Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Carry On, James!

Sometimes the way a person ages can really surprise you. One minute, a guy is a serviceable, if unspectacular, young actor. Then he’s a mature, quite hairy-looking, leading man. Next, he winds up a cute and hunky, salt ‘n pepper daddy with a newly discovered sparkle and sense of humor. Such was the case with today’s featured performer, Mister James Brolin.

Born Craig Bruderlin in Los Angeles in 1940, the family of seven (he is the oldest of five children) soon settled in Westwood, California. Following a childhood fascination with James Dean, he eventually decided to audition for acting work. Unlike many parents from that era, his actually encouraged him to proceed with a career in the field and introduced a director friend of theirs to meet him and supply advice. However, his earliest efforts were tested by the young man’s innate shyness.

When newfound pal Ryan O’Neal introduced him to his talent agency, he began to land small roles on TV series such as Follow the Sun and Bus Stop and soon changed his name. Brolin was a bastardization of Bruderlin and James was selected out of residual affection for his idol James Dean.

A contract with 20th Century Fox led to uncredited bits and background roles in films like Take Her, She’s Mine, Goodbye Charlie, Dear Brigitte and Fantastic Voyage, supplemented by roles on TV shows including 12 O’Clock High and The Patty Duke Show. In the movies, he was getting parts like “Mel; Mollie’s Student Friend at Airport,” “Student at Leaf Rally,” “Man Doing the Twist on Yacht” and “Technician.” In other words, he was going nowhere fast! A rare billed role (ninth) came in Frank Sinatra’s Von Ryan’s Express where he played Private Ames.

In 1967, he teamed with Jacqueline Bisset in The Cape Town Affair, a remake of the black and white classic Pickup on South Street, this time set in South Africa and with Claire Trevor in the role that Thelma Ritter had made famous in the prior rendition. (Claire got top-billing over her younger costars, too!) This was not much of a success and it was back to TV where he had a recurring part on The Monroes and appeared in a few episodes of the highly popular Batman (though as flunkies, not major villains.)

In 1967, James (whose features were very, shall we say, unusual, perhaps a little Cro-Magnon, thanks to a pronounced brow) had the distinction of being selected to model the chimpanzee makeup for the upcoming Planet of the Apes. He was tested with a female actress in early forms of the simian prosthetics to see how they would read onscreen. However, he was not assigned to the film when production commenced. He seemed in danger of ending up in the acting career trash can.

In 1969, he was placed in the new series Marcus Welby, M.D., a vehicle for former MGM screen actor Robert Young, who had enjoyed a previous television success with Father Knows Best. This series had him, as the title character, portraying a kindly, but firm-minded doctor who had a constant supply of patients with challenging medical (and emotional) conditions. Brolin was his youthful sidekick, Dr. Steven Kiley.

The pattern of placing a young up and comer with a veteran doctor had been working as far back as the 1930s when Lew Ayres played Doctor Kildare in the movies against Lionel Barrymore as his mentor. Richard Chamberlain had later played the same role on TV with Raymond Massey as his elder and Medical Center paired hunky Chad Everett with the older James Daly. Years later, Trapper John, M.D. would place a young Gregory Harrison with veteran actor Pernell Roberts.

Welby was a great hit, uniting the older viewers with younger ones, many of whom fell for Brolin as Dr. Kiley. What’s more, the serious nature of the show gave him a chance to show off the acting skills he’d been honing for nearly a decade. In 1970, he was nominated for and won an Emmy as Outstanding Actor in a Supporting Role. He was nominated again in ’71, ’72 and ’73 (also picking up two Golden Globes and an additional nomination during the run of the program.)
During hiatuses from Marcus Welby (a show that lasted until 1976), Brolin had roles in several other projects. He played a soldier in Skyjacked (see individual posting about that one!), which had an ensemble cast that included Charlton Heston, Yvette Mimieux, Walter Pidgeon and Susan Dey. Then he starred in one of the most fondly remembered TV disaster movies, Short Walk to Daylight, about a group of subway passengers trapped beneath the pavement when an earthquake strikes! Ever the hero, his character leads the way through mud, water and other hurdles. The concept was explored again years later in the more elaborate Sylvester Stallone vehicle Daylight.

1973 brought the TV film Trapped, all about a man who is inadvertently locked inside a department store overnight and is faced with six (!) vicious Doberman Pinchers. One of many, many movies to put Brolin through the ringer, this one was shown in some foreign markets as a feature film (with various new names including Doberman Patrol.)

