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Friday, 23 December 2011

Jim Brolin Interview - "Cowboys and Indians" Magazine.

Before becoming a household name, the famously bearded actor was simply a shy teenager with a soft spot for horses.

by Wendy Wilkinson

With matinee idol good looks that never seem to fade, a remarkably thick mane of silver-gray hair, and bright green eyes that twinkle when he smiles, James Brolin has been a Hollywood mainstay for more than 40 years. It was his Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning portrayal of the youthful Dr. Steven Kiley on Marcus Welby, M.D. that brought him to the attention of the country in the late ’60s and ’70s. But it was his recurring role on a ’60s western television series that brought him to the attention of Hollywood.

In his mid-20s Brolin was cast for four episodes as the young cowboy Dalton Wales — playing opposite Barbara Hershey, Michael Anderson Jr., and Liam Sullivan — on The Monroes, the story of five young orphans trying to survive as a family on the frontier in northwestern Wyoming. “That was a great time,” he says. “I was shipped out to Jackson Hole and went, ‘Wow, what a life this is.’ You’re on your own but know exactly what’s going to happen. I was given a per diem by the production office, a horse to ride, and really latched on to this kind of life.”
Not long after his appearances on The Monroes came the year that changed everything. In January 1969 Brolin had a single before-they-were-famous appearance on The Virginian in the episode “Crime Wave in Buffalo Springs.” His one-time role as Ned Trumball, the bank-robbing son of a banker, was a world away from the motorcycle-riding physician he would become in September.

Beating out a dozen or more handsome young men screen testing for the role of Dr. Steven Kiley, Brolin got his big break. He had good rapport with the seasoned Robert Young, who played senior doctor Marcus Welby, and he clicked with the role as the ambitious young doctor who ultimately joins the practice of the aging general practitioner. Brolin won an Emmy in 1970 for his work on the show, and he would go on to win two Golden Globes. Marcus Welby, M.D. ruled the ratings for seven years, becoming one of the most popular doctor shows in U.S. television history and making Brolin a household name.

In the middle of his run on Welby, Brolin got an opportunity to delve into another western role, this time on the big screen in the 1973 sci-fi thriller Westworld. Written and directed by best-selling author Michael Crichton, Westworld starred Yule Brynner as the Gunslinger, a lifelike robot cowboy who goes rogue, killing paying vacationers in a futuristic Western-themed amusement park. Brolin was cast as the ill-fated vacationing businessman John Blane, who is out to experience an Old West fantasy with buddy Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin). Challenged to a showdown with the Gunslinger, Blane thinks it’s just another amusement — until he finds out, too late, that the bullets are all too real.
Even though Westworld wasn’t a typical western, the film did give Brolin some equine screen time. “I was quite pleased to be able to ride on-screen again,” he says. “At that time I had a small, 6-acre ranch in the San Fernando Valley and was housing seven horses out there chewing the wood on the fences. I was able to take one of my own horses, a leopard appaloosa, and ride him in the movie.”

Several years earlier Brolin had bought his first horse for $235 at an auction in Chino, California — without having a place to keep him. “So I kept him in the garage. The minute the floor got wet, we would both slip and slide. We soon moved to a tight, half-acre ranchette and finally had a decent turnout for that gelding.”

To this day, that first horse, a beautiful palomino, brings back fond memories. “He had been trained for a sheriff to ride in the Rose Parade,” Brolin remembers with a laugh. “You’d be riding this horse and turn around to speak with someone behind you, accidentally kick him in the flank, and he’d start prancing sideways. So I said, ‘Wait a minute,’ and tried the other side and he pranced in the opposite direction.”

After Westworld came a decade of leading roles in films, including Capricorn One, The Amityville Horror, Night of the Juggler, and Gable and Lombard (which Brolin cites as his “favorite film-making experience of all time”). But Brolin still remembers the role that got away. “During this time I screen tested for the role of James Bond in Octopussy, as Roger Moore had made the decision to leave the franchise; but at the last minute he decided to continue playing the suave 007, which was a real disappointment.”

Moving on in his career, in 1983 Brolin teamed up with hit-maker Aaron Spelling, executive producer of Charlie’s Angels and Dynasty, to star as Peter McDermott in the ABC prime time soap opera Hotel. As a hotel manager who gets involved with the guests’ lives to help solve pressing problems, Brolin rode the ratings winner to two Golden Globe nominations for Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series – Drama.

