James Cromwell, never tiring of acting and activism
At first glance, James Cromwell appears restful at his upstate New York home. “It’s a great place to come as a retreat,” he said. But closer investigation reveals that he’s simultaneously restless.
“There just comes a point in your life when they say, ‘Shouldn’t he hang it up?'”
Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz asked, “Do you think about that?”
And why should he? The 83-year-old actor is reaching new heights, familiar ground for the 6’6″ Cromwell (Jamie to his friends). For half-a-century, he has been doing what great character actors have done for a hundred years: making whatever they’re in just a little better.
In the last 30 years he’s played memorable roles in “L.A. Confidential,” The Green Mile,” “The Queen,” and now “Succession” on HBO Max … all coming after his Oscar-nominated performance as Farmer Hoggett in “Babe.”
His considerable range as an actor fits for someone who began as a prince of Hollywood. His mother, actress Kay Johnson, starred opposite Bette Davis in “Of Human Bondage,” directed by his father, John Cromwell, a prolific Hollywood filmmaker during the 1930s and ’40s.
But Jamie’s relationship with his dad was strained at best. “My father said very few things to me, most of ’em awful,” said Cromwell. “He said something to me when I left college. I told him I was going in the theater. And he looked at me and said, ‘Well, don’t be an actor. You’re too damn tall.'”
In 1951, John Cromwell’s directing career ended abruptly. He was blacklisted, falsely labeled a Communist. He could’ve saved his career by naming names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He refused, and paid a steep price. “A lot of his friends cut him,” said Cromwell. “They wouldn’t talk to him. They would turn their back on him.”
Mercifully, none of the pain suffered by the father kept the son from pursuing his dream. At first, success came quickly. “I went out for my first TV series, which is ‘All in the Family.’ I got that. I went out for my first movie, which was ‘Murder by Death.’ I got that one. So I thought, ‘Oh, jeez. A piece of cake!'”
“Why does everybody say how hard it is?” asked Mankiewicz.
“That’s right. Then I learned!”
“What did you learn?”
“Not much patience. Just to roll with the punches.”
The punches kept coming, including this body blow from director Blake Edwards: “I went for an audition for ’10,’ and I came in, and Blake was not feeling well. But he looked at me and said, ‘What am I supposed to do with that?‘”
Eventually, directors figured out what Cromwell could do. Getting good parts got easier for him in 1995, after landing an allegedly leading role. Cromwell had less than 20 lines. The real star of the film was a pig!
“I got the role, and I was not sure about it. So, I said to my friend, ‘Should I go on this?’ He said, ‘Why not? Listen, you go on it, and if the thing fails, it’s the pig’s fault. It’s the pig’s movie!'”
It didn’t fail.
“Babe” earned more than $250 million at the box office. Cromwell took to the role like a pig in sh … ow business. And 90 minutes in, Cromwell delivers a last line embedded in modern movie lore:
“That’ll do, Pig. That’ll do.”
He only had to shoot the line once.
“I opened the gate, the sheep walked in, they erupted. So, the difficult shot was done. Put the camera low. I said, ‘Where do you want me to take this to?’ I knew what I wanted to do.”
So, Cromwell looked into the camera lens to shoot the last line of “Babe.” But the face he saw reflected back wasn’t his own. “I looked down, and I didn’t see me. I saw my father with the makeup, which is aged slightly, and the sideburns. And although I said, ‘That’ll do, Pig. That’ll do,’ what I heard was, ‘That’ll do, Jamie. That’ll do.’ I got an acknowledgment from my father through my own performance, for finally, finally showing up ready to work. Giving, not in panic, not in anger. Just be there.”
Mankiewicz said, “Sounds like that was a fairly emotional moment for you.”
“To hear him acknowledge me, to be acknowledged by yourself, to be acknowledged by – we call it talent – by what you’re doing. You did it. Did good work. It’s good work.”
Along with acting, Cromwell is known for his activism. He’s been arrested a few times, for protesting against an animal testing lab and a power plant. Most recently, he glued one of his hands to a counter at a Starbucks in Manhattan. He wants the chain to stop charging higher prices for non-dairy milk products.
“When will you stop charging us more for vegan milk?” he shouted during the protest. “When will you stop raking in huge profits?”
Mankiewicz asked, “Are you up on any charges?”
“No, not this time,” he replied. “The cops said, ‘As long as you unglue yourself from the counter, we won’t charge you with anything. If you insist on staying there, we are going to charge you. And then it’ll be much more difficult.'”
Now in his ninth decade, Cromwell is doing his best work, and he’s not close to being done.
And he still loves acting: “It’s fun. When it works, it’s fun. I try to make it as difficult as possible, but when it works, it’s a lotta fun!”
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Story produced by Gabriel Falcon. Editor: Joseph Frandino.