Rolling With James Brolin: Hollywood's Quiet Giant
Rolling With James Brolin: Hollywood's Quiet Giant
By Eugene S. Robinson
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Hollywood doesn't get old, it just gets shinier.
By Eugene S. Robinson
James Brolin, Hollywood’s quintessential handsome guy lead, has had a career many/most in the film business would kill for, first as an actor, now primarily as a director (and side note: as the father of Thanos — or at least the young cat, Josh Brolin, who played him). So we were thrilled when he stopped by The Carlos Watson Show. The following are some of the best cuts from the full conversation, which you can find on the show’s podcast feed.
WHEN BIG DOGS ROAMED
Carlos Watson: Who was the best actor you’ve ever worked with or seen? Using whatever definition of “best” you want to use, who is the best?
James Brolin: The best? I saw [Marlon] Brando all over the place. But, basically, when he decided he was going to do his job, he was the best ever. And I was actually signed at 19 years old, before I even was at Fox, to play his son in the prologue and epilogue of Mutiny on the Bounty.
So the movie started with the prologue of the son telling the story of what happened to dad. Anyway, in the end, it was cut out. I was there almost a year. I was in, out, in, out. Had the greatest time in Tahiti, in the late ’60s. Oh, my gosh. Time’s a … now it’s drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, just like everywhere else. But then it was the fantasy of island girls, like you never saw before. Like you’ve heard of in the books.
Watson: So, besides Brando, who else was great?
Brolin: You know, it’s funny. There was this … in Westworld, there was Yul Brynner. You know Yul Brynner has an interesting history. You know Yul Brynner with all his great posture and everything is like perfect. Well, the history of that is he was in a Romanian circus high-wire act, and he fell and they said he’d never walk again. But he worked his ass off and became this guy, right?
Then he goes to New York and he becomes a director. He directed the ball games at Ebbets Field, the baseball games. And he’s the first guy, when some guy’s going around bases, he’s the first using a zoom lens for a camera. Everybody going, “We don’t have a use for that, you know we just move the camera in closer.” He said, “I’ll take it, I can follow the players, follow the ball.” And he’s the first guy ever to commercially use a zoom lens in entertainment.
And then when The King and I was developed for the stage in New York, they said there’s only one guy that can play it and it’s Yul Brynner. “But he’s the director.” Yeah, but you know he’s just so like that, you know? So anyway, later on when I worked with him in Westworld and he did, I don’t know if you remember him as the robot that killed everything, the gunslinger … I thought he was really interesting.
I also worked with Charlton Heston on a movie called Skyjack, where I hijacked an airplane. The producer said, “OK, we got Charlton Heston as the pilot and we need the guy who’s the least likely to hijack an airplane.” So I became the hijacker in that movie and worked with Heston and quite a lot of interesting character actors who’d been around. Heston is interesting. He would come in, in a Corvette with the top down in the morning. He’s another ego. Remember he ended up running the NRA.
Yeah. Couldn’t get a movie so he became the head of the NRA, that’s the way I look at it. But he would come in and you could tell, actually somebody saw it. He would come in after having been spraying under his armpits on his sweatsuit, in his Corvette, and walk in like, “Yeah, just had a hell of a run.”
So he was interesting. He’s the head of the movie, he’s a movie star and yet he’s still trying to con us into thinking, “OK, you’re a great athlete.”
It’s a lovely business, I must say, and there are so many dedicated, wonderful actors, and there are a few kooks, and the crews are the kind of people that I remember my dad used to love because he’d hire them for eight hours and they come in and go, “What are you still doing here?”
“Well, I thought I’d clean up for you afterward.” And they do nine, nine and a half hours.
That’s what movie crews are like. They’re hired because they just have it in their system and they’re happy and they love doing it. There’s a list around, if somebody is not like that they go on that list. So that’s another thing I love about the studio and the picture business is the attitude of the crew guys and the work habits that I grew up with because I was a guy who would give extra back. I’d get hired for 100 percent and I’d give them 130, you know. Just because I was just so grateful.
