Thanks to the Star Wars phenomenon that swept the world in the seventies, Darth Vader is arguably the world’s most recognizable villain. He symbolizes everything we fear about scoundrels: he’s warped, he’s cruel, he speaks in a breathy, creepy bass voice, and he’s relentlessly evil. Not the kind of guy you want to meet in a dark alley.

Yet, few would know that the actor who played Darth Vader, James Earl Jones, is one of the kindest human beings ever to walk the face of the earth. It’s a testimony to his consummate acting ability that he could so convincingly play a character wholly divergent from his “real-life” personality. Allow me to share a story about James Earl Jones that I learned first-hand from a good friend, an advertising executive, whose firm got the actor to agree to lend his rich voice to a high-powered advertising campaign in the late ’90s. My friend supervised the campaign and had direct contact with the actor for several days.

At some point during the filming, my friend invited Jones to a family dinner, and as one might expect, his kids (then in their teens) peppered Jones with questions about some of the famous actors he had worked with, most especially in the Star Wars epic:

“Tell us what Harrison Ford was like?” “What was Princess Leah/Obi Wan Kenobi/Chewbacca like?” (They couldn’t remember the actors’ real names!)

The enthusiastic interrogation went on like that for some time and Jones handled it with the greatest equanimity and grace. Yet, his answer to every question about any person he worked with was always the same: “Oh, Harrison Ford was wonderful!” “Carrie Fisher was wonderful!” “Mark Hammil was just wonderful!” And so on.

When the kids asked how it could be that everyone was wonderful, Jones responded that they were all wonderful to him and that was what he knew of them. His answer may have disappointed those eager to hear some juicy insider gossip about Hollywood stars, yet not once did he indulge in the natural human tendency to tell tales about his co-workers or to point out their faults. In fact, he didn’t say a negative thing about anyone that whole evening.

It was as if the Darth Vader Mask had snapped shut when he was tempted to tarnish another human being’s reputation.

Jones scrupulously lived by the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them to unto you”, and apparently he held to that Rule in thought, word, and deed. As a tribute to this man’s integrity, my friend said that one could never be around James Earl Jones without feeling enlarged in soul. That may be the greatest compliment anyone could give to another person.

Those of us who at times have taken, shall we say, an unhealthy pleasure in dishing the dirt on our enemies may benefit from a few lessons in charity from James Earl Jones’ example. We would do well to hold ourselves accountable to these principles in the face of the temptation to trash:

  • Kindness begets kindness. Apparently James Earl Jones was such a gracious individual that he brought out the best in others. It’s just possible that Jones didn’t actually experience any negativity from other people because he was kind to them and they were kind in return. This is a serious life lesson: we get what we give to others, for good or ill. We may never see the negative side of people if we don’t show them ours.
  • Live without hooks. Even when people “deserve” to be skewered for their reprobate attitudes or behaviors we don’t have the right to appoint ourselves their judge, jury, and executioner. If it’s perfection you seek, you’ll be sadly disillusioned by people – especially by the one looking back at you in the mirror. The ability to hold your tongue and let someone off the hook for being imperfect is actually a sign of great character strength; it’s weakness that makes us spout off.
  • Be general when you can’t be specific. Your mother’s admonition, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” has a Jonesian analogue: “If you can’t say anything nice, tell people that it’s all ‘wonderful’”. There’s always something wonderful about a person although you might not be able to see it at the moment. Speaking in positive generalities when you have nothing better to say trumps the destruction of another’s reputation through backbiting, which is always very specific.

Wouldn’t it be nice if your friends and acquaintances could say, with all sincerity, that they can never be around you without feeling enlarged in soul?

And to think that you learned that lesson from Darth Vader.

An edited version of this article appeared at Catholic 365: