Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: James Brolin does not hesitate to acknowledge that he managed to become a successful actor despite the fact that there was no particular reason for anyone to think that he should’ve been one. Brolin got his start in front of the camera in the early ’60s, and by the time the ’70s arrived, he’d gotten Emmy recognition for his work on Marcus Welby, M.D. In the intervening decades, Brolin has worked steadily in both film and on TV, splitting his time between both and rarely being without a job (unless it’s of his own choosing). At the moment he’s working harder than ever: In addition to playing the patriarch of new CBS sitcom Life In Pieces, he’s also playing dad to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in the upcoming film Sisters.

Life in Pieces (2015)—“John Short”
Sisters (2015)—“Kate and Maura’s father”

James Brolin: Aaron Kaplan, who is the supervising executive producer and the manager of several of the guys involved, this is the third series he’s offered me in two and a half years. [Laughs.] That’s just from him. There have been many things run by me over the past 10 years, and some I’ve said, “I’d be interested in meeting,” and some I’ve just said, “I’m not interested.” Sometimes there was even an offer. But I just didn’t see anything that I really thought was going to go anywhere until this one.

Advertisement

I read this one, and… I don’t generally laugh out loud. I go, “That’s funny. Oh, that’s funny.” But I found myself laughing out loud at this, and that’s hard to deny. So when my manager, who’s so persistent, said, “Man, that’s a winner,” I said, “Yeah, it could be. It could be.” And then finally, when I met everybody and said, “Yes,” I went, “Did I just make the right decision?” Because I’m old enough now that I can get by, you know? [Laughs.]

But consequently I’ve gotten so excited about this, and meeting the nine people in the cast… They’re all just delicious. And Dianne Wiest I did Sisters with, which is Universal’s big Christmas release this year, so we’re very tight from having worked together in Long Island almost all last summer, and now here we are doing this.

We did the pilot, and then you go into the second show hoping that it’s going to be as good as the pilot. The thing about the pilot is that I knew the character and I knew what to do. But then they were inventing a lot of things where I was going, “Well, wait a minute: is this the same guy now?” I talked to them after the table read and asked, “Are we allowed to tweak and adjust?” And they said, “Of course! That’s what we want you to do!”

Advertisement

A.V. Club: So as of now, how would describe your character John Short?

JB: Well, he’s a guy, first of all, that loves his post-time every day. And as soon as he has his one drink—he’s never drunk—he’s a different person. He becomes totally sweet. But he’s totally sarcastic and never gives you a straight answer. He has a lot of the things about my father that I had trouble with, and now I’ve gone to my kids and said, “What is it you guys don’t like about me? Because I want to put it in this show.” [Laughs.] Because it’s all about grown children and their problems and their babies.

The thing about this show that’s different is the blackout factor. There’s four to five scenes, basic stories, and each one almost has a joke/punchline, but then they cut to the next scene, and you go, “Well, wait a minute, what happens? I’ve got to keep watching, because they’re probably going to come back to that scene!” And they may or they may not. I think most of these scenes and the end of the show will leave you up in the air. But the joy of it, and what’s so great, is that you’ll recognize all your in-laws, the ones that come for Christmas, the ones that never leave until midnight. And in this case, none of the family ever leaves. They’re stuck with them! One of them lives across the street, another one is living in the garage.

Advertisement

But there are a lot of things about me, about my dad, and just things from your family—the loves, the dislikes, and all the craziness underneath—that I’m hoping that’s all in there, and that we’re not just stuck on a stage with a laugh track. I won’t do anything with an audience or a laugh track. If the jokes aren’t funny, let us die, please!