ROADS NOT TAKEN: FOR GOOD OR ILL
Watson: What’s the best movie role you ever turned down?
Brolin: Turned down? I went right to Oliver Stone’s first movie, The Hand. And Michael Caine took it the minute I turned it down. I was so glad when I saw it later, I went, “Boy I was right about that.” That was about a hand that got cut off and chases a guy.
So I turned that one down but, you know, was it smart when they came to me and literally begged me to do Superman and I said I can’t see myself in a red sock hanging on a wire, and somebody calls lunch and everybody’s gone to lunch and they’re up there trying to unhook the wires?
I said I just think that’s a career killer and after the first two days it would just bore me, you know? And Christopher Reeves ended up being Superman, but I would say again I made the right decision passing.
Now the one that got away was when I went over to England with [film producer] Cubby Broccoli and became his new best friend because I was going to be the new James Bond after Roger Moore. It went as far as him deciding, and us saying, “Well, we can kind of do a continental mid-Atlantic, you know like people do who are on the New York stage, you know it doesn’t have to be an English accent, but it can be effected somewhat.”
And I started working physically with the stunt guys, and I picked a flat. I had a great apartment in London and headed off to Los Angeles too. I tested, I did two screen tests with all the great crews and big stages and great backgrounds and kind of the way they don’t test anymore.
So, anyway I had this role, I went home to pack for a year and didn’t hear anything for two weeks, and finally my manager called saying, “Well, Roger Moore’s decided to do one more.”
So that was, yeah … would have been interesting doing at least one Bond picture. My neighbor down the road, Pierce Brosnan, had a ball doing several of them, but I missed that one.
LIFE WITH BABS
Watson: What’s the smartest decision you’ve ever made?
Brolin: That’s a real good one. It’s funny because marriages kind of sneak up on you, but when I met … OK, a friend of mine has this lady that I know from parties who asked him, “Would Jim Brolin be interested in dating me?”
And he calls me and I said, “Oh, no way.” You know? Well I hope she doesn’t see this, but anyway the answer was no. Then she called a couple of days later and said, “Would he be interested in meeting Barbra?” Barbra [Streisand]? Oh, that Barbra. Oh, the one in the park in New York, yeah, the one that sings. Yeah, yeah I’ll do that.
So Barbra and I are both on our way to a prearranged party. Somebody took this real seriously. There were 30 guests, three tables of 10 out on the veranda overlooking the Bel-Air Country Club on a warm 85-degree night, you know, it was like too perfect.
I’m on the way up there in the car, and we had basic cellphones at that time, they were in existence, and I pick up the phone. I’m on my way and I’m going OK, I’m going to cancel this. This seriously ain’t what I do, you know, as a blind date. She really didn’t know me, we had passed each other here in an award thing or something, and she was cutting a film that she had directed and was on her way in the car and picked up the phone to cancel also. And we both went, “Oh, what the hell?”
So we ended up there at the party. On Hotel, I’d had the guy, well, I said I want to look like a curly-haired Italian all the time. So somebody said, “Why don’t you just be you?” So then I had just shaved it all off, and I had gray hair this long with a little color on the ends. I think it really looked bad and I didn’t realize it.
So she didn’t say much to me but sat down; we all sat there. There were 29 people sitting around at the three tables and she had gone down with the kids after she saw me, like this was a bad idea. Anyway, I saw her come up the stairs and out onto the veranda, and as she walked around me she touched my head and said, “Who fucked up your hair?”
And I had just shaved because I’d always been bearded, but I fell in love. That was like if the fairy godmother went “ding,” when she touched my hair. And that was what, 24 years ago, almost 25 in July. And we’re still, we’re just solid as a rock.
So the best decision I ever made was going, “Screw it, I’ll go to the party.”