James Brolin has won generations of fans since he first became a hit co-starring in Marcus Welby, M.D. His sense of humor and down-to-earth perspective on show business is front and center when he remembers with a laugh, “They gave me an Emmy and a Golden Globe for that role. There were tears just running down my cheeks in a scene where I was reading an emotional letter. I should have thanked salt water and menthol for helping me cry.”
Brolin’s imposing 6-foot-4-inch stature and craggy profile helped make him a star in a string of TV series and movies, from Hotel to Westworld, from Amityville Horror to Traffic. He reveals his biggest challenges were playing two real-life legends, Clark Gable in Gable and Lombard and Ronald Reagan in The Reagans.
He was delighted to score again in a juicy supporting role in four seasons of the popular CBS series Life in Pieces as Pop-Pop. “I loved that it was so real in dealing with family relationships,” Brolin says. “I didn’t know how much fun I’d have with a great cast.”
Next up for the 79-year-old is Sweet Tooth, Robert Downey Jr.’s new series based on the DC comic. Lots of young comic fans have already shared their enthusiasm for Brolin as the narrator. And at the top of his wish list is directing a movie based on the true story of Ruby McCollum, a wealthy African American who was convicted of killing a prominent Florida state senator in 1952.
Brolin is proud of the wide collection of characters he’s played, but he still jokes, “I’m Barbra Streisand’s husband and Josh Brolin’s father. Those are my important credits!”
Jeanne Wolf: Do you still have the same enthusiasm for acting after such a long, distinguished career?
James Brolin: My kids figured out that I’ve spent about 9,500 days on film and TV sets. I’ve been in heaven every one of those days. Every minute you put in makes you better than when you started. For me, the tough part was often what it takes to get ready. I was a shy guy when I was young, and that would come back in mental blocks. When I felt truly up the creek, I’d drive from L.A. to Bakersfield with a script and keep reading it aloud along the way. It’s a four-hour trip and I would go into a sort of alpha state, but by the time I got back, I knew every line.
Then there were times when I had doubts and fears about playing larger-than-life characters, like Clark Gable in Gable and Lombard and Ronald Reagan in The Reagans, even though the directors really wanted me. I had to be convinced. After a lot of hard work, I saw that they were right.
I kept saying I wasn’t right to play Gable in Gable and Lombard. And Sidney Furie, the director, kept saying, “You can do this. I’m putting you in the screening room and you’re watching Gable movies for two weeks. And so I did, and that changed everything in my mind. Sidney was right.
When I did the president, I’d be walking around my hotel room at three in the morning holding my computer watching clips of him and thinking, “I’m not this man. How do I become him?”
I also had my doubts about taking a supporting role in Life in Pieces, and it ended up being four rewarding years. I think I put a little of my own dad into that character, which is funny because when I said I wanted to be an actor, he went, “I’ve got a 10,000-to-1 bet against you.” Then, after I became successful and changed my last name from Brudelin, he made reservations using Brolin. Suddenly, he was Henry Brolin.
Actually, playing all those roles hasn’t been just for me. I’m trying to get butts into theater seats to really have fun for a couple of hours. You’ve got to keep the audience in mind whether you’re acting or directing. You can’t leave them bored. I feel that we’ve seen so many movies and TV shows go by that wowing people is tougher than ever. A film ends up like day-old bread from the bakery, worth half the price. You kind of have to go, “Okay, what’s next? What can I do better than I did before?” At my age, I have to swallow this pill of, “Will I ever work again and will it be worthwhile?” But I love being on the set. Making a movie brings together people who are the best enablers, so full of ideas and wanting to please. When I was directing, I’d give them a challenge and wonder how they pulled it off. They’d say, “I just gave you 30 percent more than you paid me for.” They don’t know any other way.
JW: You have many talents and things you love. Is that your personal secret to youth?
JB: As a teenager, up until I was 18, I would go to the UCLA library and wander through different sections. I didn’t love school, but I loved to explore things. I’d think, “Oh, photography, that sounds interesting.” I’d find a book and start reading it. And then I would just get bored, and go, “Okay, enough of that.” And I’d go to another section. Sometimes, I would be there all day and maybe delve into five different subjects. I could learn more in the library than sitting in classes.
I feel like I’m in a hurry now because there’s so much to learn. And there’s travel, not that we’re going anywhere during the pandemic, but there’s so much yet to see. You go to Google and type a city, like Tonga, in middle of the Pacific. And you go, “Man I want to go there,” but there’s no time.
It’s funny. A lot of people sat around at home during the pandemic wondering what to do. I feel like I don’t have time to do everything, and going to work would be a vacation. Right now, I’m studying to get my commercial pilot’s license. My dad was an engineer who worked on the Douglas DC-3, but he was never a pilot himself. I took my first flight at 18 and was hooked. I’ve been flying for 50 years.
And I’ve always loved cars. I just got a new Porsche, but basically I drive a Mini Cooper and, of course, my Raptor truck with the big tires. That’s the cowboy side of me.
And I’ve just bought a lot overlooking Malibu Lake that tilts at a 45-degree angle. They say you can’t build on it, but I’m going to put up a sweet little house there. And I’m doing workouts with the big wave surfer, Laird Hamilton. He puts me underwater in my pool with a 20-pound weight in each hand, and I have to get to the surface before I run out of air. I’m in the best shape ever. So life is good, and you’re invited to my 100th birthday, whenever that it is.
JW: You’ve been married to Barbra Streisand for over 20 years. What’s your secret?
JB: We really do have a wonderful time. We certainly are very different from each other, but being at home so long during the quarantine was proof of how happy we are to be together. I’ll tell you, things are never dull, and after we each do our thing all day, we are just glad to see each other. That doesn’t mean we don’t pick at each other like people do, but we have an instant laugh about it. Or you go off in the corner, and when you come back, pretend like nothing was ever wrong in the first place.
After practicing in two other marriages, I got it down pretty good. Barbra corrects me and I push her, but she backs me up in all of my passions, from flying to directing. I appreciate the extraordinary things she’s done, but people would be surprised at how simple the things we love are. When you decide that this is a lifetime deal, you think of ways to make each other’s life better. You don’t expect everything to be perfect, but it’s perfect because you trust each other and you are there.
JW: What’s in the future for you and your family?
JB: Barbra really believes in leaving a legacy, so she’s been tied up writing a book about her life and career. There have been a lot of false stories about her, and she’s setting the record straight. She’s a truthmonger.
But I’m easy, and my mother was easy. When I decided I wanted to become an actor, Mom said, “Whatever you want to do, just go for it. I’m with you.” You’ve got to roll with the punches a little bit. Give people a little room. If you get a dog from the pound and he bites you, give him a little food and a little love, and don’t forget that someday he might still bite you again.
I don’t know how I’ll be remembered. Maybe as Josh Brolin’s dad. I watched him through all his ups and downs. As a father I was there to catch him if he fell. In the meantime, I couldn’t advise him. If I insisted on anything as Josh was growing up, he would either disappear or just be totally angry. It didn’t work like it does in a movie. During the pandemic, he’s been Mister Dad, staying at home and changing diapers, but he’ll soon be busy again. We’re all just proud and waving at him as he passes by.
This is the full version of an interview that ran in the September/October 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Featured image: Photo by Gilles Toucas