James Brolin: ‘I always wanted to direct’
At 77, with a career that started in the early 60s and gave him two Golden Globes for Best Supporting Actor in 1971 and 1973 for his role in Marcus Welby MD, and four other nominations in 1972, 1984, 1985 and 2004, James Brolin could be enjoying the memories of the past instead of thinking on the challenges of the future. But the father of three, including actor Josh Brolin, and husband of Cecil B. deMille recipient Barbra Streisand (who won seven Golden Globes) is busy building a career as a director. He began directing in the 80s, with 10 episodes of his TV show,Hotel, and 10 episodes of Pensacola: Wings of Gold in the 90s, (besides a short stint directing a feature for James Corman, My Brother’s War, in 1997). Now, Brolin has found his old passion reignited with two TV films for Hallmark, I’ll Be Home for Christmas, and Royal Hearts– and he’s also playing the leading role in both. We had the luxury to talk to this Renaissance man, who is still very much into with acting, with a supporting character in Life in Pieces, now in its third season in CBS.
How do you explain the success of Life in Pieces?
I think so many family shows work because you deal with the truth of your everyday immediate problems and I think good comedy is based on true situations. I keep having to remind our writers and producers that that’s a funny joke, but that’s not real and we can’t identify with it and it really becomes a prank like the Marx Brothers. But I think that the real success of the show is when the humor is based on things that most families can identify with, a situation that they have been in, and they exaggerated many times. And the fun is in exaggerating the situation and then putting everybody in a pickle that they need to get out of. But it’s really based on the family and the fact that we have a certain set of fine writers and our executive producer is the writer of the original pilot and he is quite good at it and he is quite unique at it. He brings a certain kind of humor and he has eight people writing under him. But he always brings them around to a certain kind of humor that Life in Pieces has that I don’t think that I have seen in other shows.
Do you feel that the medium has changed a lot since your early days?
Sure. I started in the 60s at Fox. Actually the first thing I ever worked on was Bus Stop, which was a series based on Marilyn Monroe’s Bus Stop film. And I am on the stage right now that I was on in the early 60s. So it feels like an old shoe. And as far as any real changes where I am, because so much of the Fox lot in Century City is unchanged. They seem to take half the lot and do all the new buildings on and the other half, they have rejuvenated to how it was back in 1928. So I am feeling like the only real change I am seeing is that television is much more last minute than it used to be. We used to have 3 to 5 scripts in advance that we could massage and play with and then do the best one and we could always jump to the one that we thought was most suitable if we were having trouble with the one that was scheduled for this next week, we would just jump to another script and film that. Now, it’s the night before we shoot, we are getting final rewrites and what I say to them is, this is why so many shows are cancelled. You are buying a Rolls Royce and then you are putting in cheap gas and riding around without any insurance. (laughs)
In Life in Pieces, you play a retired pilot, but you are an active one in real life…
Yes. I have two little airplanes, I am a weekend pilot, but for several years, I had a charter company with another fellow, out of Van Nuys Airport and we had several jets of other people that we would charter out so that those people could pay for their expensive habit. We had seven airplanes. And I have been flying since I was 18, and I am still flying regularly.
You have done many things outside of acting…
It’s true. I have trained horses, I trained dogs, I had 5 years running race cars, I have raised cattle for a little while, I have done a lot of different things. And I was in the retail lumber business and spec house building for 35 years. And I do a lot of different things, but I always return back to the film business because it’s like an infection you never get over. (laughs)
It is because you have many other interests?
Yes, and I was like that even after high school. I would go to the UCLA Library and read about one thing and then I would get tired of that thing and then go to another section of the library and I would stay all day. I would be a regular at the UCLA Library, but going around and reading about all kinds of different things. And it’s truly because I am fickle, I get bored with things. And then I get interested in something else, and then I want to kind of do them all and so I don’t do anything well. But I know a little bit about different things. My father was kind of the same way. He was an inventor and he had five different careers and so I guess when your father does that, in some ways it lets you see that you can do that, rather than be a shoemaker in the same shop all your life. But you get up and can change a career anytime you want if you are willing to risk being hungry for a little while.
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I am sure some people will ask you for advice as you have played the doctor for many years.
(laughs) That is exactly what happened. I got an award from the American Medical Association together with Robert Young and we went back to the annual convention and the other guy that got the award did 50 years of Cancer research. And we didn’t. At that time we did three years of a television show. It didn’t make sense to me, but that is what happened.
What does directing give you that acting does not?
I started out, very early on. I had a darkroom and it was very involved with stills from the time I was 10 years old. And then when I discovered movie film at 15, I got my first wind up 8mm camera and I started shooting movies. And because I was not a person who ever wanted to be on stage or in front of people, I just loved the whole idea of the fact that movies were a digital medium where they were individual shots that moved and gave people motion, and I always wanted to direct. I’m sorry that I didn’t pursue a directing career very early on. I was directed by Spielberg when he was 22. And looking back, I really wish it was me at 22 and I really wish I had pursued that career. Because once you are an actor, it’s tough to make that transition and it’s almost like they don’t trust you and if you are an actor you are not smart enough and yet, over the past, I remember in those days, I looked back and saw that most of the Academy Award winning directors and Golden Globe winning directors were ex-actors, whose careers may or may not have gone well and they became directors.
You are the one who invented the brand Brolin in Hollywood. So how do you feel about Josh having such a career as he is having right now?
I am so proud, especially I have to remind him, early on in high school, he said I would never go into your business, and then the next thing I knew, he was in an acting class and then he was in Goonies when he was 15 and I mean, look how many years I have been watching him just grow and grow and grow. And I am so excited, he is a real movie star now, and I am glad that he doesn’t fancy himself as a leading man, but a wonderful character actor.
What do you remember from those nights at the Golden Globes, when you won and when you didn’t?
I remember one night sitting with Burt Reynolds and his date and we were both nominated and I won and he didn’t and he disappeared and left his date with me. (laughs) I remember that. I will tell you what, the Golden Globes are wonderful but you don’t live and die by them. I think any time you are nominated is just a wonderful, absolutely wonderful recognition. After that, it’s a tossup on who wins and who actually gets the Golden Globe trophy and I am proud of them. But just the fact that somebody loves what you are doing, whether you are building a chair in your garage in the darkness of your garage with the doors closed and you bring it out, that’s one of the great things that I love about the picture business, is you are not on stage, you are not asking for anybody to clap, nobody is allowed to comment on it other than okay, good that’s good, let’s move to the next scene. (laughs) And I love that, because it’s like a workshop atmosphere. And I think nominations are wonderful in that respect that somebody says I really liked what you did, that’s pretty fine work. And if you don’t get those nominations, it means you buckle down and redesign and work a little harder.