Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don't know beforehand what roles we'll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Lanky, genial James Cromwell, who became instantly recognizable to a nation with his role as the tough-yet-tender farmer in 1995’s Babe (“That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.”), but whose prolific career stretches back to All In The Family, The Rockford Files, and other ’70s TV hits. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, he appeared on practically every prominent show of the day (Maude, Eight Is Enough, Diff’rent Strokes, Flo, Little House On The Prairie, Barney Miller, Night Court, Family Ties, Dallas, Knight Rider, Hill Street Blues, Amazing Stories, Magnum P.I., M*A*S*H, and many, many more) while occasionally working in film. After a few prominent movie roles in the ’90s—his Oscar-nominated turn as Farmer Hoggett in Babe, Zefram Cochran in Star Trek: First Contact, Dudley Smith in L.A. Confidential, and others—he’s primarily worked in film with some memorable detours, like his time on Six Feet Under and 24. Cromwell recently appeared as the loyal chauffeur/butler to Jean Dujardin’s film-star-on-the-skids in The Artist, which is currently the frontrunner for Best Picture in this year’s Oscar race, and up for nine other Academy Awards, including Best Director, Screenplay, Actor, and Actress.
Murder By Death (1976)—“Marcel”
The A.V. Club: You started your career with a handful of TV shows, but Murder By Death was your first actual film. What stands out for you about that experience?
James Cromwell: Quite a lot. Being on the set with all those people—Maggie Smith, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Peter Falk, Truman Capote—for 11 weeks, all together. The fact that Ray Stark, the producer, after 11 weeks didn’t remember who I was. A party at Ray Stark’s house in which we were finally kicked out at 2 o’clock—me, Eileen Brennan, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine, Sean Connery and his wife. Sean Connery telling Dustin Hoffman [Scottish accent.] “You gotta see my car! I got a new car, it’s great! It’s great!” Of course, in my mind, I see a Ferrari; we go outside, Dustin Hoffman’s stretch limousine is there, ’cause the studio doesn’t want him to kill himself after this party in a car accident, and on the other side of the driveway is an AMC Pacer. Connery says, “That’s it, that’s my car!” He did it just for the look on Dustin’s face, which was great. [Laughs.]
Peter Sellers having a laughing jag like he had in Being There, where he couldn’t get through a line without cracking up, which goes on for about an hour if you let it go. For the first couple of times, every time he would say, “I admired you since I was a tiny little detective” to Peter Falk, he would crack up. And he would show up late to the set, and no one could do anything about it, ’cause he was Peter Sellers. So they sent David Niven into his dressing room. He was never late again. I have no idea what David said to him. Truman Capote, who was such a delight and wonderful with everybody, sitting around, waiting for a shot. He brought [Olympic gold medalist] Mary Slaney in, a wonderful woman runner. He could talk to anybody. But he had pissed on actors, so when it came turn to do his acting stint, he was so nervous, he shook so badly that we had to clear out. He had to do it to an empty room. Alec Guinness saying he was delighted to do this film, ’cause he was working with this wonderful young American actor named James Cromwell. [Laughs.] I don’t know why Alec decided to do that, but it was awfully nice to get a compliment. Jimmy Coco dripping perspiration during the reading, he was so nervous. When we all sat around the table, reading for the first time, I thought, “Well geez, if Jimmy Coco’s nervous, I guess I’m all right.” Falling down the stairs as my gag. What else was there?
AVC: Did you end up forming relationships with any of those people? Were any of them friends, either on the set, or afterward?
JC: I visited Alec a number of times in England, and went to his house. I had lunch with him at Fortnum & Mason with my 6-year-old son. Alec was appalled that I had brought my son. [Laughs.] So he got a table way, way in the back, ’cause he thought, “Oh, you know, an American kid, he’ll throw food. It’s Fortnum & Mason!” But he was so dear. I was very fond of him. Should’ve kept that relationship up. David Niven, actually, my father [filmmaker John Cromwell] gave him his first job, in Prisoner Of Zenda. He was a sweetheart. Maggie Smith, I see on and off. I was a small fry on that, but I had a big crush on Maggie Smith. She was great.