Bus Stop (1961)—actor

JB: Bus Stop, even if it wasn’t my first show, I remember it felt like my first show, because the director—and I can still remember his name, he died not too long ago—was the meanest guy ever. And I went, “Well, maybe I don’t want to be in this business after all, if this is how people treat people.” Diane Baker came over to me—if you know Bus Stop, she played the Marilyn Monroe role—and put her arm around me and said, “I just saw that, I know what you’re going through. It’s all going to be fine when you go home tonight, you don’t die from this.” And I went, “Thank God for nice people.” [Laughs.] Because I thought, “I’ve been working so hard for something that I’m not right for!”

Advertisement

I wasn’t right for being an actor—I was shy, couldn’t even give a book report, wasn’t a good reader—and yet I go, “Okay, if I’m going to get a chance at this, I’m going to study my ass off and be good at it!” And in the middle of it, Don Medford shows up and sort of goes [Sneering.] “Oh, you want to be an actor, huh?” And then I went to study with Stella Adler, who was just plain mean! If you can’t stand up this kind of treatment, then you do not belong in this business. Not long after that, I heard Jane Fonda say, “Be careful with actors: Once you close the flower, it may not open again.” I went, “Whoa! Now I’m going to choose carefully who teaches me and tells me what to do!”

I don’t know if you’ve read [Marlon] Brando’s book, Songs My Mother Taught Me, but he says, “Never let a director direct you if you want a career.” Boy, was that a big issue with me. I can’t tell you the amount of shows where I played dumb, where I couldn’t get the line out or whatever, and they were finally were so happy to get the shot that I got exactly what I wanted, and I got success. I’ve worked with 300 directors now, and 150 of ’em don’t deserve their union card. That’s true. I stand behind that statement. And I love the Directors Guild! It’s the best, strongest union in the world. It’s too bad they don’t have a better filtration system, but…

It’s funny: I’ve always loved actors, but I didn’t always love them in my life. I wouldn’t want to go to dinner or spend the weekend with them, because they all seemed a little peculiar, until I became a director. And then I just fell in love with them. All of them. I just love what they let you do with them and how you can cajole and baby them, but without insulting them. I tried insulting someone into a role once, and I went, “I’ll never do that again! There’s got to be a better way!” [Laughs.]

Advertisement

Von Ryan’s Express (1965)—“Private Ames”
The Cape Town Affair (1967)—“Skip McCoy”

AVC: Upon mentioning that you’d be doing a Random Roles interview, there was a sudden outpouring of people asking to know about a wide variety of your past projects.

Advertisement

JB: Really? That’s odd. [Laughs.] I don’t hear that too often. I hear about obscure pictures that people see that they had no idea I did, but I think the element of surprise is why they ask about them. That’s interesting to hear. What did they ask about?

AVC: Well, one in particular was Von Ryan’s Express, which looks like it was the first film you did where you were actually credited.

JB: It’s funny, maybe they’ve been playing or have played that on a network somewhere recently, because that’s come up a couple of times recently. No actual questions, really. Well, except for “What’s Sinatra like?” [Laughs.]

Advertisement

AVC: And how was your Sinatra experience?

JB: Oh, he was just great fun, all the time. He wanted to play all the time. But he kept kind of separated with his gang. We were in Spain, we were in Cortina, we were in the Alps… All through the Alps on the train. And he would come in by helicopter and bless us all as he’s coming down and landing. [Laughs.] We would come in by train, all the main cast and all the extras, the German soldiers and everything. It was usually a pretty good trek when we’d go on these train rides up to shoot somewhere, and when we’d get up there, somehow they would have gotten the booms and cranes and things up there. I’m constantly amazed with the picture business: how they’ve cut back, how CGI has changed it so much, and how they could do the impossible the old way.

AVC: Von Ryan’s Express was your first picture of real note.

JB: I would’ve filmed that in ’64, right? Yeah, it probably was. I mean, if you look on IMDB, I’ve got plenty of small roles in 20th Century Fox things, because I was there for seven years. I did quite a few things for them, including a starring role with Jackie Bissett [in The Cape Town Affair]. A corny little film, but… Well, you know, to me it was the greatest! [Laughs.]

