Actor James Brolin

The veteran actor joins us in a career conversation and shares about his role in the hit CBS comedy Life in Pieces.

James Brolin is among the entertainment industry's most popular stars, with acting and directing credits that range from comedy and drama to big scale action-adventure. He began his career in 1961 while attending UCLA where he landed a small role on the Bus Stop TV series. Soon after, James received a 20th Century Fox film contract and for the next five years, Brolin starred in minor roles in Fox films such as Take Her, She's MineGoodbye Charlie and Fantastic Voyage. He is most widely recognized for his starring roles in the critically acclaimed television dramas Hotel and Marcus Welby, M.D., for which he earned Emmy and Golden Globe Awards. As a director, Brolin made his feature film debut with My Brother's War, which won Best Film at the Hollywood Film Festival. On the small screen, he directed The Young Riders, which starred his son, Josh Brolin, and he executive produced, directed and starred in Pensacola: Wings of Gold. He currently stars in the CBS comedy series, Life in Pieces.  

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with Hollywood veteran, James Brolin. The award-winning actor has had a successful film and TV career both behind and in front of the camera. He joins us tonight to talk about his role in the CBS family sitcom, “Life in Pieces”.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A career conversation with James Brolin coming up right now.

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Tavis: So pleased to welcome Golden Globe and Emmy award-winning actor, James Brolin, to this program. He is among the entertainment industry’s most popular stars with acting and directing credits that range from comedy and drama to big scale action adventure.

He joins us to talk about his latest project on CBS, the sitcom called “Life in Pieces”. But before we start our conversation, here now a clip from tomorrow night’s season finale.

[Clip]

Tavis: First of all, I think you chose a nice vehicle to get in to return.

James Brolin: Yeah.

Tavis: But why this vehicle?

Brolin: I do one or two things a year, you know, and a lot of them you’ll never hear of. You know, I go off somewhere. To me, this business, a plane ticket going somewhere is the best part. I don’t know who I’m going to work with. I don’t know where I’m going to work, what I’m going to do.

But being on location somewhere and kind of discovering that area of the world and saying, ” I think I’m gonna buy here”, which I’ve done a million times. I’ve never bought anywhere, you know [laugh]. But, anyway, I had read several pilots–you know, if a pilot sells, that means you’re stuck doing the same thing every day.

I feel kind of the same way about stage plays. Other actors would go, “Yeah, but I do it different every night.” I’m not of that mind, you know. I also love the mechanics of film and that they’re little still squares, still pictures, all glued together and they move when you pass them by you.

So I’ve been in love with film since I was 10. I had my first darkroom when I was 10 and then I bought my first movie camera to make movies when I was 15. So TV has always been like, even though, what, have I been 16 years on prime time altogether now? It’s always been, God, you know, I have to do this same thing again next week?

So, anyway, I’ve been in my hammock in Malibu for 10 years except for these little plane rides every once in a while and I’ve been offered several things in the last few years, all of which I went, “This is a comedy, right? It’s not funny. It’s not that funny.” Normally, I’ll go, oh, that’s funny, that’s funny. Well, I was on the floor with this script and I went, “How can I not do this?”

I had this inkling about my father and the comedy that we were raised around. He was a very bright guy. He graduated from Caltech and was pulled out of there by Donald Douglas to figure out why the DC3s at Santa Monica–they were being built at Santa Monica–were falling apart.

And then Bill Lear grabbed him from Donald Douglas and then, one day, he says, “I’m going to go look for the Lost Dutchman. I got enough money saved up.” So we moved to Arizona for five years. At six years old, I was driving a Jeep around.

And then he moved back. He went broke, went back to L.A. and started building houses in Beverly Hills and Bel Air. He designed them and then had a young architect sign it off as if he designed it and then build these houses.

So I saw kind of lot of territory when I was a young kid and the same time every day–you saw the Mai Tai in my hand there with the bare-breasted glass and everything? Every day at 5:00, it was a Mai Tai and he would become silly.

