I stutter. I look at one word and say another.”
Many students wondered about the hardships of acting, primarily how to find and keep work. Jones, who after leaving the Army worked as a janitor while pursuing an acting career, went on to a distinguished career that includes two Best Actor Tonys.
“I was stubborn, and I would advise that,” he said. “Be patient. Be resolute.”
He also talked about the inevitable frustration an actor will face.
“Frustration’s not a bad thing,” he said. “It will help you if you don’t trip over it.”
During the appearance, seniors Patrick Howare and Melissa Wood performed a scene they had done countless times before – just never in front of a world-class actor.
Jones’ gaze never left the two students as they acted out a scene from Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, a work Jones said he was familiar with.
His eyes wide until the end, Jones applauded the performance and belted out, “That’s good, I liked it!” as he laughed and rocked in his chair.
Jones offered no specific suggestions, but added, “Being good-looking doesn’t hurt,” to which Howare responded, “Oh, James, stop it.”
Howare has been acting seriously for four years, he said, and Wood, a former Mass Communications major, had never acted before she switched majors two years ago.
“He was extremely gracious,” Howare said. “As bad as we could have been, he gave us a compliment. He was very respectful, and he’s just a very genuine person.”
Added Wood, “It was such an honor.”
After about an hour, Jones left just as he entered – to a standing ovation. Even though the event was by invitation only, some had to sit on stairs and stand along walls.
Verizon, a major donor to the University, helped USF organize Jones’ visit.
Jones’ ideas and wisdom seemed to make sense to the students as they nodded consistently in agreement throughout.
“It’s so important not to dwell on things you haven’t done,” said Wood, referring to Jones’ advice to not be resentful. “That was huge. It’s so easy to be bitter.”
“I’d say it went wonderfully,” said theater department Director Marc Powers, one of the handful forced to sit on stairs.
“I have a feeling (the students) will look at this as a wonderful highlight during their time here,” he said.