Fantastic Voyage (1966)—“Technician”
The Boston Strangler (1968)—“Det. Sgt. Phil Lisi”

AVC: A number of those Fox roles were technically uncredited, but the most interesting character name of that bunch is “Man Doing The Twist On Yacht,” in Goodbye, Charlie.

Advertisement

JB: I don’t even remember that. I don’t remember going out on a yacht. They may be mistaking somebody else for me. Goodbye, Charlie, huh? I should look at it.

AVC: What are some films that you weren’t credited in that you do recall being in?

JB: Well, I’ll tell you what I am credited in that I was cut out of: Fantastic Voyage. When they were loading the body, I was one of the people carrying all the lab stuff. I didn’t end up in the picture, but I got a really good credit out of it. [Laughs.] I think the credit might even be on the front end of the film, just because I was under contract and the guys were doing me a favor. And I still get residuals. Sometimes they’re three cents. You know, it costs 20 or 30 dollars to write the check, and I get three cents. That doesn’t really make economic sense. Just send me the 20 to 30 dollars in cash, and I’ll be fine!

Advertisement

And then there was The Boston Strangler, where I was the detective in charge of all the panties. Hey, everybody’s got to work! [Laughs.] That was credited. They didn’t mention the panties, though. But I had a lot of fun, because it was the first time I had much of anything to do with sexuality! Actually, I still really haven’t had much to do with it. But I’ll tell you, I’m blown away by Masters Of Sex. I just can’t believe how candid they are and yet how classy it is at the same time. The world has changed!

Marcus Welby, M.D. (1969-76)—“Dr. Steven Kiley”
Skyjacked (1972)—“Jerome K. Weber”
Westworld (1973)—“John Blane”

AVC: You made your first real waves on Marcus Welby, M.D., but how did you come to make the jump from TV into bigger film roles?

Advertisement

JB: Well, Welby was number one by the sixth episode, and I won the Emmy [for Outstanding Performance By An Actor In A Supporting Role In Drama] for the pilot, so we were kind of on the map at that time. Universal seemed to be not that interested in putting me in the movies. When I signed with them, I said, “Listen, I’m tired of waiting around. I’ve been at Fox for seven years. I want to be in the movies!” And, of course, the next thing I knew, three weeks later I was testing for Marcus Welby. Once it got to number one, it stayed there for a very long time, so it was a real good ride.

At that point, I got a call from MGM, and they were interested in me for a film called Skyjacked. Who was the least likely guy to hijack an airplane? Well, I was a nice doctor, right? [Laughs.] I’m the last guy who would hijack an airplane! So they wanted me for this role of the hijacker, because he seemed nice at the beginning of the flight, and then he turned into a cuckoo. And that was great. I just loved going and shooting that. It was just a great picture with a terrific cast and a very strong director, and we really felt like we were in the movies. I went back to work on Welby after that hiatus—because that was a couple of months shooting—and then they wanted me back to do Westworld the following year. Skyjacked was a pretty good hit. It brought in pretty good money and played for awhile. But Westworld really was a genuine hit.

Advertisement

AVC: That was still early on in Michael Crichton’s career. What are your recollections about working with him?

JB: I thought he was very good. I kind of became friends with him until the picture was over, and then I didn’t hear too much from him. I saw him every once in awhile. But I think he felt—especially after he did The Great Train Robbery—that if he didn’t have all hits, he didn’t want to direct anymore. So he didn’t direct anymore. I don’t think he did, anyway. But, of course, every book he wrote was a masterpiece in its own way, and I loved reading them. I loved the technicality of his writing. There was such foundation to everything that was said in his books. There was such truth, and there was such research. He was an M.D., you know. He was a very, very interesting guy, and we had a very fun time, because I think when he did Westworld he had never directed before, and it was like a bunch of young boys on a great ride.

