Hey, look, it is another one of the most iconic performers in cinematic history also celebrating a birthday in their 90s! James Earl Jones is one of the greats, and it was hard choosing only five films to highlight on his 92nd birthday.


Matt Rob


A CIA agent in glasses and an overcoat tries not to get frustrated as he enters a negotiation

5. Sneakers (1992)

If you need someone to nail your ending, someone for all of one phone call and one actual scene, you can’t do much better than James Earl Jones. Jones does a lot in the scene, balancing menace with exasperation at the team’s odd requests, and he absolutely nails the comedy of the moment without losing that tension. One of my favorite heist movies, and a brilliant application of Jones.


A menacing figure in a black suit with a breathing device stands next to a younger man in manacles

4. The Return of the Jedi (1983)

There was not any doubt that Darth Vader would be making the list. As a Gen Xer, I think the most iconic villains in cinema are probably Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader (followed by a thousand-mile gap before you hit #3, which is the Xenomorph Queen from Aliens).

I chose Jedi as Jones shows more dynamism here, with his ruthless Vader stuff contrasted with his traumatic memories and his inner conflict about his son’s future. A++++


A man in glasses and a flat cap sits in a car and smiles

3. Field of Dreams (1989)

Jones is great here as a recluse slowly rediscovering joy in life (that his joy comes from nostalgia is a topic for another day). Peak dad-cinema, the movie is chock-a-block with tear-jerking moments about personal regrets, soured familial relationships, what-ifs?, and an underlying layer of Springsteenian hope.

I don’t want to spoil anything if you’ve never seen this, so go see it.


A robed cult leader with long hair gives a command to a cultist standing far up in the tower.

2. Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Thulsa Doom. I recently watched Conan the Barbarian in a rep screening, and this is a movie made for the big screen. Basil Poledouris’ booming score, Mako’s narration, proto-Middle Earth helicopter shots of incredible mountains, insane violence, and of course the snake-cult leader Thulsa Doom.

Jones takes this character and makes it more than a moustache-twirling villain. There is a religious zeal in his eyes and an otherworldliness about him. Conan’s group of thieves butt heards with Doom multiple times over the movie’s runtime and he is terrifying each time.


Several coal miners play baseball in a clearing in their free time

1. Matewan (1987)

Few Clothes Johnson gives an impassioned speech at the secret union meeting. He is an outsider in a town full of angry people, brought in (in a locked rail car) as a scab and finding his group of Black workers unwelcome in the town. But his simmering anger and rectitude wither the defiance of a room full of people and the union opens its arms to its new members. This is one of a handful of great moments for Jones in this film. His character is shown to be quick with a smile and his warmth sells many of the later scenes as well as his righteousness sells that moment in the union meeting.

This is my favorite James Earl Jones performance across 60+ years of movie roles.




A US Air Force radio technician looks worried

5. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963)

Jones doesn’t have a very big role in it, but he is one of few voices of reason in a movie full of madmen. P.S., Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!


A CIA Director in eyeglasses looks on in confusion

4. Clear and Present Danger (1994)

Again, here is a good movie but Jones doesn’t have a huge role in it. I like his chemistry with Harrison Ford he portrays a strong person who is fading and realizes it, and trusts his long-time friend Jack Ryan to be the moral continuation of his office. P.S., Yes, I cried.


The King of Zamunda grins at his son

3. Coming to America (1988)

I mean, this is a perfect film. Jones play the imperious father figure very well, who is a “do as I say, not as I do” which shows another side of his acting talents. Kudos for keeping a straight face around this great comedic cast. P.S., Without his role as King and Madge Sinclair as the Queen here, would The Lion King have been the same? I say no.


Snake Cult Leader confronts a Barbarian on a dark night on a ziggurat

2. Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Charisma, period. We all know why James Earl Jones was cast in this role: because he has a strong presence and you will believe anything he will tell you. P.S., He basically says “I am your Father” to Conan two years after he said it to Luke Skywalker:

My child, you have come to me my son. For who now is your father, if it is not me? I am the wellspring from which you flow. When I am gone, you will have never been. What would your world be without me, my son.


A menacing figure in black robe and breathing apparatus reaches out his hand in vain

1. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

No matter what I say about Star Wars, it will be wrong to someone. Darth Vader is an iconic villian, frightening, powerful, and given a voice to match by Jones. P.S., Sometimes during yoga instruction, I say to make your breathing sound like Darth Vader.