In 1993 he shone in the TV movie Gunsmoke: The Long Ride, playing down-and-out preacher John Parsley, who comes to Matt Dillon’s aid after the marshal is arrested on trumped-up murder charges and must hunt the actual murderer with a posse on his trail. Brolin’s next big turn on TV would see him leave the Old West for the modern-day military in the action-packed Pensacola: Wings of Gold. For the three-year series (1997 – 2000) Brolin served as executive producer, director (10 episodes), and lead character Lt. Col. Bill “Raven” Kelly, a veteran officer working with a group of young Marines to mold them into elite fighter pilots.

Moving up in gravitas, in 2002 Brolin guest-starred in a two-part arc on The West Wing as presidential candidate Governor Robert Ritchie. A year later he continued in the political vein after nabbing the role of president of the United States. Cast as Ronald Reagan in the 2003 miniseries The Reagans, the self-deprecating actor says he got the part because “most likely every other decent actor in Hollywood turned the role down.” If they sensed controversy coming, they were right: The production was embroiled in it when portions of the script were leaked and conservatives decried the 180-minute show as an unfair and unfavorable portrayal of the 40th president.

“Having never seen the miniseries, the network received more than 30,000 negative e-mails from the Young Republicans,” Brolin says, “and the network bent to the pressure.” CBS moved the show to its cable affiliate, Showtime, and The Reagans aired to very good ratings; Brolin went on to be nominated for both a Golden Globe and Emmy Award for his performance.

Traveling easily between the big and small screens for the last decade, Brolin has been cast in a series of high-profile and highly acclaimed motion pictures. At a time in life when most actors don’t get many calls, he has continued to take pivotal supporting roles, from Gen. Ralph Landry in Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning Traffic to Leonardo DiCaprio’s stepfather in Catch Me If You Can to the man who walked Dustin Hoffman’s daughter down the aisle in Last Chance Harvey.

Brolin has also been flirting with western work, both television and film, ever since The Monroes and Westworld. Most recently he guest-starred in “High Noon-ish,” an episode of the highly rated, quirky USA Network comedy series Psych, in which he played Sheriff Hank Mendel of Old Sonora Town, a Wild West tourist attraction in danger of being shut down due to sabotage. He took the role of the sheriff who wants to keep the Old West alive in the 21st century because, Brolin says, “I will occasionally do a guest role on a series if I love the character.”
Born Craig Kenneth Bruderlin in 1940 in Los Angeles, Brolin started going by “Jim” when he was 12 years old, “just ’cause I liked that name better.” He grew up a nomad of sorts. The son of a prominent designer and builder, he and his family had lived in 14 different houses by the time he graduated from high school. His favorite home by far was the 7-acre horse property at the top of the Santa Monica Mountains, near Mulholland Drive, where he lived during his high school years.

“It was a heck of a property,” he remembers, “with a stream running through it and endless places to ride through the Hollywood Hills. We’d take the horses over to Franklin Canyon reservoir and camp out for the night. The area was so remote that every week we’d kill a rattlesnake and my mom would go outside every morning with a broom and shoo the deer away from her flowers.” Just three miles away from the famed Beverly Hills Hotel, the family was nonetheless living in the wilds, and the experience instilled in Brolin a love for horses, nature, and solitude. It was a life that suited his natural inclination toward shyness.

When Brolin was 15 and a sophomore at L.A.’s renowned University High School, his dad was partners with the brother-in-law of acclaimed horror film producer-director William Castle (best known for Rosemary’s Baby and the original House on Haunted Hill). One night Castle and his brother-in-law came to a party at the Brolin family’s Benedict Canyon home. Apparently impressed by the young teen’s presence and handsome face, Castle asked Brolin if he had ever thought about becoming an actor. “He was then involved with two television series, Men of Annapolis and The West Point Story, and I think that he was running out of new faces to feature,” Brolin says. “For him to come over and ask me, out of the blue, if I’d ever thought about being an actor — he must have really been in a panic mode, looking at all potential actor wannabes to cast.”

Initially Brolin wasn’t game, but he took Castle up on his invitation to visit the studio, traveling by trolley car from the Beverly Hills Post Office to what was then Ziv Studios. Before Castle took Brolin on a tour, he asked him to read a script out loud. “At first I almost told him no, ’cause I figured I would make a fool of myself,” Brolin recalls. “I totally froze up when I had to speak in front of people and was never able to even deliver an oral book report in junior high and high school.” But Brolin made an effort and stumbled through the lines. He still remembers the response: “Castle said, ‘Let’s forget that,’ and abruptly showed me to the closest stage door.”

