The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with James Brolin (‘Christmas with Tucker’)

James Brolin has been a star of TV and film since the ’60s, rarely disappearing from either for very long before popping back up somewhere or other, and tonight at 9 PM he can be found starring in “Christmas with Tucker,” the debut original movie from the Hallmark Movie Channel (which, just in case you aren’t aware, is a separate entity from the Hallmark Channel), playing a gruff but loveable grandfatherly type fella who gets to have a lot of scenes with a very cute dog. I was fortunate enough to chat with Brolin for a bit when he attended this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills, and – as you’ll read below – I was even more fortunate to be able to continue the conversation a bit later.

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Bullz-Eye: So you’re in a dog movie, but are you a dog guy by nature?

James Brolin: Yeah, but guess what? I don’t have a dog right now. But I’m kind of shopping! The thing is, I’m not sure where I’m going to be next, and I kind of hate to go off and leave a dog once I have it. I’ve found that didn’t work well in the past. But I got my wife a dog. And the dog is… I can’t believe she’s had it 10 years now. And it sleeps right here. [Points to his head.] It likes the top of the couch or the head pillow. So usually, if you roll over it or around it, it gets out of your way and just goes down to the other end. Anyway, I’ve been moved to the back seat of the car now. [Laughs.] Those two run things.

BE: Yeah, we just got a dog a few months ago, so I know what you mean.

JB: Oh, yeah. If it ain’t a baby, it’s a dog. [Laughs.]

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BE: How was this dog, Tucker, to work with?

JB: Fine! Really good natured. He would do all the things, and then when you’d go to shoot, sometimes the dog would have a little brain fade or confusion, but it’s not unusual. You just keep going. You have the trainer keep going, you run the camera, and now with digital, you can just turn the camera on and let it run for two hours, and then you go in there, wade through it, and pick out just what you need. But that’s Filmmaking 101, in a way. If you have time for that, you do that. And if you’re doing a dog picture, you make time. And the kids… Anyone youthful who was involved was just right on. Gage (Munroe) is just like a honed pro, so that wasn’t an issue. Kids weren’t an issue. But animals are always an issue, and you just need to schedule the time to shoot and shoot and shoot a little bit.

We also had such a tight schedule that we had a second unit going all the time, picking up this and that, things that would be time lapses or meanwhile-back-on-the-farms. [Laughs.] You know, or now-it’s-getting-dusk shots. All of those. And the town we were in… I don’t know if you read anything about this, but sometimes the snow would be quite different than it was in the morning or yesterday, so they would go to the airport, clear the runways, and bring in the fresh snow and dump it there. And if was brown snow, then they’d have to freshen it on the top. But it was the last chance of the season – I think it was February – to make it look like Christmas and get it in the can, because now you’ve got to wait two seasons for the airing, so you’ve got to shoot it the year before, which means that you’ve got to pay interest on the loans over that period of time.

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BE: How was the experience of working with Hallmark?

JB: Best experience I’ve had in many years. They’re getting pretty sloppy and starting to forget how to treat people who are either used to having been treated well or are testy, let’s say, and react, and…it doesn’t end up doing the company any good when these people kind of slow down to a shuffle in response, in payback. And I think this was the best run organization. From the time I had a meeting with Joel Rice, I had a schedule and a plane ticket in hand, it was just pure heaven. And they were on a tight budget. There’s a guy named Steve Solomos who was the line producer. He’s the guy that, when you get down there, he’s the producer that stands around close by. He’s not back in his office in a big chair. He knows how to make money work and make everybody happy. Consequently, I called him about another job. I hadn’t seen anybody this good in a long time. And Hallmark must know it, because he doesn’t work for them. He’s hired by them per picture.