Yul Brynner’s presence on Westworld was like having an old master there, but he would show up in patent red boots and patent red belt, and he’d always wear a black outfit. And on Skyjacked, Charlton Heston would come in, and he’d drive up in a new Corvette, and we’d all swear that he’d sprayed under his arms so it’d look like he’d been working out and had just come from the gym. [Laughs.] The two of ’em, everything was kind of for effect when they showed up for work. It’s really funny, because it’s so different today than it was during the hippie era of actors, when everybody started taking real last names rather than changing their names.

Advertisement

AVC: Speaking of Skyjacked, that was one of those movies that was part of the Airport breed, where you had an all-star cast in mid-air peril, but that cast really covered the gamut, from Walter Pidgeon to Rosie Grier.

JB: And Susan Dey! There was also another actress, one of the great black-and-white stars, one of those actresses who always had a stage accent even though she wasn’t British. [Laughs.]

AVC: Was that Jeanne Crain?

JB: Maybe. It might be. You know, I’ll tell you: I got into this business at just the right time, I think. Maybe a few years earlier would’ve been fun, but I saw the tail end of all that, with guys coming on the lot in their Bentleys with the top down, stopping outside to comb their hair to make sure they looked good before they drove on the lot. I guess the lot was important because people saw you who might hire you again. The great fear—for them and for all of us, really, is that this is your last one! It’s just like me with Life In Pieces. I mean, who knew? I’m fine in Malibu. I did three pictures last year, but if I do one picture a year, I’m a happy camper. But with three pictures coming out and a series, too, I mean, really, who knew? It’s like the brass ring coming around again, even when you weren’t looking for it!

Advertisement

High Risk (1981)—“Stone”

JB: When I went and did The Cape Town Affair with Jacqueline Bissett, my wife and I then came back with an African lion club, which we raised to about 90 pounds before it got unmanageable. We had connections with Africa USA, so we drove out there and met this young trainer that was working for them, and he was going to be Brandy the African lion’s new father and trainer and keeper. So we became friends with this trainer over the years, we’d see him off and on, and I knew—or had heard—that he’d started dabbling in films, and he’d done all the animals for the Tarzan series in South America and Mexico.

Advertisement

Anyway, it ends up that Stewart Raffill writes and directs [The Adventures Of] The Wilderness Family, a picture that becomes a huge hit. He was on a picture as an animal trainer and he said, “You know, this isn’t brain surgery. I could write one of these. And maybe even direct it, if I can get the money.” So he does, and it’s a huge hit. And then his next one [Across the Great Divide] is a big hit. This was back in the days where this company Sunn Classic would rent a theater for a certain amount, and when they’d sell the tickets, they’d keep all the money and just pay the rent. They called it “four-walling,” and it became very popular. A picture that was very huge, Billy Jack, was all four-walled. It was never distributed in the normal way, and it made a fortune.

Well, after Amityville [Horror] was a big hit, I guess because I was such a crazy loon in that, I think nobody knew what to do with me next, even I’d been Dr. Kiley and this and that. So all of a sudden, I get a call from Stewart Raffill: “I’ve got a film going in Mexico, and I want you to take the lead in it. James Coburn is in it, Anthony Quinn is in it, but you’re the main guy.” That was High Risk. And we had a ball.

Gas Food Lodging (1992)—“John Evans”

JB: That was interesting because it was just a little picture, and I drove out there myself. I think they said they couldn’t even afford airplane tickets, but they’d get me there, and I said, “No, no, no, I’ll drive down. I’ve got a friend in Santa Fe.” So I believe we shot around Albuquerque, and it turned out to be a real interesting, heartfelt film. I really got into it, and I got a lot of good reviews. You know, for a change. [Laughs.] But it was really interesting, and Allison [Anders], the director, I think she’s loaded with tattoos and earrings and green hair and lives in Topanga now. I’m sorry that she isn’t doing more films. She probably has a lot of things planned, but when someone that colorful shows up at an office looking for 5 million dollars for a movie to be made… I don’t know whether that has anything to do with it, but I’m on her side. I loved doing that movie with her.

