James Earl Jones Talks Type 2 Diabetes, Darth Vader, College Football


Jemal Countess/Getty images

He is the voice of Darth Vader, and the guy who delivered one of the best-known modern monologues in "If You Build It, They Will Come" from the movie Field of Dreams. Many may recognize his deep, authoritative tone from his countless award-winning roles over decades in Hollywood... And now, legendary actor James Earl Jones has revealed he's been living with type 2 diabetes for over 20 years and is using his voice to raise awareness.

Yes, the 85-year-old star is "one of us," a member of the D-Club that no one asked to join. On March 30, 2016 he shared his story with the public for the first time, while also announcing that he's now working with pharma company Janssen Pharmaceuticals to help promote their T2 SGLT2 inhibitor drug Invokana (the "pee drug," because it sloughs off excess glucose through urine), which he's been using himself for several years.

Mr. Jones is the latest in a string of celebs with diabetes who have taken on the role of paid spokesperson for diabetes drugs in recent years. Earlier in 2016, Dr. Phil discussed his T2D in a very similar way promoting an AstraZeneca campaign. We have our own thoughts to share on this below, but first let's hear from James Earl Jones directly.

An Interview with James Earl Jones on Diabetes

DiabetesMine had the chance to connect with him by phone recently. Dr. John Anderson, past president of the American Diabetes Association who's also involved in the Pharma campaign, also joined us on this call.

DM) Welcome to the Diabetes Family… even if it is 20 years belated!

JEJ) Thank you very much. And it really is a family. The community is so strong and it is a family experience. I realized when I was diagnosed with diabetes, my whole family became diabetics. Not that they suffer the same things that I do, but they understand and we have to work as a family in living with diabetes. They became my support group, as well as my doctors.

That’s so true. Can you tell us more about your own diabetes story?

I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes back in the 1990s. I was attending a program for diet and exercise, trying to lose some weight. Actors regularly take time off to lose weight for roles you’re playing. I fell asleep one day while sitting on a bench in a gymnasium, and a doctor who happened to be there saw me and said, “That isn’t normal.” I was fortunate to be in a facility where I had access to a doctor, and I feel lucky that I did fall asleep and have someone there to recognize that something was wrong. He encouraged me to go to the doctor’s office and have a test, and I did that and there it was: Type 2 diabetes. It hit me like a thunderbolt. 

Did you know anything about diabetes at the time?

I did not. I was aware that my mother had type 2 diabetes, and some other members of my family did, and certain ethnic groups are at more risk. But that’s really it. It comes down to being in tune with your body, and I’m sure the body tells us things long before we’re aware of what’s happening. Since then, it’s become my job to be more aware of what my body is telling me.

But it took me a while to learn, and to realize that I needed to ask for help. That help comes from everyone in my life – my immediate family gives support in so many ways, and my doctors are especially important.

How have you been managing your diabetes?

There were tough changes, like not having my favorite strawberry shortcake. My wife and son helped me, keeping a close eye on everything and being watchdogs. My son was the first to catch me. He would count the cookies in the kitchen, and he could smell it on my breath if I snuck some. They’ve booth helped keep me in line.

I had a doctor who suggested I try Invokana, and I’ve found that was very helpful in balancing my blood sugar. I feel fortunate that anyone who has that kind of assistance can really start to love your numbers.

That really seems to be the big problem, coming to terms with the confusion and frustration of your blood sugar numbers. Every patient is different and every program is different, and that’s why it’s important to have these conversations.

We're glad to hear Invokana is working for you. Have you had any conversations with your doctors about insulin?

No, I was just told exactly what insulin was yesterday and so I’m just beginning to understand it. But no, I have not tried it directly. I’ve tried many medications, but Invokana is what’s been most helpful for my blood sugars.

Dr. Anderson) One thing Mr. Jones and I talked about is that it’s not unusual for people with type 2 diabetes to eventually need insulin. Sometimes for people with type 2, it’s a stumbling block – for the patient and for the provider – and there’s a lot of distress. People think, 'Oh, now my diabetes is real serious and I’m failing.' So one of the things Mr. Jones and I have talked about is that insulin should never be a weapon or a threat. Insulin should be looked at as just another part of the treatment algorithm, another tool that we have to treat blood sugars.