Brolin didn’t get the part, but he did get the bug. When the cigar-chomping Castle opened the door to the stage that day — they were filming a western with Lash LaRue on a dusty cowboy town set — the young, would-be actor realized the movies were a kind of construction site, similar to the ones he’d been raised around all of his life.
“Up to that time I thought that movies came out of a golden egg — kind of an immaculate conception up there on the screen,” Brolin says. “But seeing men painting and sawing and moving equipment, and especially those guys with a camera up on that Chapman boom yelling instructions — that was for me. That was what I wanted to do.”
Deciding then and there to become a cameraman or director, the teen quickly went out and bought his first movie film camera. He shot plenty of Straight 8 and Super 8 film, but his first business venture would capitalize on a different aspect of L.A. life — swimming pools.

“I started a business at 18, Sunset Strip Pools. It became a successful pool maintenance company right away,” Brolin says. “During that year, I was stopped on the street and asked if I would consider driving a truck in a filmed Dodge commercial. My first question was, ‘I wouldn’t have to talk, would I?’ ” Brolin was soon hired to do three commercials and joined the Screen Actors Guild. He briefly took acting classes, but it wasn’t until he was invited to meet a talent scout as a favor by high school friend Ryan O’Neal that Brolin began to overcome his shyness and started making his way in the acting world.

At 19 Brolin sold the pool company for a profit and headed for French Polynesia and Tahiti in hopes of being cast as the son of his screen idol, Marlon Brando, in Mutiny on the Bounty. The role ended up being cut from the script, but Brolin stayed on to work as a local crew member and production assistant, quickly learning the ropes of film production.

He returned to L.A. after a year, parking cars at Sunset Strip nightclubs until he landed a contract with 20th Century Fox, first dubbing the voice of another actor in the forgettable 1961 film Marines, Let’s Go. He would go on to work on the lot for seven years, studying with renowned acting coaches Sandy Meisner, Robert Gist, Bob Paris, Vincent Chase, and Stella Adler.

Brolin’s first starring role came in the 1967 remake of Pickup on South Street called The Cape Town Affair. “It was made in Cape Town for South African distribution,” Brolin says. “The country had no television allowed, but they had fantastic theaters and big attendance, including movie dinner theaters. The film was corny and low budget and now plays on late-night television worldwide, but it was really fun, and Jacqueline Bisset and I had one of the best location experiences of our careers.”

Brolin went on to land minor roles in such movies as Take Her, She’s Mine; Von Ryan’s Express; and Our Man Flint. Those first films of the ’60s mark the beginning of almost a half-century of moviemaking. Although in all that time Brolin hasn’t starred in a true classic western, he is nonetheless frequently labeled with the characteristics of a cowboy — stalwart, strong, dependable. “It must be the vigilante in me,” he explains. “I was always a big John Wayne fan. At age 10, I was turned loose by my pop one whole day and night in Phoenix with 10 bucks, and I saw four movies. Two stayed with me forever: Flying Leathernecks and Flying Tigers. I took my first flying lesson eight years later, and have been a pilot now for 52 years and own a jet charter company. For me, it’s the best. Thanks to John Wayne — he led me to two great avocations.”

These days, the active 71 year old is far from idle. In addition to his jet charter company, he still owns a small lumber company that he and his architect partner, Nick Fortune, started 30 years ago when they couldn’t afford to buy lumber for spec houses they were building. When Brolin’s not at his lumber business, you might find him cruising up the Central Coast in his Ford pickup, heading to the Templeton Livestock Market for breakfast or to his son Josh’s ranch, where he fishes for bass in the pond he built. (An award-winning actor in his own right, Josh starred in the Oscar-winning film No Country for Old Men and will be seen as Tommy Lee Jones’ younger self in the upcoming Men in Black 3.) But Brolin could just as easily be in his vintage 1956 STOL airplane flying to Idaho or Montana to camp and fish, or headed to the Harris Ranch Inn & Restaurant in Coalinga on his weekly visit for grass-fed steaks.
Using his construction knowledge and wife Barbra Streisand’s design sense, the couple recently built a re-creation of a historic Connecticut barn and water wheel on their expansive Malibu cliffs estate. “[Barbra] has the most amazing eye with architecture, whether it’s construction or landscape,” Brolin says. “I always fancied myself quite good at it, but she blows me out of the water. I just finished the big water wheel, my office, bath, and wood shop. It’s heaven!”
And he’s still fielding roles: He played Mr. Anderson in 2010’s Burlesque, a humorous divorcing dad in 2011’s Love, Wedding, Marriage, and a renegade bar owner in the upcoming television miniseries Blackout. This spring will also find him back behind the camera directing Ruby McCollum, the true story of the 1952 trial of an African-American woman who was convicted of killing the white physician and senator who raped her.

“For a guy who didn’t have the confidence to present a book report out loud in high school,” Brolin says with a smile, “playing all these unique and diverse characters in so many different movies and television projects has been a whole lot of fun.”

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