This was also the year of the sci-fi thriller Westworld, a yarn concerning a fantastic amusement park that allows guests to interact with amazingly lifelike robots in three sections: MedievalWorld, RomanWorld and WesternWorld. Brolin and his pal Richard Benjamin opt for the Wild West and are sent scrambling for their lives when one of the robot cowboys, a menacing Yul Brynner, malfunctions and is out to get them for real! The film was a big hit, but Brynner gleaned most of the attention.

As the medical series wound up, Brolin found himself as one of the title characters in the big-budget, but miscast and misguided, Gable and Lombard. The story of legendary leading man Clark Gable and his wife, the sparkling comedienne and expert dramatic actress, luminous Carole Lombard, it put Brolin in some mighty big shoes to fill and he was not able to fill them effectively.

Likewise, costar Jill Clayburgh was no Lombard. The actors were put into many various contortions in order to make them look like their famous counterparts, but they resembled them the closest when they were in near darkness and with most of their faces obscured! A lot of advance publicity was for naught when the film opened to several damning reviews and a disappointed public.
The unnecessarily joke-y and relentlessly crude and common script took all the wrong elements from the stars’ personas and their careers and whipped them into a long, dull movie. Lombard did have a foul mouth, but she also had incredible taste. And the couple did like to have fun, but they also shared a significant love for one another, a love that caused them to move mountains (well, all except one!) to be together.

Even worse, it blatantly ignores the facts of their lives in order to present its own version. As in most cases of this kind, the real story was more compelling anyway!! Probably the most egregious example of this was when the film showed Gable, in his Army uniform, going to the plane crash site to look for his wife. Ummm. Gable joined the Army in a fit of despair over the loss of his wife and as a tribute to her tireless war efforts! So he wouldn’t be in uniform the day she perished. Incidentally, this shot of Gable as Rhett Butler has Morgan Brittany as Vivien Leigh/Scarlett. She would late play the same role in the telefilm The Scarlett O'Hara War.

Anyway, it may have had a few things going for it, but the film was mostly D.O.A. and Brolin’s shot at the big time was practically over in one fell swoop. He would, however, enjoy leading roles in a series of cheaper productions, some of which wound up being popular and at least one of which was actually very good!

Each of these films, in turn, for whatever reason, would seem to take pains in order to present Brolin as dirty and unkempt as possible! The Car was a dusty (and often ludicrous) suspense film that had a possessed, driverless vehicle tearing through a small desert town killing people whenever possible. This movie ran out of gas pretty quickly at the box office.

Next up was Capricorn One, a conspiracy thriller that posed the question, what if a trio of astronauts didn’t really land on the moon, but, in fact were faking it all on a movie set? And then what happens if the craft they were supposed to be in explodes?! While the movie was hardly realistic, it offered up a solid cast of familiar actors and is highly enjoyable as a chase flick.

Brolin was paired with Sam Waterston and a pre-debacle O.J. Simpson as the trio of astronauts who find out the hard way that they are expendable when the plan, which they wanted no part of, goes awry. The film also featured Elliott Gould, Brenda Vaccaro, Hal Holbrook, Telly Savalas and 70s staple Karen Black (who, in this shot, seems to be awfully chummy with Simpson!) Gould played a reporter who smells something fishy and attempts to uncover the plot.

The movie opens with an absolutely riveting and pulse-pounding theme by Jerry Goldsmith, one of my favorite pieces of credits music and Goldsmith continues to ramp up the excitement as two very threatening helicopters continue their never-ending pursuit of the astronauts across a sweltering desert. Again, Brolin was bedraggled and filthy, even filming this scene with a scorpion! (He’d already endured a rattlesnake bite – with its bottom teeth – during a scene in Westworld.)

One of Brolin’s most high profile movies came in 1979 when he played the father in The Amityville Horror. The book this film is based on was a major league bestseller and people were freaked out by the story (about a house that is possessed by evil, having led to a multiple murder there.) Paired with Margot Kidder and Rod Steiger, he had a heavy beard in this one and long, full hair. As his character is more and more affected by his surroundings, he gets creepier and creepier (and more Manson-like!)

Check out this hysterical foreign poster for the film that contains some of the cheapest and most rudimentary artwork ever imaginable! Compared to that, the stills on the poster look like something out of classic cinema.

By the time the movie is over, there have been more unintentional laughs than chills, but it was popular enough to warrant a sequel (or seven!) and a remake. Brolin’s character turns really mean and he blamed the movie for stunting his career for a while. His next project was a seedy (and, to some, silly) thriller called Night of the Juggler, in which he, an ex-cop (still sporting his Amityville beard and hair) has to hunt down kidnappers who have taken his daughter, believing her to be a child of wealth! His adventures take him through slums, peep shows and every other gruesome aspect of 1980 New York City.