Why did it take you until now to publicly say you have type 2?

Time. I’ve been working steadily for 60 or 70 years now and haven’t had time to commit myself to talking more about it publicly. But suddenly I’ve had more time to do it and this (talking about my diabetes) is something I really wanted to do.

Can you tell us more about the content of this ICanImagine campaign?

Image submitted by Janssen

It's about loving your blood sugar numbers, and finding what works best for you. It has a theme of you, the patient, playing the leading role in your life with diabetes. The site features a video in which I talk about getting my A1C down to 6.9 and being able to love my numbers.

It does feature Invokana prominently, because that’s what I use. But there is no one-size-fits-all treatment for type 2 diabetes, and what works for me might not be effective for someone else.

There's also an interactive personality quiz that delivers tailored tips for navigating diabetes. Every time someone takes the quiz, a donation is made to the American Diabetes Association, and another donation is made when results are shared on social media.

It sure can be tough to manage D, but I’m at 100mg/dL this morning so I’m definitely loving my numbers today…

That’s good! I had a 106 and I was happy too! (Laughs)

The last time I heard your voice was actually in the awesome Michigan Wolverines' football hype video that debuted in September 2015. How was that for you, given that you attended the University of Michigan?

Oh, that’s great! I don’t get back to the Big House much, but whenever they ask me to do something – especially anything vocally in recording something – I am always there. I am from the Jackson, Michigan area, but since my mother died I don’t get back as much as I used to.

Back when you were at U-M you were originally studying medicine, so it seems like you’ve almost come full circle, now concentrating on diabetes...

(Huge, echoing laughter). I come from a family full of share-croppers in Mississippi and Michigan who believed you shouldn’t waste time and money on college unless you were going to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. I thought science in high school there in Michigan was fascinating and I sort of got into it. But science in college was a different story and I found it difficult. So, I turned to acting.

Well, you’ve certainly made your way in that! Have you connected with any other actors or celebs with diabetes?

No, I really don’t. Most actors don’t share things like that unless it becomes part of our (professional) lives together, when we’re working together. I’ve just been shy about it, I guess.

I’ve found my family offers me the most support, and the circle widens as people become aware. I can’t hide the fact I’m a diabetic, and I must do the best I can to live well with it.

What’s next for you, aside from this diabetes campaign, being back on Broadway and doing some Darth Vader voice work?

Getty images

I love working. I’ve had the chance to do some very interesting roles in my career, but I find that living with type 2 diabetes is one of the most challenging roles I’ve ever had. That’s what I am ready to talk about.

I can’t really add more to what I’ve done in the entertainment world than what I’ve performed. I don’t read reviews so I don’t do any assessment on the value of the work. I just love the work, and that’s always been enough for me. I’m going to do it as long as I can, until I fall over.

Thank you, Mr. Jones, for taking the time to talk with us!

Our Takeaway: A Force for Good(?)

I've always been a huge fan of James Earl Jones, especially since he's a Michigan man and his voice helped shape so many of my childhood and young adult memories. No doubt he'll touch a lot of people with this. I mean, he's James Earl Jones, after all!

Yet while we applaud him for stepping up, we can't help but wonder why Mr. Jones has waited so long to "come out of the closet" with his diabetes, and is only doing so now in association with this drug marketing campaign. Honestly, knowing that makes his story feel less authentic and less compelling to me personally.

This stands in contrast to other celebs — including race car driver Charlie Kimball, Olympic skier Kris Freeman, and actress Elizabeth Perkins to name a few — who are now quite active in the Diabetes Community both online and at live events where they can engage in person with fellow PWDs (people with diabetes).

Hopefully, that's something James Earl Jones is willing and able to do.

Then again, he's in his 80s, so maybe that's expecting too much. Maybe we're just jaded by the "dark side of the force," so to speak. Maybe many people, especially other seniors living with type 2, will see him as an inspiration for empowering themselves and doing what they need to take better care of their own diabetes. If so, that would be a victory right up there with Saving the Empire from the Death Star.

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Exclusive interview originally published at DiabetesMine on April 5, 2016


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