Advertisement

AVC: Well, at least she’s keeping herself occupied: She’s doing a lot of episodic work now.

JB: Oh, good. That’s what a lot of feature directors are forced to do now. It’s really somewhat of a franchise business now. That, or it’s independent financing. But that’s great that she’s working and keeping busy. Allison was very colorful visually, but I loved being around her.

The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard (2009)—“Ben Selleck”

JB: [Sighs.] The Goods. Kinda corny. It was a job. I had a feeling that it might be a little better that it was, but I felt kind of stilted and out of place the whole time, and I never got to nurture a character with a beginning, middle, and end. But it wasn’t my picture. It was their picture. As an older actor, I have to get used to working with people. It’s funny, but it comes back to The Cape Town Affair again, which was a remake of Pickup On South Street, with Richard Widmark and Jean Peters. I did that, and I went, “I like being the lead.” [Laughs.] That’s it. Those five words sum it up. It’s a really great feeling when you’re number one on the call list. At this point, though, I don’t crave it like I did for awhile. I mean, there are 11 people on Life in Pieces, and I’m having the greatest time. I worked all day yesterday, I was done by noon today, and I’m off tomorrow. That’s a pretty good job!

Community (2013)—“William Winger”
Castle (2013-14)—“Jackson Hunt”

AVC: You popped up to play Joel McHale’s dad on an episode of Community.

JB: Yeah. [Hesitates.] Yeah, and I kind of got it. You know, I’d look at the show, and a lot of the jokes… Either I’m too old or something, but I didn’t get the comedy. I thought it was a segmented audience, even though it might’ve been a big audience. I’d never done a half-hour comedy, and I did it because my daughter said, “Dad, you’ve got to do this.” And I said, “I don’t know. It’s just not my cup of tea.” But I did it.

Advertisement

AVC: Was Castle more your cup of tea?

JB: Oh, yeah. I loved that. When they called me about it, I said, “You know, if I’m going to do this, I have some ideas about how just dangerous this man is.” Because he had given up his family and his son to be clandestine and to not have any ties at all, because of the spy activities and the assassination activities, and yet he could still be a decent personality. One you shouldn’t trust, but a decent personality. So I enjoyed that the first time, and I enjoyed the ensuing appearance as well. But when they came back and in essence said that they wanted me—or at least I interpreted it that way—as permanent cast, then they basically said—well, they said it, but they didn’t say it—that, “Oh, but we can’t afford that.” And at this point, if someone isn’t making me an offer that I literally can’t refuse, I love my hammock too much to leave it for too long. [Laughs.] I never thought I would. Early on I moved to the ranch in Paso Robles, I lived in Ojai, and I do love being away from everything, but I’d jump in the car and drive four hours each way from Paso to have lunch at the studio. I don’t feel that way now. I’ve found that “no” is a very powerful word. I wish I’d learned that years ago!

The West Wing (2002)—“Governor Robert Ritchie, R-FL”

JB: Yeah, that was supposed to be an arc of five episodes. They came to me, and it was a nice deal: They wanted me to do an arc of five, and they told me when I’d start and when I’d be done. Well, the first show went so well that I have a feeling that I may have embarrassed the president. [Laughs.] You know, the president on the show: Marty [Sheen]. Well, the second show was written so stupid—I got into a debate, and I was such a doofus and was so bad—and then I was washed out from then on. So I never could quite explain that, except that somebody may have objected. So that kind of went south. I was absolutely looking forward to dealing with some of that superb writing and knowing that I’d be there for five episodes and then I’d be gone. But it happened a little quicker than that.

Advertisement

The Reagans (2003)—“Ronald Reagan”

AVC: Well, at least you got made back to Washington the following year.