And we had four of us kids that would, you know, two sisters and my brother and myself, actually kind of got with the comedy of it and everything was a joke consistently because we didn’t know how to deal with them.

Tavis: You shared a lot about what you saw watching your father. What was your greatest takeaway from your father? What was your father’s greatest gift to you watching the ups, the downs, the successes, the failures, the different things he tried? What’d your father teach you?

Brolin: Well, I’ll tell you. You’re asking what is. I’ll tell you what wasn’t.

Tavis: What wasn’t. Fair enough.

Brolin. First. He never threw a ball with me and never took me to a ballgame. So, you know, when I get in a group of alpha guys and they go, you know, who you think’s gonna win, you know, I go, “I don’t know. Who’s playing?” And I love to go. I love to go to a game and watch it. Can’t remember unless I have a personal friend that might be playing.

So I’m a skier and an ex-surfer and such, and I found that all the things that I was around, the Lost Dutchman, the desert, a building, I became a good plumber, I became a good carpenter. He liked to fly-fish in camp, so I’m a great fly fisherman now, and I love it.

And he gave me these gifts, and yet guys say, “Come on, play golf with us.” We just do it for fun. And then I get out there and all the $100 bills start coming out, and I’m the worst golfer, you know [laugh].

I would have loved it if he had given me a golf club at six years old and gotten that muscle memory working and everything, but I was kind of, for a physical kind of guy. I was never that good at anything. I’m physical, but I’m not good at anything, you know.

Tavis: All right, so that’s what he didn’t give you. What is the greatest takeaway? What did he give you?

Brolin: Well, that was the part, that he gave me the fly fishing and the ability to fix anything. You know, you’re air conditioning breaks, I’ll have it fixed by this afternoon even though I have to run to the hardware store 10 times and ruin my day [laugh].

That’s the thing about–Clint Eastwood was always smart because when he was asked to hang a picture, he’d always hit his thumb and get out of it [laugh]. Therefore, he became a great filmmaker instead.

Tavis: So I think–I was about to ask a question, but I think I know part of the answer, but I’ll ask anyway. You were telling the story about your father and said that you and your siblings got to a point where everything became comical to you.

When I was asking you about why this became the vehicle for you to come back, I was about to say it didn’t have to be comedy. I mean, you’ve done drama, obviously, as well. Were you specifically looking for something comedic?

Brolin: No, not at all, no. As a matter of fact, I had at least three–this was at least the third comedic thing that was sent to me within a two-year period for a pilot, you know. And I’m going with the others, I was going, “What if this sells? I don’t know. Oh, that’s funny and that’s funny”. But I wasn’t on the floor like with this one.

So also they were telling me, there’s a cast of 10 or 11 in this show. Yeah, work two days a week. Well, now I was, what, 26 when I had my first lead in a cheap movie and I came away from there saying I like being the guy. I like being the guy in the movie, you know [laugh]?

So that’s probably my only problem is, yeah, so I work two days a week, but I want to be the guy. I want to work every day. You know, that’s a dichotomy of age. Old actors love to complain [laugh], you know.

Tavis: Speaking of your early career, I’ll play fan boy just for two seconds and then I’ll stop being fan boy. But I remember so vividly growing up as a kid in Indiana in the Midwest. I don’t know why, maybe Shari Belafonte had something to do it, but I fell in love with “Hotel”. I was such a “Hotel” watcher back in the day…

Brolin: And Nathan…

Tavis: In retrospect, what do you think of when you hear that series referenced to you?

Brolin: You know, first of all, Connie Sellecca was the most delicious person to ever work with. I never saw a woman that, for seven years, came to work every day and laughed first thing in the morning and all day laughed at everything. You know, these gals have their bad days, right?

Tavis: Yeah [laugh].

Brolin: Not her. Also, the mix of cast was just–I don’t know. I get along with everybody, but I really loved going to work there. And then Aaron Spelling. He always went, “You want that expensive suit? Go buy it.” I mean, for wardrobe.

