The World According to James Brolin
"We’re all alone, we’re born alone, we die alone, and all I really need is a little bit of sunshine during the week and a really great sandwich."
Welcome back to “The World According To …”, a series in which we solicit advice from people who are in a position to give it. Up today: James Brolin. We could just lead this by saying that being married to Barbra Streisand for more than 20 years is more than enough to qualify him as a guy you should listen to, but there’s so much more.
In a career spanning nearly 60 years, Brolin can be described in many ways: TV star, father of an Oscar-nominated actor, ace character actor, husband of one of the most recognizable women in the world, the American who almost played James Bond (“That would have been real fun”), haunted house owner and Pee Wee Herman’s onscreen representation.
Due to the coronavirus, Brolin’s resume padding has slowed, which allowed the house-bound, Emmy-winning actor to describe the joys of getting older, surviving the tabloids and why a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich on Dave’s Organic Bread is a key to happiness.
InsideHook: What have you been doing with things on hold?
James Brolin: I’m not really interested in being in front of camera so much unless there’s something really interesting about it, where I can show people a side of me, or interpret it. Everything is kind of a crap shoot in a way, as far as your fear element: “Am I doing the right thing?” and “What am I really driven to do? What do I want to do?”
When’s the last time you felt that fear?
This picture I was going to direct and shoot. I was going to play an old divorced guy, and the house was a mess, and the wife was living in a senior [development] … Some of these new senior developments are very hip. There are people over 55 who like to screw, you know? So the wife is living this life she never had at home, all of a sudden, and he’s watching television with boxes full of shit everywhere in the old house they lived in. Everything is in disrepair.
There was something very scary about me kind of doing that. I’ve directed myself a lot, but somehow this was very important to me. I’m just kind of sad that it’s gone away. I’m going to have to reassess it and refinance it. But, in the meantime, I have been working on four scripts that other people wrote. I’m not good at writing anything original, but I’m good at scripts that were interesting but turned down by everybody. I’m a person that says, “I know how to fix this. Let me work on it for 30 days and then read it and I bet you’ll finance it,” and that’s kind of happening now.
You’ve been working steadily for 60 years, and I think for a lot of people it would be time to put your feet up in a hammock.
Yeah, and we have three little dogs running around the house that have no discipline whatsoever. Every time I go to take them and teach them and show them how to not do things we don’t want them to do and how to do cute things, everybody says, “Don’t treat the dog like that; leave the dog alone!” I remind them that I was a dog trainer for five years, and they say it doesn’t cut any ice whatsoever. That’s life. You play the card that you were dealt, not the one you wish you were dealt.
The same way you’re looking at the dogs and hoping to train them. It sounds like kind of the same thing with you and acting.
We [Brolin and his wife, Barbra Streisand] were having a conversation the other day, and she said, “Yeah, I tried to direct you to do some voiceover for me once and you were very difficult.” I said, “I was?” and she said, “Yeah, I’m not sure if we could ever do a project together, a full film.” And I said, “Of course we could!”
So, I got to thinking about that, and maybe I do have a way of saying “No, no this is the way I’m going to do it and that’s all there is to it” and yet never saying it to the person’s face. They get the feeling, and they go, “This guy is really … I’m not training him well.”
There was a great director that once said, “I just hire the good ones and turn ‘em loose.” There is something wonderful to that, you know: let the actor express himself and don’t interfere and make him feel guilty about fighting you on something. Then there are others that you have to really stop and try to piss them off and say quickly, “Let’s go again.”
When did you realize that was the way to go?
It took a long time. I was never really cut out to be an actor. I built a darkroom at 10 years old, and I was making box cameras. I had learned how to make a black tape camera and do pinhole cameras, and then my grandmother gave me a little Brownie. That led to me buying my first movie camera at 15, and of course going to the movies all through that period. We’d go on Saturday for 25 cents, and watch serialized movies: Westerns that were a half hour to an hour and a half, and then lots of cartoons. I just went, “Wow, I want to be part of this.”
Later on, because my dad was a contractor and I worked a lot on construction sites, I realized that this was just a construction site, and oh my God, I can do it as well as anyone else: you cut, and somebody saws a board and somebody paints a sign and tilts it up there and then you shoot again. And you say words into a camera, which is a machine, and I kind of took it in a very non-artistic way. It wasn’t until I was forced in front of a camera, realized that I cannot pull this off, I am so full of fear, that I started going to actors’ workshops every night of the week at five different schools.
When did you get comfortable?
Actually, now, I enjoy the discomfort. I don’t know if you completely get over it, but I think I combined my father and my brother’s silliness with the acting to the point where I always felt like I was spoofing myself and spoofing other people. And when you go to work every day. I was around 30 when I started Marcus Welby, which was the number-one show after the sixth airing, and it was an important role. I had to be up at 6:30 every morning, and that will get you over it, too. Same as the workshops. You get up every day, and you do it every day, and you realize you aren’t dead at the end of the day. You go, “I made this deal, and now I’ve got to deliver, I’ve got no choice whatsoever.” And it hurts like hell but you do it.
What keeps you going?
You know the greatest thing about this business to me? Not your performance, your art, your acting. It’s getting a plane ticket somewhere and wandering around the streets of somewhere you’ve never been, seeing things you’ve never seen, meeting people you’ve never met before, and all getting together to try to do a project that nobody really knows anything about, that’s eventually released in a theater or on television or something. That is so adventurous to me I could be Christopher Columbus.
I just love it when a bunch of people who don’t know each other come together for the same goal, and some of them have their problems during the day, and others are so cooperative. I long for it tomorrow morning. I wish I had a call sheet here that I was going somewhere.