W. (2008)—“George H.W. Bush”
JC: We rehearsed with Oliver [Stone] in his office, just Josh [Brolin] and I. I’m a radical progressive, so of course, the Bushes are like the… I don’t know what to call ’em. [Laughs.] So every day, I would come in with a new piece of information that I found on the Internet, that they had aligned themselves with the fascists, and they did this and… Finally, Oliver said, “You know, Jamie, if you keep coming up with these things, you’re not gonna be able to play him.” Ah, I’d heard that since I was in college, but I thought, “I have an obligation. I’m playing Bush, I gotta do something.” So I came up with this voice, because he’s cut off from his emotions. [Nasal tone.] That’s why his voice is sort of up in his head like this. And I was doing that, and I thought, “Oh, well, that’s fine.” I didn’t really get what Oliver was going for.
And then our first scene was a night shot; it was about 4 o’clock in the morning. It’s where Shrub comes back with his younger brother. They’re drunk, and his father comes downstairs and confronts him. And I did it, and Oliver said, “Jamie, Jamie, you’re so quiet.” I said, “Well, it’s my house. There’s no reason… I know what to do.” This is what my Brahmin people in New England, how they would’ve behaved. They don’t scream; they just let you know that there’ll be consequences. He said, “No, no, I want you more like your father,” meaning Prescott [Bush], who was an alcoholic, and beat them. So every take, I thought, “Well, I have a choice: I can either leave and go to the trailer and say, ‘Goddamn it, let me do my thing,’ or I can just sort of let this go and be more like me as a parent,” ’cause I did raise my voice as a parent.
Ellen Burstyn, who played my wife—wonderful, wonderful lady. Every time I’d come around after the rehearsals, she’d look at me like, “Are you gonna do that?” And I did it. I got through it. The next day, we had a sequence where W. has gotten a girl pregnant, and I’m very disappointed with him. And again, Oliver was on me, and this time, I just let him have it. Josh took me aside and said, “Jamie, you can’t fight every one. If you fight him, it’s gonna be a long, long shoot.” What happened was that because he got me all off my characterization, I did not do a caricature. I later—much later—understood that what Oliver wanted was a relationship between a father and a son in which the son can never do enough to win the father’s love, and that that relationship was what motivated Shrub to be such a prick. And I think it was wonderful. I love Josh; Josh was wonderful. Oliver’s an incredible director. He’s a force. I wish I’d been more confident about my choices. I think I could’ve gotten more out of it. It was hard. But it’s a pretty good film. I like the film.
Revenge Of The Nerds (1984)—“Mr. Skolnick”
JC: [Laughs.] I got there, and I did a laugh. I auditioned for Revenge Of The Nerds, and I so did not want the picture. I didn’t want it. I didn’t want be in anything that had nerds anywhere. [Laughs.] I didn’t like it! So I thought I blew off the audition, but they hired me anyway.
AVC: Why did you audition?
JC: You try to be a good boy, you know? Your agent sends you out. You’re trying to get into films. They send you out for a film—you’d rather not be in it. I don’t know, if you’re more principled… But when you’re trying to pay for the house and you’ve got kids, you go, “Ah, shit, how to do this? I hope I don’t get it, but I ought to get it.” It turned out to be wonderful—I had a lot of fun. And I came up with the nerd laugh, which I didn’t know—I did it spontaneously. We had a lot of fun in the car. I’m very fond of Bobby Carradine, my son in the picture. And so, I taught them how to do the laugh and when we had a screening of the movie and an audience—we were sitting with a big audience—I came on stage and I did the laugh, and I hear the laugh—just the nerd laugh but perfectly—and I look and it’s my wife. It was my wife’s laugh [laughs] and I copied it spontaneously. I don’t think she ever—I never said it to her.
Babe (1995)—“Farmer Hoggett”
JC: Babe was magic from day one. I loved [director/co-writer] Chris Noonan. [Co-writer/producer] George Miller didn’t want me in the picture—he wanted an Australian, and he was gnarly to me for the makeup test. I had grown the sideburns because I saw [Hoggett] with sideburns. Chris introduced me. George said [Grunts dismissively.] “Lose the sideburns.” And I went “No.” [Laughs.] And he went sort of [shrugs petulantly], ’cause he’s a bully. He was actually wonderful to me in the second Babe. But he was not on the first one. As we went on, he gave Chris just the worst time ever. He got so bad, he called him off the set. We were shooting out in the field, and he and his hatchet men took him down to the middle of the field and they were—I could see they were berating him. The first AD was standing around, and no one was supposed to go down, and I said, “Oh, fuck that.” So I went down and stood next to Chris so George couldn’t do it.
