A Day (okay, an Afternoon) with James Earl Jones

With the Voice Arts Awards last night and James Earl Jones being honored, I thought I would just tell a quick and personal anecdote of my afternoon with James Earl at Promax in 1995. During my first year as an agent, I represented (albeit very indirectly) James Earl Jones who was the crown jewel of our clients at SEM&M.   At the time, James Earl had a great on-camera and voice account with Bell Atlantic and was also the branding voice of CNN. On top of that, he had a really great run in motion pictures culminating in his legendary performance in Lion King the previous summer.

Vincent Nastri, another young agent and now a very successful manager at Bleecker Street Entertainment, and I were tasked with starting an on-air promo department from scratch. We had great clients and in building one brick at a time, we created an incredible and influential department. But, we were going to Promax and we really wanted to make a big splash. I don’t know if it was Vincent’s or my concept, but we came up with the idea that we should bring James Earl to Promax in Washington DC. Neither of us knew exactly how we would get him there, but we set out to make it happen.

First we spoke to the President of Promax and sold him on the idea even before we confirmed James Earl was available. He got right back to us and offered us their “State of the Art:” James Earl would be the conference’s closing speaker. Suddenly, the pressure was truly on. Vincent and I went into Fred Schiffman’s and Marc Guss’s (my current partner at ACM) office and pitched Fred on the concept. Fred was incredibly cool but his first reaction, of course, was how much money were they paying him. “Nothing,” we told him, “but they would fly him in and put him up in a suite at a hotel.” Fred was silent – we had no idea what he was thinking. More importantly, we told him, they will credit SEM&M with a “James Earl Jones, presented by SEM&M Talent.” Fred was more interested but he asked again, “they really have no money?” “I’m sure we can get some other perks but it won’t be cash,” I explained. Fred took a beat before kicking us out of his office and telling us he’d get back to us.

In hindsight, the whole idea was ridiculous. Assuming James Earl was available and odds were he wasn’t and given Promax was giving him virtually nothing, there was nothing motivating him to go. Yet, about a week later, Fred called Vincent and me back into his office. “James Earl will do it,” he told us and then colorfully told us how lucky we were. We never asked why he was going to do it as Vincent and I knew not to question good karma. Instead, we walked out of the office, gave each other a high five where Fred couldn’t see us and went back to work.

Promax 1995 arrived a few months later and all we knew was we would meet James Earl at his suite on Saturday. The rest of the conference was a blur. It was my first Promax and I probably averaged a few hours of sleep a night and I’m sure that was at least double what Vincent had. The two of us were also coming off the conference’s penultimate night’s party: the famed Paramount Party and we had no right standing let alone escorting James Earl yet after some long showers and Advil, we were admittedly excited and ready to go.

Keep in mind, at this point, I had been working in the agency business for about three years and during that time it was rare we ever met anyone who was a real celebrity. Prior to the agency business, I had worked in sports production for a few years where Greg Gumbel had been our host and I met other sports personalities who were on the show such as Dick Vitale and Walt Frazier. At Don Buchwald (where I was prior), it was rare that any celebs would come into the office, and I feel like Roy Scheider and Stockard Channing were very briefly introduced to me although I admit I’m not really sure.   At SEM&M, my celeb experience was a tad more extensive and I even worked with Rob Morrow on a promo gig for VH-1, but, at least Rob was approximately my age.   What I would soon discover was that James Earl was a completely different level of celebrity.

When we arrived at the suite, James Earl was ready to go. We made some initial small talk and he was incredibly gracious but he really wanted to get to the ballroom. James Earl knew the plan, was totally prepared and wanted to see the venue. We had nothing to do but walk him to the Grand Ballroom where 2,500 people or so were soon waiting.

The way to the Ballroom was a hike and I’m not exaggerating when I say that everyone’s head turned as we walked by. James Earl is a big man and combine that with his natural magnetism, it felt like we were on a wave where you could feel the water coming before you heard it crash.   We could see heads turning several yards before we even arrived on the spot. I’d guess some two hundred people turned to see him but no one dared come near. Vincent whispered to me, “don’t you feel like the Secret Service escorting the President?” I concurred and we just kept walking.

Once we arrived at the ballroom, we headed backstage and our jobs were done. We handed James Earl off to the Promax people and the stage director. 20 minutes later, James Earl killed it on stage and the event itself was a tremendous boost to SEM&M as well as to Vincent’s and my career. After that, I only saw James Earl one other time in the office. He was gracious as always and the experience was incredibly brief… probably less than a minute. I remember walking into Fred’s office to shake his hand where we had a very brief conversation in reference to that Promax and was soon on my way so they could resume the meeting. As I exited, I do remember one thought…we really were lucky @#$%ers.

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