You turned 80 in July. Did that feel any different from the previous birthdays?
It didn’t feel any different than the previous day. I think I was more shocked when I turned 30 because there were several movies and philosophies in those days that once you’re 30, that’s it, your life is pretty much over with. “Oh my God, I’m 30, I’ve misspent the last 10 years,” and that was the last time I felt that.
I have found that my most energetic time was my 50s to 60s. [They were] kind of the most exciting and happy time of my life. Everything sort of falls into place, and you realize that this is it, and God I love every second of it, and I hope I make it to 60 or 65. Well, here we are. I’ve discovered that nothing is shut off, I don’t think. I don’t necessarily like grey hair and having to lie on the floor, because I’m getting roundback, to try to improve my posture and all that stuff, but it’s pretty cool.
Then now, I must say I was really great with taking my kids places when they were growing up, but I was gone a lot. Josh is gone a lot, but now he has two kids who are almost 30, and he has a new baby that’s a year and a half, and another one on the way in November.
I’m sort of like absorbing that now. It’s like I did it, in a way. It’s like my grandchildren are my children. That’s something I never kind of considered. A grandchild to me before — I was so busy — it was someone who, if you had a moment, you’d invite them for the weekend on a fishing trip and then you wouldn’t see them until Christmas. That’s, maybe, the downside to my business.
What was about your fifties that made it such a beloved decade for you?
I think that I didn’t have any doubts about anything. I was respected. I felt respected. I had a lot to say, a lot to write about. I was, of course, busy a lot. That helps. I think the discovery of suddenly looking at “Why do I feel so good? I never felt quite this good.” And maybe letting go of a lot of presumptions that you might have had as a child. They say that you’re pretty much groomed in your personality and intent and fears by the time you’re five. But I think anytime anybody puts you down, or you accept any negativity, it’s like a post office box on the wall behind you where they store letters. The information goes in there and it never comes out. All you can do is take in new information to understand what those first ingestions were. I think, in your 50s, if you’re lucky like me — and I don’t think I’m that much of an exception — I think that’s an age where you kind of go, “Oh, I see how life works. It’s cool. It wasn’t against me at all.”
When all those things started to fall into place, was that what set you up for meeting and ultimately marrying Barbra?
I had almost been celibate, not dating, staying away from any affairs after I divorced for seven years and saying, “Who needs that? Been there, done that.” Then, all of a sudden, somebody taps you on the shoulder, you turn around, and, the next thing you know, it’s a whole new life. So, Barbra was totally unexpected, something I said I didn’t need in my life, and here we are 24 years later. And people were saying, “Jim, this will never work. You know about her? You’re too much of personalities that don’t match.”
One of the things about her, if anyone had any objections about her, it’s that she’s brutally telling the truth, with a lot of grace. But a lot of people don’t understand that. It’s kind of personal to say, “Wow, why’d you say that? Know what’s wrong with you? Know what you should do?” and nobody wants to hear that. Well, I was really ready.
I had just shaved my heavy beard from Hotel, and that whole period, and I had cut all of my dyed hair off, and my curls, so I had this maybe half-inch-long hair all over my head with a little bit of dyed ends so it looked a little weird. It was white with each hair having a little brown-colored bit at the ends. She walked up behind me, she touched me on my head, and said, “Who fucked up your hair?”
I turned around and looked at this person with my mouth open for a while, and then I went, “God, I like this person.”
When the two of you started to date the media coverage was relentless. How did you guys get through that?
Well, I think that she was used to that both on the idolatry side and the “Here’s what’s wrong with her” side of the news. That publicity, you know, I think we get used to it early, and the stupid people believe a lot of their own publicity.
A couple of years ago, we were in the market. We were holding hands, and a weird little guy comes up and says, “I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it! You guys are holding hands?! Listen, come over here!” And he literally wanted us to come to the checkout counter to read the latest National Enquirer where we were in this huge divorce. The earlier you learn the absurdity, either as a magazine buyer or a subject of these articles, the smarter you are. [Laughs]
Are you worried about the future?
No, this train will come and go. I’m very concerned about weather damage and what’s happening and what we’re not implementing. Eventually we’re going to have electric airlines. We’re going to be able to slow this down, even though we can’t stop it. But the point is: We’re absolutely going in reverse right now. I just feel positive that man, as things really face him, is smart enough to resolve [them]. Look at how Tesla wants to get us to Mars to start a new subdivision.
I understand that he [Elon Musk] developed a new battery that’s half of the weight and charges like a spark, like a capacitor, it’ll charge instantly but discharge … so if you pull into a gas station, they put a plug in your car, it takes 10 seconds to fully charge it and then you have 1,000 miles to drive. That’s what they’ve got in their mind now. By golly, every time we’ve had something crazy in our mind, we seem to develop it, you know? Many times, just out of survival instinct, and other times just because. Thank God there are guys that are totally curious on how they can improve the world and how they can improve our utilities that we use.
That’s what gives me hope, ultimately. I would like to think common sense will see the day. But these last four years have not given me a whole lot of hope.
No. This train has stopped in town way too long. It’s time for it to leave. But all of these trains come and then they go out the other side and then you never hear of them again.
What is your one truth in life?
How did I get so lucky to get here? I think that’s it. Is that too simple, or stupid? There, you’re giggling right now in a way I do sometimes. Even people look at me and go, “God, how did you meet Barbra and end up living on the ocean?” That’s cool, too. But in the end, bottom line: We’re all alone, we’re born alone, we die alone, and all I really need is a little bit of sunshine during the week and a really great sandwich. That’s going to make me as happy as anything you can bring me.
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