I mean, you get on these movies and you see the Kohl’s tag on there, you know, 99-cent jacket [laugh]. You know, they doll it up by taking it in, but you know it’s going to fall apart. But he would go, “Jeez, go to Saks and get your clothes. I think you should be driving a Porsche in this.”

Actually, I always had hair that was just straight, right? So if you go back to any of those old “Hotels”, I had Gus, the hair guy, he had a curling iron and I said, “I want to look Italian.” I wanted really tight curls. I look at it today and go what was I thinking, you know? Because once you started, you had to keep it up, you know.

Tavis: How are you these days making choices about what to direct? Do you see stuff that you want to sink your teeth into as director?

Brolin: You know, I did the 2014 Christmas movie called “Christmas with Tucker” for Hallmark, and it was the highest-rated movie they’ve ever had. Why, I’m not sure. It was cute. The kid and the dog and me and Grandpa and…

Tavis: That’s it. You got a kid and a dog, you got a hit [laugh].

Brolin: That’s right. So they came back to me this year and said, “We’d like you to do the Christmas movie this year.”

Tavis: Oh, cool.

Brolin: So we are grooming the script now with the kid and a dog. As a matter of fact, the little girl from…

Tavis: From your TV series, exactly.

Brolin: I want Giselle on there because she’s so precocious and they’re using her for that. But I want her to be like the only person in the whole film that knows what life’s really about. As you grow older, you get clouded and a little confused and the kids know. So she’s in a sense not a savant, but, you know, a very bright child. She has the psychology that’s right.

I’ll that script in a week and, if it’s all green-lit and everybody’s good, I start prepping in two or three weeks and then start shooting. So I’m going to do the Christmas movie this year. But I have had the advantage with this to go all the way through and groom it exactly the way I want.

I’ve got a writer that says, “Good idea!” and I say, “I don’t like that idea” and they say, “Got five more.” And when do you ever get to do that, you know?

Tavis: That’s what you want if you can get it.

Brolin: Yeah. In the meantime, for three years now, I’ve been trying to get $14 million to direct the Ruby McCollum story about rape in the late 40s by her physician who she came in and shot after three years of this, of drugging her and raping her and causing her husband to die. A great story, and I have no idea why it wasn’t done.

But I read the script and I went, “Not a movie. It’s a movie script, but it’s not working”. So I rewrote it and everybody says, “Wow, can’t wait to see this movie” and now, you know, it’s hard to get things financed. But I will, I will.

Tavis: That story always–and I’m not naïve about this. I want to hear your take on this. So I’m not naïve about this, but it’s always fascinated me that, even when you have a good script and you have James Brolin who is going to do this thing, you still have to claw to get the financing.

Brolin: Absolutely. And I remember Jon Peters and John Guber saying around the time that they begin the heads of Sony, they said, “We’ve done 64 films. We’ve had eight mega hits and every one is like starting over.” So that gives me, you know, the fuel to keep going. And then there’s this other saying that you want a big bag of no’s. Because the more people say no, the bigger the bag and you’re closer to yes.

Okay, doesn’t put me off. I got a great project and I’m going to get it done and we have the book rights for it. And then the other thing is, first of all, what am I doing directing a feature and what am I doing directing a black feature? It’s really not. It’s about…

Tavis: It’s a human story. It’s a very human story.

Brolin: But it could have happened to anybody.

Tavis: Absolutely. Don’t let them put race on it. That’s not what the story is.

Brolin: Yeah, yeah, I agree, I agree, and that’s the way I look at it.

Tavis: I know that story well, yeah.

Brolin: Good, good.

Tavis: So when you sat down today, which I was very pleased to hear, your son sent me greetings and salutations through his father. He’s been a guest on this program before. Always welcomed back any time you want to come back, Josh.

But I know it must really–I don’t know who to quote on this. But I guess it must really feel good when you see the success. I mean, this guy, this kid of yours, man, he’s killing it. He’s killing it.