AVC: What was the issue? What was he angry about?
JC: Honestly? I think George got the idea to do—he read the book, his daughter gave him the book, and they read it on a plane, and he waited a long time until the CGI and the puppetry were good enough to do the picture. He had done Road Warrior and all these pictures, but he thought “Oh, if it doesn’t really work, I’d rather not take the heat, so I’ll give it to Chris Noonan.” But then as they got rushes and they saw how wonderful this thing was, I think George wanted it back. He wanted control. He wanted to weaken Chris’—he was evidently brutal with Chris in the editing process. I’ll never work for him again anyway, so it doesn’t matter. [Laughs.] But I am fond of him; I think he’s really talented. And you know, they sometimes do that, they get a burr up their behind or something.
But, the animals were unbelievable. The trainers—the trainers!—the woman who did the sheep was so brilliant. Of course that was the highlight. I loved every day. That day was—the sky was cloudless blue. The grass on this pitch was green, green, green. Eucalyptus trees at the end, and then through the eucalyptus trees, you could see the sea, and at the other end you could see this beautiful Victorian viewing stand, filled with 200 local Australians that were entertained by the second AD or third AD for hours. He told jokes, he was a delight. We’d do all the scenes on the fairgrounds and then comes the time to do the last shot. They let one pig out and that pig saw the ocean, looked at all the people, and said, “I’m getting out of here.” [Laughs.] And he ran, and they all chased him and everything… So they got another pig, and said “Okay,” and it’s deathly quiet, and they say “Action.” That little pig walked to the sheep, sat down, looked at the one sheep, the one sheep looked at Babe. Babe got up, started through the course, and 12 sheep in unison, perfectly—with no commands!—I mean, every animal sequence was a trick. There were always trainers giving commands—on your mark, you know, or whatever it was. Because the conceit was that these animals, to show their intelligence, did moves with their head that animals don’t do. They don’t talk to each other and walk that way and look this way. Human beings do that. That’s why we walk into walls and they don’t. So the sheep went toward me and into the gate, and I pushed the gate closed, and you could actually hear the lock go “Cloink.” And the crowd, just like in the movie, erupted. I mean, it was fabulous.
So the next shot was where I say, “That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.” And I said to Chris—I knew what I wanted to do, but I said to Chris, “Where do you want me to take it?” He said “Why don’t you take it right into the camera?” Which you never do. Now, I had been on this picture for five months, and every day I got made up, but I never paid any attention to the production, because I’m talking to the makeup person to hear all the latest scuttlebutt. So Chris says “Action,” and I turn to the camera, and I look in the lens, which had a big filter on the front of it, and it’s my father staring back at me. And I said—what I heard come out of my mouth, in my head, was, “That’ll do, Jamie. That’ll do.” Which was an acknowledgment from my father for actually showing up for five months without bitching and moaning. I had such a sweet time on that picture. I adored everyone. The moment really works, because I was really touched.
All In The Family (1974)—“Stretch Cunningham”
AVC: There’s a period from the ’70s to the ’80s where you were in practically every big TV show of the day. Do any of them particularly stand out—anything you were really excited for, or where you weren’t, but you had an exceptional experience?
JC: Situation comedies were always—I loved Hot L Baltimore. I had a lot of fun on All In The Family—that was a good story. You know, Carroll [O’Connor] had quit. He was holding Norman [Lear] out for more money, and he wanted his name above the title, and Norman said, “What do I say to Jean [Stapleton]? She’s as much a part of the show.” So he said “Fine, I’ll kill him off.” So, he and I, Archie and Stretch, went to Buffalo for a conference, and I lost him in Buffalo, and I came back and I said, “I don’t know where he is.” And we did two shows like that. The third show we were rehearsing, Carroll was dead. They had found him. He was killed. I was to move into the house, and it would be Stretch Cunningham. And of course Carroll settled.
At the time, Norman came out [to the studio audience] and did a break between the two acts. And, some woman—first question—some woman said, “When are you going to give the tall guy his own series?” So then I went into Hot L Baltimore.
