James Earl Jones opens up about diabetes diagnosis for the first time in 20 years

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James Earl Jones Performs a Monologue From 'You Can't Take It With You'

By Chelsea Huang

In the mid-1990s, legendary actor James Earl Jones was more than 40 years into his iconic career and showed no signs of slowing down -- a quick scan of his dense filmography shows that he appeared in approximately 70 projects in the decade alone.

Perhaps that's why, in retrospect, he ignored the signs of a serious health condition -- type 2 diabetes -- until an "accidental" diagnosis 20 years ago, which he says took him by complete surprise. Two decades later, Jones is speaking publicly for the first time about living with the disease. In an exclusive interview with AOL, Jones recalled how he learned he was diabetic while attending a diet and exercise program, which he signed up for to lose weight.

"I fell asleep on the bench in the middle of the gymnasium," he said. "The doctor who happened to be there told me, 'That's not normal.' I took the test, and there it was. Type 2 diabetes. And it hit me like a thunderbolt."

Click through to see James Earl Jones through the years:

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James Earl Jones through the years
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James Earl Jones opens up about diabetes diagnosis for the first time in 20 years
A head and shoulders portrait of the actor James Earl Jones, 1960. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)
American actors Diana Sands (1934 - 1974) (as Ruth) and James Earl Jones (as Joe) in a scene from an episode of the television show 'East Side/West Side,' entitled 'Who Do You Kill?' (directed by Tom Gries), New York, New York, September 25, 1963. The episode was originally broadcast on November 4, 1963. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 15: Actor James Earl Jones with his wife, Julienne Marie. (Photo by Alan Aaronson/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 11: N.Y.P.D. - 'Candy Man' - 2/11/69, James Earl Jones (as Candy) on the ABC Television Network drama 'N.Y.P.D'. The three detectives fight every kind of criminal all over New York City., (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)
THE DICK CAVETT SHOW - Shoot Date: June 5, 1969. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) JAMES EARL JONES
Lobby card from the movie 'The Great White Hope' (20th Century Fox), directed by Martin Ritt and starring James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander, Reno, Nevada, 1970. (Photo by John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images)
NBC CHILDREN'S THEATRE -- 'Looking Through Super Plastic Elastic Goggles at Color' -- Pictured: James Earl Jones -- (Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Lobby card from the movie 'Claudine,' starring James Earl Jones and Diahann Carroll, 1974. (Photo by John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images)
A head and shoulders portrait of the actor James Earl Jones, 1975. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 18: ROOTS: THE NEXT GENERATION - 2/18/79 - LYNN HAMILTON, JAMES EARL JONES (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)
A head and shoulders portrait of the actor James Earl Jones, 1980. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)
American actors Alec Baldwin, on the left, and James Earl Jones are taking part to a briefing, in the roles of the CIA analyst Jack Ryan and the Vice Admiral James Greer in a scene from the movie The Hunt for Red October. Los Angeles, California (USA), 1989. (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)
NEW YORK CITY - MAY 20: Actor James Earl Jones and guests attend the pre-party for 41st Annual Tony Awards on May 20, 1987 at Sardi's Restaurant in New York City. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
James Earl Jones and Mary Alice during 41st Annual Tony Awards at Hellinger Theater in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
NEW YORK CITY - OCTOBER 26: Actor James Earl Jones attends Fourth Annual Artois Awards Luncheon on October 26, 1988 at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in New York City. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
BABY TALK / GABRIEL'S FIRE - Press Tour - Shoot Date: July 26, 1990. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) JAMES EARL JONES
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 12: GABRIEL'S FIRE - gallery - Season One - 9/12/90, James Earl Jones played Gabriel Bird, a former Chicago police officer, who had been wrongfully sentenced to life imprisonment for his partner's murder., (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON -- Pictured: (l-r) Actor James Earl Jones during an interview with guest host Jay Leno on April 23, 1991 -- (Photo by: Chris Haston/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Actor James Earl Jones attending 43rd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards on August 25, 1991 at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in Pasaden, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
HOLLYWOOD - JANUARY 12: Actor James Earl Jones and wife Cecilia Hart attend 13th Annual American Cinema Editors Awards on January 12, 1992 at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
LAW & ORDER -- 'Profile' Episode 4 -- Air Date 10/13/1993 -- Pictured: (l-r) James Earl Jones as Horace McCoy, Unknown (Photo by Gerry Goodstein/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
STUDIO CITY, CA - MAY 20: Actor James Earl Jones attends Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters Luncheon Honoring Diahann Carroll on May 20, 1994 at the Sportman's Lodge in Studio City, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 24: James Earl Jones, his wife Cecilia, and son, Flynn, arrive at the Ziegfeld Theater for the world premiere of ''Cry, The Beloved Country.'' Jones is in the movie. (Photo by Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
391133 01: Actor James Earl Jones reads from 'Casey At The Bat' for elementary school students of Public School 19 June 26, 2001 in New York City. Jones took part in 'Verizon Reads Day,' (Photo by Robert Mecea/Getty Images)
399864 01: Actor James Earl Jones reacts to a person who asked him if he could perform one of his movie character voices January 19, 2002 at the Lauderhill Boys and Girls Clubs of America in Lauderhill, FL. Jones was there to participate in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 8: Actor and National Literacy Spokesman of Verizon Communications, James Earl Jones, testifies during a hearing on 'Literacy Partnerships That Work' before the Education Reform Subcommittee of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce October 8, 2002 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The hearing reviewed how corporate sponsorships improved the rate of literacy in the U.S. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
James Earl Jones during Opening Night of 'Wonderful Town' on Broadway and After-Party at The Al Hirshfeld Theater and The Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK - APRIL 7: (U.S. TABS AND HOLLYWOOD REPORTER OUT) Actor James Earl Jones attends the opening night of 'On Golden Pond' after party at Blue Fin April 7, 2005 in New York City. (Photo by Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - JUNE 08: Actor James Earl Jones speaks onstage during the 34th AFI Life Achievement Award tribute to Sir Sean Connery held at the Kodak Theatre on June 8, 2006 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI)
Actor James Earl Jones arrives at A.R. Gurney's 'Love Letters' starring Dame Elizabeth Taylor and James Earl Jones at Paramount Studios on December 1, 2007 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Barry King/WireImage)
Director Debbie Allen poses with and actors James Earl Jones (L) and Morgan Freeman during the opening night after party for the revival of Tennesee William's 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' on Broadway at Strata on March 6, 2008 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic)
Actor James Earl Jones arrives at the 15th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on January 25, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)
James Earl Jones poses at the Opening Night After Party for 'Driving Miss Daisy' on Broadway at The Plaza Hotel on October 25, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic)
Actor James Earl Jones attends The Film Society of Lincoln Center's presentation of the 38th Annual Chaplin Award at Alice Tully Hall on May 2, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Charles Eshelman/FilmMagic)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 19: Honoree Actor James Earl Jones attends the 2012 Marian Anderson awards gala at Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts on November 19, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images)
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 07: Actor James Earl Jones poses for a photo during a 'Driving Miss Daisy' photo call on on January 7, 2013 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Marianna Massey/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 28: James Earl Jones takes his Opening Night curtain call for 'You Can't Take It With You' on Broadway at The Longacre Theatre on September 28, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 14: Actor James Earl Jones attends 'The Gin Game' Broadway opening night after party at Sardi's on October 14, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Pont/WireImage)
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Jones, 85, said the diagnosis was "a shock," even though he belonged to an at-risk demographic in terms of ethnicity, age and his family's medical history. But Jones, who served as first lieutenant in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, admitted a touch of hubris contributed to his initial reaction.

