James Earl Jones smiled broadly as he recalled the moment, years back, when his young son couldn't figure out why people were hovering nearby, asking for autographs.
"Poppa," he asked, "why do you have so many friends?"
Even now, at 81, after a five-decade career in show business, Mr. Jones seems to have more than his share of them. They stare as he and his wife, Cecilia Hart, emerge from a Lincoln Town Car, late for an awards ceremony at Sardi's restaurant. They joke about his voice, the rumble that made Darth Vader so forbidding. And even before he opens his mouth in "Gore Vidal's The Best Man" on Broadway, they shower him with applause.
Mr. Jones insists that celebrity holds no allure, and that he has never "hankered" for any particular role. But like it or not, he's riding the wave that comes with a Tony Award nomination — his first since 2005 — thanks to his performance as the folksy yet tough ex-president, Arthur Hockstader, in the Broadway revival of Mr. Vidal's political drama.
"The real part of theater is being onstage with your fellow actors," Mr. Jones had said a few minutes earlier, as the car wove through slow traffic on a rainy afternoon. "The fake part is the glitter of it — that's got nothing to do with the work of show business. Otherwise, it can do real head tricks — you start believing your publicity."
He pointed to his wife of 30 years: "She's how I stay grounded." They live quietly in Manhattan. The same son who wondered about all those friends, Flynn, is now 29 ("He was conceived on our wedding night," Mr. Jones said) and works as his father's assistant.
Mr. Jones won Tonys for "The Great White Hope" in 1969 and "Fences" in 1987 and he's nominated as lead actor for "The Best Man," as well. He was at Sardi's, though, to pick up an Outer Critics Circle prize for outstanding featured actor in a play. (Producers of "The Best Man" had aimed him in the equivalent category for the Tonys too, but the nominating committee ruled his role a lead part.) He sat gamely, grinning when Anne Meara said that the physically imposing Mr. Jones could never be known as "Jimmy."
"How come I get an award for having fun eight times a week?" Mr. Jones said by way of an acceptance speech, complimenting the critics for their "great insight" in supporting Mr. Vidal's play, which has been extended through Sept. 9.
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