Brolin: You know, I watched him for many years. I directed one of the “Young Riders” years ago when he was on that for three years and I saw him go from this to that and a pilot that didn’t work, you know, a picture that didn’t work.

And then one day, I don’t know, I think it’s that–I used to say when I was young that when a guy becomes 35, he better change his deodorant because something happens. He’s a man and new hair’s popped out, you know, and the women perk up and go, “Gee, why didn’t I notice him before?”

Because that’s kind of exactly what happened to him. Suddenly, he got very aggressive. He got very opinionated and he went after things, which I did this year with “Sisters”.

I went after something because he did. I didn’t know you could do that, you know. I was submitted the script for “Sisters”. I called back and said, “Yeah, this is great. I’d love to do that” and they said, “We’re not interested in you.”

I went, “No, no, I just want two minutes in the office with him.” “No, they got offers out to other people.” I said, “Two minutes! Two minutes!” So I got aggressive about it and I got an answer back two days later saying, “Well, they’re in New York.” I said, “Fine. Be there Monday.”

On Thursday, I had an appointment down by the Staten Island Ferry at 4:00 with the director and the producer. We didn’t drink. We just had iced tea in the bar at the Ritz Carlton there and, at 15 minutes, I went, “Well, these guys are great. They don’t sound opposed to everything.”

They said, “Great, Jim, you know, we hadn’t thought of you really” and I said, “I’ll tell you what, guys, I’m going to do a screen test and send it to you.” They said, “What do you mean?” I said, “I’m going to go do something. I’m going to do a couple of minutes of film and you watch it.” So I got back to the room later and I actually picked up my iPad and I tried something.

I went, “Oh, that ain’t gonna do it.” So for three days, I tussled with this and it was Sunday now and I went, “There’s no way. If I don’t do this tonight, it’s all off. We’re into next week.” So I did this thing. I put music on, I had background and I put this thing together and, next day, I heard, “Oh, you got it. It’s yours.”

And rumors were all over that I had done it and I thought, “Man, Josh was right.” You know, The Cohen Brothers didn’t want to see him for “No Country For Old Men”. They wouldn’t see him for at least a month.

Tavis: And that would have been a huge mistake because he was brilliant.

Brolin: Nominated for an Oscar.

Tavis: Absolutely, yeah.

Brolin: So good old Josh. Your kids teach you.

Tavis: I was about to say. But the amazing part of that story is it’s what you learned from your son.

Brolin: Yeah, yeah, and I still do. Now I call him and he may give me brief answers, but I call him and say, “What do you think of this?” “I don’t know. Why you asking me?” [laugh] Or I go, “You look great.” ” What do you mean by that?” [laugh] It’s fathers and sons, though. You guys know about that.

Tavis: You mentioned you were trying to use your iPad to make this thing happen and you mentioned the word music. So when I hear music come out of your mouth, I think about your precious wife. Were you a music lover prior to connecting with her? I’m only asking because I wonder what the level of appreciation is now for music when you’re in the house with her every day.

Brolin: Well, it was so funny because I just bought her–we just cleaned out the speakers in the big family room where mostly I put in a 10-foot screen that comes out of the ceiling and then these speakers were really lousy. She’s doing an album right now and she brings the comps in and we put them in there.

So last week, I went, “Okay, I got to go buy speakers. This is not working it.” But until then, you know, until a situation like that, she doesn’t like music playing. She doesn’t like things she did in the past playing. So if I’m playing it, she’d say, “Could you turn that down?” [laugh]

But I must say, even I remember high school and early college, like Joanie Sommers was singing at Santa Monica City College where I was going, and Rickie Lee Jones and all these girls with these cute voices, you know.

I was such a fan of lady singers, you know, all along. And it’s funny. I don’t know whether I saw it live or I saw a video interview of her. Remember her huge thing in the park which was free?

Tavis: I remember, of course [laugh].

Brolin: 150,000 people show up in Central Park?