All during that time, of course, I wanted to do film, and they all said, “No, no, no, we know him, he’s a situation-comedy actor.” My agent said, “No, no, he’s classically trained! He can do fine!” So my first films were comedy, Murder By Death, and The Cheap Detective. But now they won’t think of me as a comedian. Now, they think of me as a bad guy, and I can’t do comedy.
I had a lot of fun, though. Barney Miller was a delight. Three’s Company was very bizarre. [Laughs.] I saw Suzanne [Somers] flogging her cookbooks just the other day. Barney Miller was a lot of fun. I’m very fond of Abe Vigoda. Most—a lot of people on that cast—I really liked. Mostly, I don’t think I had really a bad time. I just didn’t know any better. There were some where—being a guest on a TV show is never much fun, because it’s designed for the stars, and you come in, and it’s got a whole rhythm that’s not your rhythm, and they don’t really give a—as long as you don’t blow your lines, they don’t really care. I mean, you’re just fodder.
But later on, when I did ER, John Wells [Production] wrote an arc for that. By that time, I had an Academy Award nomination. It was different then—you get an arc. Then you’re the focus of the show. So I didn’t mind it. I’m spoiled now, because of Six Feet Under. To go back and do a guest spot on another TV show, that would depress me.
24 (2007)—“Phillip Bauer”
JC: I very much like Kiefer [Sutherland], but I got blindsided on that show. I’d never seen that show. I had no idea—I went up to the producer and I said, “Does [my character] have any redeeming qualities at all?” They looked at me like I was nuts. What did I do? I killed one son, I tried to kill the other son. I threatened my grandson with a gun, and the motivation was that I wanted to protect my legacy—and be able to pass it to whom?
So I’m down there on the set, and I see this two-star general at the other end, and I think, “I don’t remember a two-star general in this episode.” I go up to him and I say, “Are you on this show?” He says, “Oh, no, no, I’m just visiting.” I thought “Oh well, you know, he’s a big muckamuck from Washington. He wants to come see the show since it’s so popular with the military and CIA and the Bush administration.” I said “Well, what are you doing here?” He said, “Well, actually, I’ve come to ask the producers to change their attitude about torture, because it’s confusing my graduates at West Point.” He was the commandant of West Point. And, he says, “They’re going to Iraq, and when they need to get a piece of information out of a prisoner, they’ll take out their KA-BAR knife and stick it in the guy’s thigh, because Jack Bauer did it, and it supposedly works.” So of course, he went to them and they said “Uh, we’re doing a television show. You have a problem with our policy in Iraq, talk to the president of the United States.” So they never changed their attitudes toward what they were purveying, which is bullshit. I thought it was irresponsible, and that’s why I’d prefer not to do [political shows], because I don’t like the contradictions—if it’s going to be political, it ought to be accurate. I loved The West Wing. I liked it because they were smart. It was savvy. Good politics.
AVC: And they worked hard on making it reasonably true-to-life.
JC: That’s correct. And you know, you don’t have to create a situation that happens in reality, but the dynamics, the class dynamics, the situational dynamics, the political dynamics, what happens, what Washington is really about—it is a mixture of those two things. One of my dear friends is Dennis Kucinich so I can never really piss on Congress as much as I want to, because he’s in Congress. But, for the rest of them—holy mackerel, what a bunch of clowns.
AVC: Have you ever turned down a film or show because of its politics, or wished somewhere in the process that you’d turned it down once you absorbed its politics?
JC: No. The only thing I’ve ever done that I wish I’d turned down was that Schwarzenegger picture [Eraser] I did before Babe came out. I didn’t have a job, and my agent said, “Oh, oh, do the Schwarzenegger. He uses the same people over and over again.” And it was a piece of crap. Luckily, I blew my brains out in the first five minutes. Babe opened in the interim, so everybody had seen Babe when this picture came out. So, as I came on [in Eraser] they went, “Oh look! It’s the guy from B—ohhh.” [Laughs.] because I put the gun in my mouth real quickly, and said, “You have no fuckin’ idea,” and blew my brains out.
But the thing that’s interesting: My father was blacklisted for no reason whatsoever, because Adolphe Menjou couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He was just a dick. And, his position was, you could never get politics into a Hollywood film, because it goes through too many people’s hands. There are so many people involved who have different political viewpoints, you can’t get a politic through. And I feel much the same way today. Very, very rarely—I mean I saw a stupid picture on the airplane recently, and I saw these black and white high-school kids in the middle of the country, sort of mingling with each other, and I thought, “What world do they freaking live in?” [Laughs.] You know?