JB: Wasn’t that weird? I got a call about that, and I said, “You’ve obviously been to everyone in town, everyone’s turned you down, and now you’ve got the money to shoot and all you’ve got left is Brolin. So you’re calling Brolin.” [Laughs.] I wouldn’t even read it! I said, “That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard of! If a guy was ever going to bury his career… I should play Reagan?” But then the two producers, Craig [Zadon] and Neil [Meron], were so persistent that they had me sit down and said, “Just read for a half-hour.” And I started reading, and I went, “Hmmm… This is interesting. This guy is out there.” And then I started reading some books, and well, anyway, we made the deal 11 days before we started shooting.

Advertisement

Of course, I was in a real panic. I knew I could kind of partially do something in that direction, but for 11 days I was just walking around with my laptop in front of my face with DVDs of Reagan in there, just trying to figure out who this guy was and how I tied into it. It’s interesting when you play a real-life character, which I’ve done…I think twice. This one, and [Clark] Gable. You know, Gable And Lombard is still Universal’s highest-testing picture in the history of their company, and it was pulled from theaters in a week. So who knows about this business? [Laughs.] But The Reagans turned out fairly good. I got some nominations. And when I looked at it later, I went, “Wow, I don’t even recognize myself in a couple of moments!”

AVC: Were you surprised by the controversy over the film, with CBS dropping it and leaving Showtime to pick it up?

JB: The same way I’m surprised that Hilary [Clinton] is still being beaten up over the emails. It’s the same group of people. In a way, I wasn’t surprised, because I know how they operate when they want to bury somebody. The weird thing is, Viacom owned both CBS and Showtime, and as we were shooting it, we were just getting such great reactions from CBS. But then when this thing started to happen, it all turned very bleak, and the next thing I heard, Viacom was reducing the show from CBS, where they had 104 million viewers, to Showtime, which had something like four million paid subscribers. So a lot of people didn’t see it. But it was still nominated, and just to be nominated… I thought I had a good chance, but [Al] Pacino had a really good miniseries that year, too [Angels In America].

Advertisement

Gable And Lombard (1976)—“Clark Gable”

AVC: You’ve said in the past that Gable And Lombard was your favorite experience you’ve ever had in front of the camera.

JB: Yes, it was. Everybody was just so delightful. Sidney Furie was such a supporting, wonderful director. I kept saying, “Sidney, I’m the wrong guy for this,” and he’d say, “No, you’re the guy. Here’s what I want you to study: I want you to watch films, and I want you think about what went on in the ’30s and ’40s. Just do this. I’ll come back in a week, and let’s meet again.” Well, we did, and I guess he was right. [Laughs.] I was still doing Welby when I did that picture. They wanted Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw to play Gable and Lombard, which is a little silly. And Sidney said, “No, if you want my picture, I have this kid you have under contract, and I want him to do it.” And therefore I did it. It was kind of the same thing as The Reagans: At first I said, “This is stupid,” and then I started kind of getting with it.

It’s amazing how we’re trained to do different things, but everyone wants to hire you for the last thing you did, and they don’t want you to do different things. Meanwhile, that’s all you do in workshops: something different every night, every week. For awhile I was in a workshop five nights a week. That’s when I realized I probably wasn’t someone who was best-suited to be an actor. [Laughs.] I mean, there’s nothing natural about me. I was just so moved by films and the people who did them. I bought my first movie camera and called myself a cinematographer-director at 15. I had my first darkroom for stills at 10. So I was definitely loving images and what you could do with them at an early age. But, you know, I also loved playing guitar and piano. I could just never remember anything in that area from day to day!

In junior high school, I joined the projection crew, so I would carry the projector around with a roll of film under my arm, and that was my job – as an elective all year long. But all of these films we’d get in would all be broken. They’d be spliced wrong or have three broken places in a reel, so you’d have to stop the film and wrap it around the reel and rethread it and start it again. So I got in the habit of checking all these films and seeing how I could make smooth cuts when I’d fix the breaks, where I could splice them to make it as smooth as possible. That’s where I learned what editing was all about. So when I bought my first camera and an editing machine, I learned to cut film at a very early age. And I think I’m still pretty good at it still. I’ve been in the Director’s Guild for 30 years now. I sort of pride myself on what I know that has never been exploited. [Laughs.]