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Brolin: Well, I’m looking at this and she’s singing and then she stops and she starts talking. And I’m going, you know, “I don’t know about the singing, but I kind of love what she’s saying here. I’m going to have to remember this girl. This girl’s something.” Then later when I met her many years later, that was still in there and never gone away.

Tavis: Been 20 years now.

Brolin: 20 years, yeah.

Tavis: Wow, wow. We had on this program–I was blessed to meet them years ago and we finally, after years of trying, got a date together. A few years ago, the Bergmans came on here for a two-night program.

Brolin: Right, who’ve written so many Oscar-winning and hit songs for her.

Tavis: And she’s been their muse, as you know, of course, over the years. But just to sit and talk to the Bergmans for two nights was such a delicious opportunity.

Brolin: Aren’t they great?

Tavis: They are.

Brolin: And we’re still very close to them.

Tavis: Just wonderful people, yeah. So you’re doing this now.

Brolin: Yeah. And who knows? We haven’t been picked up yet…

Tavis: I was about to ask, I was about to ask.

Brolin: How could we not be? We were number 10 last week and it’s vacillating kind of back and forth. 8 million, 11 million, 10 million people. You know, back when I did “Welby”, we had 30 million people…

Tavis: TV was different, though. There were two or three networks at that time.

Brolin: And we were number one by the sixth show and stayed there for at least a year. So I’m pretty spoiled, you know. Actually, when we did this, I said to our executive producer, “I know you can’t put this in writing, but no laugh tracks and no audience ever or you’re going to see me going south.” If the jokes aren’t funny…

Tavis: Either they’re funny or they’re not, yeah.

Brolin: Oh, they’ve been great, though. They’ve been great and our audience is pretty solid already.

Tavis: Before my time runs out, since you mentioned “Welby”, I want to get there in the two and a half minutes I have left. What a great show. What kind of joy must it have been to be on that show?

Brolin: Well, I think if I hadn’t been the guy that justified the motorcycle in America [laugh], suddenly I was. That was Rodney Allen Rippy or what is singing? “You meet a lot of people on a Honda bike, you meet a lot of people that you really like…” You know, until then, it was Hell’s Angels, right?

And it was me and I hated the fact that the helmet laws had just come in, so they made me wear a helmet. I went, “I’ve never worn a helmet riding a bike”, but if the bike hadn’t of been there, I don’t know if I’d enjoyed that whole thing, you know, just being a nice doctor every week and all that.

But, actually, we had a lot of the medical groups, a lot of the doctors, especially GPs, were kind of angry with us because everybody expected curb service, you know, because we were just so accommodating, it was sick. But we were pretty popular, weren’t we?

Tavis: Pretty is an understatement. But your point is well taken, though. It shows how TV–you been in it for a long time–but how different it was then and now.

Brolin: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: The networks, the shows, the amount of stuff that you have access to now.

Brolin: And, see, every once in a while, I’ll run across either a nice offer or a nice role. Like I did “Castle” twice as this assassin father who has never been around his son because the government says we don’t want you to have any ties whatsoever. We’ll send you on your assassination. I did two of those shows and people go, “When are we gonna see you in that again?” Well, never [laugh].

But, wow, was that fun to do and go off. Even when I did “Reagan”, you know, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. I said, “This is a career killer. Me? Reagan? Come on.”

Tavis: But you pulled it off.

Brolin: And they actually insisted I read the first half hour. I said, “I don’t even want to read it.” And I read it and I went, “Hmm, this is interesting. This is really interesting.” So I did it and…

Tavis: And it worked.

Brolin: Got the nominations. Yeah, you never know, you never know. It’s a crap shoot, the whole deal.

Tavis: Well, your hand’s pretty good, though. Pretty good for a few years running now. His life is anything but. Not anywhere near being in pieces, but the series is called “Life in Pieces” on CBS and starring one James Brolin. I have enjoyed having you on. Come back any time.

Brolin: Thank you so much.

Tavis: Thank you for the time. I appreciate it.

Brolin: My pleasure.

Tavis: My pleasure. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: March 31, 2016 at 2:31 pm