I don’t know how many parts I’ve lost because a lot of the politics in California are very conservative, and I’m fairly outspoken. I always tried to get as much politics in as I could, because I do believe in class struggle, and I think that’s what’s left out. That’s actually what the blacklist was for. The blacklist was not for communists. It was to get Jews out, because they were in a position—they had been through [World War II] and they had seen what had happened, and they knew corporate America had found the golden cow which was that they could take tax dollars and put it into the defense industry, the military-industrial complex, and transfer the wealth of the United States from the 99 percent to the 1 percent under the guise of national defense. And they were going into show-biz, and boy, did the right wing want them out. So they cooked up this thing to get Dalton Trumbo and all those people out so that we would not have politics in our films. Not until the ’60s, not until the new wave came—there was Easy Rider—did politics come back in at all. And then that got subsumed and swallowed up into the green berets and the Vietnam bullshit, and there was Oliver [Stone] suddenly, and filmmakers like him, Terrence Malick. So it’s always this battle to try to actually… You know, I have my own picture to do my own politics, and that’s what I’m trying to do now.
AVC: You want to direct or produce?
JC: Direct. I’ve adapted an Italian novel called Without Blood [by Alessandro Baricco]. It’s really an extraordinary novel, and very, very important, about man’s propensity toward resolving every conflict with violence, and how women are mainly the receivers of the violence, and how their capacity for forgiveness and compassion and love is the only hope for the human race.
AVC: Do you have any kind of timeline in terms of getting it made?
JC: Yeah, the timeline is “As soon as somebody believes in it enough,” you know. They say “Oh yeah, the script is now called a genre-bender,” which is a new euphemism for non-commercial, or a prestige picture. So right away, they want an attachment [a contract with a high-profile star], which basically absolves them of any responsibility if the film fails, because they said, “Yeah, we got these big stars in there.” Whether it works for the picture or not remains to be seen, but I can’t get it made without—it’s expensive enough that I can’t get it made unless I do.
The Artist (2011)—“Clifton”
JC: The Artist is probably—I’m very fond of a lot of films I’ve made. I think L.A. Confidential is one of the great film noirs, but I happen to believe this picture will be held as one of the best pictures ever made, when they make a list, and that it is a work of art. It is so beautifully layered. I mean, it is a mainstream film, just told in black and white and without color. But on so many levels that it touches you, regardless of the simplicity—the story moves you, enchants you, delights you. At the end, people feel full of joy, which is really what those movies that it is paying homage to were designed to do. That’s what the whole town [of Hollywood] was for. It was to create the American myth, but also to provide some release from the Depression—the financial crisis, which is the same thing we’re going through today. So the parallel is quite wonderful. It is a silent black-and-white movie but the story is contemporary and available and magical.
AVC: Was it very different, doing a silent picture?
JC: No, it’s a regular picture. The only difference is, there is no boom mic. And the story is not being told by what comes out of your mouth. If you want to tell the story, the story being the narrative, not the plot—the plot’s fairly simple—but if you want to tell the narrative, then you have to be concise with your reaction, and let the reaction get into your body and your face in a way you don’t necessarily do when you have dialogue, because the dialogue takes care of that. And also, there is a kind of cynicism in today’s pictures, a kind of cool distance. A kind of cockiness—somebody pulls a gun on somebody, and the guy goes [sneers] “Yeah, you’re going to shoot me?’ Because most actors have never had guns pulled on them. You have a considerably different reaction when someone does pull a gun on you. This film has none of that cynicism, that distance. People wear their hearts on their sleeves, people are touched. They’re available. They’re engaged with each other. They care about each other. There’s loyalty. It’s just the dearest picture I was ever in. That’s why I came to Chicago [to introduce a screening of the film], because I really cared that people got a chance to see this. This picture is going to make a big difference to filmmakers all over this country and the world. They’re going to see that the Hollywood convention, the paradigm in Hollywood, the kind of pictures they make, these $250 million 3-D CGI blockbusters, tentpole pictures that cost so much to make and even more to get people to get in, you can take those and… [The Artist] is 8 million Euros, and it’s magical. There’s not a compromise that you can see in it.