Finish Line (1989)—“Martin Shrevelow”
The Young Riders (1992)—director
My Brother’s War (1997)—“John Hall,” director

AVC: In fact, you directed your son (Josh) in an episode of The Young Riders.

JB: Yeah! And then I directed him again in a movie in Ireland, My Brother’s War.

Advertisement

AVC: What was it like working with him in that capacity?

JB: Oh, we got along great. Where we did have our little differences—and I guess part of it was the way the role was written, too—was when we were in the first Turner film ever shot. It was called Finish Line, and in that we had our differences, but as I remember, I think it was because the character of the father was pushing the son really hard to be good enough to be in the Olympics, to the point where the son started taking steroids secretly in order to keep up. But we get along great. Half an hour ago, I was sitting at a stoplight, and I sent him a silly picture of me that I had, with a carved puppet that kinda looked like Mortimer Snerd sitting on my lap, and he sent me back some funny stuff. He only lives about 25 minutes away, so we visit a lot. And he’s an avid surfer, so he’s always out here in Malibu on the waves when he’s not working.

AVC: It still strikes me as funny that he once told you that he wouldn’t be in your business for anything.

Advertisement

JB: That’s right! Yeah, and then he came to me and said, “I’ve got to take an elective, and I can take wood shop, metal shop, or this acting class.” And I was surprised, because he said, “I’d never do anything like you do,” so I didn’t know why he was bringing this up to me, but I said, “Well, you know, the only reason you could take this acting class is that it puts you in someone else’s shoes psychologically, looking back at yourself. It helps you figure out a lot of things.” Not everyone, of course. There’s a lot of crazy actors. [Laughs.] But there’s a lot of smart actors, too. I’ve worked with a lot of smart guys. But, yeah, I just advised him that he could learn a lot about himself and about the people he was having trouble with at school.

And the next thing I know, he’s Stanley Kowalski in the school play, and he’s asking me, “Where can I go to next? Where can I go where they teach about camera and film and this and that?” So I guided him to another school, and he’d be gone until two in the morning night after night after night, applying himself, and then he did summer stock for years, and then he moved to New York. This guy really put his homework in. Whereas not only did I not enjoy the stage, I was afraid of it. I was afraid of all of that dialogue in one mouthful. Other guys are suited for it. I don’t think my mind was.

Capricorn One (1977)—“Charles Brubaker”

JB: Do you know that only cost something like $4.4 million? I think that’s right. And that was a big looking movie. It was British money, and we shot it all in Mojave, in a hangar. I think all the stage stuff was in a hanger out there, too. Gosh, that had good luck. And Peter Hyams had been a news cameraman in New York, and when he was interviewing people after the moon shot, there were people who said, “Ah, it’s the phoniest thing I’ve ever seen. First of all, the moon is made out of cheese…” He actually heard that, he said! But he said that over and over he heard, “It’s the phoniest thing. You’d change the channel, you go to CBS, and it’d be a different set.” Well, they were mocking up everything that was happening at the different networks, so people thought it was the moon shot, except that they changed the channel and it was like a different movie. So he went, “Wow, this would make a great movie: that it was a phony set up in order to save NASA’s budget for the year, so they could get their budget again the next year.”

Anyway, I enjoyed it. Sam Waterston was great, and O.J. [Simpson] cheated at backgammon whenever anybody looked away. [Laughs.] Otherwise, we got along great. Elliott [Gould] and I are still good friends. I saw him the other night. It was just a really good experience. And Peter Hyams as a director was just so on top of his game. It really taught me how good a movie a guy can make if he does his homework and insists and doesn’t take second best.