"I'd been fit, climbing up mountains and skiing uphill and all that. I thought I was invincible, as the army teaches you to think of yourself, so it was a shock. There's a lot of denial," he said. "I'm still grappling with ways to live with it."

Type 2 diabetes, which affects over 29 million people in the U.S., often comes as a package deal with social stigmas, primarily that it's the patient's fault, according to John Anderson, former president of the American Diabetes Association. While the obesity epidemic is contributing to the growth of type 2 diabetes, age and ethnicity also come into play. But it's a common misconception that goes hand-in-hand with feelings of shock, denial and guilt.

Of course, adopting a healthier lifestyle can alter blood sugar levels, especially for the 89 million Americans whose numbers categorize them as pre-diabetes, which Anderson says is much easier said than done.

"Especially if you are type 2 and you are 40 or 50 years old, it is really hard to change eating patterns, exercise, the way you think about food, the way you think about food as an awards system. LIke getting Baskin Robbins after a hard day at work. It's about changing that whole concept," Anderson said.

Jones was forced to make tough changes, like cutting out his favorite, strawberry shortcake, but he said he wouldn't have be able to do it without help from his wife and his son, who keep a close eye on his behavior.

"My son is a good watchdog, and he's the first to catch me. My wife will count the cookies in the kitchen, but he will smell it in my breath. These are stupid things on my part, but it's human to love sugar, and next to denial is trying to get away with it."

Jones has also taken Invokana from Janssen Pharmaceuticals to help manage his blood sugar, but there's no one-size-fits-all treatment for type 2 diabetes. Oftentimes, what works for one patient won't be effective for another. It's for this reason that Jones is teaming up with Janssen for ICanImagine.com, which features an interactive personality quiz that delivers tailored tips for navigating diabetes. As an added bonus, every time someone takes the quiz, a donation is made to the American Diabetes Association, and a another donation is made when results are shared on social media.

Like many people who live with type 2 diabetes, Jones is still grappling with the disease 20 years after his diagnosis, which is just one reason he kept it private for many years. When asked why he's opening up about it now, Jones' answer was simple: Time.

"I have been working pretty steadily for the past 60, 70 years, and I haven't had a moment to commit myself to something like this. I'll get back to work, but I'll work more effectively once I come to terms with my ongoing problem with diabetes. I accepted I will always be a diabetic, but I can live a full life," he said.

For Jones, living a full life means continuing to do what he loves and adding to his nearly-200 acting and voice work credits.

"I'm an actor, and actors can work until they fall over, as long as you don't knock over the furniture and remember the lines. And that's what I intend to do, because I love it. I think I want to do comedy now. At my age, if you're going to make an ass of yourself, you can do comedy. I'm ready for that," he said.

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