1981 marked the last time Brolin would make a feature film for about a decade. High Risk had him flying to South America with a small group of friends in order to pilfer $5 million from a drug dealer. Trouble is, once the money is in their hands, they can’t get back home and are relentlessly hunted by not only the dealer, but by other bandits as well! Though the film wasn’t a big success, it counted amongst its cast Anthony Quinn, Ernest Borgnine, James Coburn, Bruce Davison and, as Brolin’s girlfriend, Lindsay Wagner.

Following this, Brolin toiled in several TV movies (including playing the principal love interest to Ann Jillian’s Mae West) until 1983 when he took on another series. This time, he was as far from the desert dust and city grime as you can get, for he was cast as the debonair Peter McDermott, operator of the plush St. Gregory in Arthur Hailey’s Hotel, an Aaron Spelling production. Also on board was Connie Sellecca, as Brolin’s right hand woman.

The two-hour pilot had none other than Bette Davis as Laura Trent, the owner of the hotel, but she suffered a severe stroke soon after and had to be replaced in the actual series. Now just who do you think was waiting in the wings to inherit the vacancy and play on the show until her own death?! None other than Miss Anne Baxter, Davis’s nemesis in All About Eve! Davis, from her sick bed, exclaimed hilariously that the show was so full of sex and mischief that it should have been called “Brothel!”

Hotel was like a land-locked The Love Boat, with various guests checking in and out each week. The opening credits involved an elevator that opened up to reveal the names and faces of the guest stars. Of all the TV shows ever made, no type of show ever pleased me more than ones like Hotel, Love Boat and any Quinn Martin Production (think Barnaby Jones or The Streets of San Francisco) which featured a roster of guests and put their picture and names into the opening credits! I just love credit sequences like that. Brolin was twice nominated for Best Actor Golden Globe awards during his stint on the series.

Hotel ran until 1988 and afterwards Brolin stayed busy with many TV movies and a few lesser-known features (many straight-to-video.) Among his TV flicks were the unwieldily named Beverly Hills Cowgirl Blues with Lisa Hartman (see, she has a Bolo tie. She’s a “cowgirl.”) and Intimate Encounters with Donna Mills (in which she’s a bored wife with many sexual fantasies, not to mention too much time on her hands!)

One of his hootiest roles ever came at the end of Pee Wee's Big Adventure when the title character was permitted to film the story of his life and chose to star James Brolin as himself. Brolin, with his trademark mane of hair and thick beard, wore Pee Wee's grey suit with red bow tie and straight-facedly played Herman as a secret agent (with the ever campy Morgan Fairchild clinging to him lustily!)
He also worked on a few more series, a primetime soap, Angel Falls, with Peggy Lipton, the very short-lived Extreme and the somewhat better known Pensacola: Wings of Gold, a syndicated series which allowed him to explore one of his earliest childhood loves, that of airplanes. By now the beard was gone and the once-thick brown hair was going grey and was chopped short. Mr. Brolin was still a hunk, but now he was a silver daddy! (He did cover it up in 2003 when he and Judy Davis portrayed The Reagans in a somewhat controversial miniseries.)
In 1995, Brolin (who had previously been married for twenty-two years to his first wife Jane and for nine years to second wife Jan Smithers, of WKRP in Cincinnati fame) found love in a peculiar place. In one of the most unlikely pairings imaginable, Brolin was acquainted with Barbra Streisand and the two struck up a romance! Married in 1998, they continue to be a happy and successful couple with more than a dozen years under their belt.

Seemingly unfazed by all the attention (and potential drama) that goes along with being married to one of music’s most legendary divas, his presence seems to have somehow relaxed the famously persnickety songstress. They almost invariably look happy to be wherever they are seen together. (Ironically, Brolin had starred in Capricorn One with Streisand’s only other husband, Elliott Gould.)

Brolin’s son by his first wife Jane, Josh Brolin, is an even more handsome man than his father was and has an Academy Award nomination to his credit for his work in Milk. Coincidentally, with James having portrayed Ronald Reagan, Josh was George W. Bush in Oliver Stone’s W! With Josh’s wife being popular actress Diane Lane, any family get-together is automatically star-filled!

Now busy as ever, though mostly with supporting roles, he has dotted the casts of such recent Hollywood movies as Traffic, Antwone Fisher, Catch Me if You Can, A Guy Thing and has several films in the can, soon to be released, with such young stars as Mandy Moore, Jake, Gyllenhaal, Jessica Biel and James Marsden as the leads. With awards on the shelf, two highly successful series to his name, a famous wife and a demanding, but welcome, schedule, he’s come a long way since being used to test monkey makeup! Here’s to you Mr. Brolin with congrats and love!


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