The Car (1977)—“Wade Parent”

JB: That was the result of me saying, “Look, if you guys aren’t going to do something with me in motion pictures, then I’m out of here!” Boy, I made a lot of people mad. I actually ended up finding a lot of bogus timecard sign-outs where I had worked and they said, “Oh, no, he left early. We signed him out.” But I hadn’t. I’d worked late hours, and they’d never paid me. So that went to two lawyers and two courts, and the next thing I know, I’m in a movie in exchange for dropping the whole thing! But I think they were still mad at me. I think that’s one reason why Gable And Lombard was pulled so quickly. I mean, that doesn’t really figure, but I just always had a hunch that somebody said, “Look, this kid was right, he’s got a hit here, but if I pull it out from him, he doesn’t have nothing!” [Laughs.] And I don’t want to mention the guy in charge, but I know who it was over there.

Advertisement

And The Car was interesting to do and, of course, when you’re making it, you’re always thinking, “Well, this is going to be great!” And then I saw it, and I thought it was just awful. And I thought I was awful. And the leading lady was nothing too special. You know, the whole thing was just a weird package.

The Amityville Horror (1979)—“George Lutz”
Night Of The Juggler (1980)—“Sean Boyd”

JB: I was shooting Night Of The Juggler, which I loved, but the problem was that Sidney Furie, who directed Gable And Lombard, quit after I broke my foot in the middle of the movie, and left. And another guy took over the picture, and it was never quite as good a picture afterwards. But the whole beginning of Night Of The Juggler was great.

But as I’m shooting Night of the Juggler, I’m living in New York in an apartment—which I should’ve bought!—and somebody says, “There’s no script, but you ought to read this book, The Amityville Horror, because they’ll have the script soon, and they really would like to have you do it.” So I was reading this novel at night and it’s two in the morning. Well, I would hang my pants on the door of the bedroom, I’d throw them over the top corner of the main door coming into the bedroom, and all of a sudden the pants fell off the door onto the floor. How I didn’t hit my head on the ceiling, I have no idea, because I was at a scary part of this book, and it so surprised me that I started laughing after I recovered and said, “I’ve got to do this movie!” And that’s how that happened. But it ended up being seen as a horror classic of sorts, and it had the largest independent grosses of all time up to that point.

Advertisement

AVC: It’s a shame about the sequels, but what can you do?

JB: [Laughs.] Yeah, I know. They came back to me for the sequels. They sent me the scripts, and I gave ‘em a read. And then I passed. [Laughs.]

Hotel (1983-88)—“Peter McDermott”
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)—“P.W.”

JB: Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure was a thing where Bob Evans was running Warners at the time, and he called me and said, “Jim! We’ve got this little role in the Pee-Wee Herman movie, and we don’t have any money, but where would you like to go?” And I went, “Um…” And I grabbed the Sunday Times from the table in front of me, and I started going, “Go? You mean going somewhere?” And the whole time I’m killing time, flipping pages, looking for the farthest-away place I can find in the Travel section. [Laughs.] Finally, I said, “Hey, Hong Kong! I’ve never been to Hong Kong! Can I have a week there?” “All right, all right, we’ll get you first-class tickets and a great hotel.”

So that’s what I did that for. And I think it was all of about two days, and it was a five-minute walk from where I was doing Hotel. But I made friends with Paul Reubens and found my way onto his Christmas card list, and then what also happened was that I got all these 5- to 10-year-olds who were such fans of Pee-Wee, and those 5- to 10-year-olds became adults, and to them, I’m the guy. [Laughs.] I’m P.W.! It’s amazing how you can impress some people on film and it just sticks, while others just…don’t. When I talk with my kids about opportunities, I always talk about trout. They hang around at the foot of the falls, and when a piece of food comes down the falls, if you don’t grab it right then, it’s downstream and you’ll never see it again. Opportunities are the same way. You’ve got to recognize your opportunities.

Advertisement