And then when I got down there, I said, “I don’t like drivers. Give me a car.” They said, “Yeah, but we need to get you to work on time.” I said, “I’ll be at work on time!” [Laughs.] “You just give me my work tools, and you’ll never have to deal with me!” I don’t know if they believed me, but they did it, and it worked out perfectly. And then… [Hesitates.] I know I’m going on and on about Hallmark, but I haven’t seen it like this since ABC days in the mid-‘70s. Everyone shorts you somehow, everyone forgets something, everybody gives you a lot and then tries to save a nickel to piss you off. Not these guys.

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BE: I wanted to ask you about some stuff from your back catalog, as it were, but I have to ask about working on “Von Ryan’s Express.”

JB: Yeah?

BE: I know that’s going way back…

JB: Oh, but it was amazing. I actually brought it up earlier today when I was talking to some people.

BE: If IMDb is correct, it seems to have been the first credited role that you had in a film. Not your first film, but your first credit.

JB: Yeah. I’m trying to think… I did “Fantastic Voyage” and was cut out of it, but I was credited, anyway, and very nicely. [Laughs.] But “Von Ryan’s Express” we made in 1964, and I think it was probably the first and last of my really big location things, where they said, “Kid, we’re not gonna need you for a couple of weeks. Here’s a thousand bucks, have a good time, and I’ll call you when I need you.” So I walked around Rome and took trains out and back, and, I mean, it was just fantastic.

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BE: How did you come to be in “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure?”

JB: I was working on the lot on “Hotel,” and I got a call from Bob Evans, saying, “We’d be very happy if you came over and did a few days on ‘Pee-wee.’” And I went… [Grimaces.] “Uh, I don’t know…” But it was Bob, y’know? [Laughs.] So do you say “no” to the head of Warners? We’re just renting a couple of stages on the lot, but still, here he is running a major studio…

So I got a call two days later, after reading it, still wondering, “Uh, is this gonna look good?” And I got the call, it was Bob again, saying, “What are you gonna do?” I said, “Well, you want me to do this, there’s no money in it…” He said, “Where would you like to go in the world? Some trip.” I said, “Uh…” I hadn’t a clue where I wanted to go! But the Sunday Times was there, and I’m talking, bullshitting with him, and I grab the travel section, and I’m quickly turning pages, looking for the name of a country, and…I forget what I said. I think it was Hong Kong. I said, “I wanna go to Hong Kong and stay there a couple of weeks.” “All right!” [Snaps his fingers.] “You got it!” So that was the deal…and I probably wouldn’t have done it had the travel section not been there! I might’ve said, “Listen, get somebody else to do your dirty work!” [Laughs.]

But it actually turned out to be really fun, and, of course, who knew that the director was gonna be such a big deal? It was quite a cute day. I made friends with Paul (Reubens), Pee-wee, that day, and he still sends me a Christmas card every year. And I must say, every year there’s a new five-year-old where the parent goes, “You know, my kid thinks you’re the greatest. You’re P.W.! Oh, my God!” [Laughs.] For three days of work! But every year you’ve got this whole new audience. You do it, and it kind of sticks with you from then on. “That’s the guy who was P.W.? Whoa!”

BE: Shout Factory finally released “Marcus Welby, M.D.” on DVD a few years ago…

JB: Who did?

BE: The company’s called Shout Factory.

JB: Oh! I didn’t know that. Is it all seven years and, what was it, 170 shows?

BE: I don’t think they’ve made it beyond the first couple seasons so far.

JB: Well, that’s interesting, because I saw one not too long ago, and…I don’t think it was one of the better ones. And I went, “Ugh, God, I hope they don’t put this on DVD…” [Laughs.] But that’s life. I’m of an age where I’ve got to face it: all this stuff’s gonna show up. That was actually a wonderful opportunity, though. It wasn’t glitzy, it wasn’t a thriller, it was kind of the same thing every week, but having left seven years at Fox with not a lot happening, actually asking out of my last year and going over to Universal, and three weeks later I’m making some kind of a contractual deal with them, not knowing if I was just getting into the same boat.

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But within two to three weeks, I did a test with Robert Young with Robert Surtees, one of the great directors of photography, shooting it, and the next thing I knew, they said, “Okay, this is the guy!” And we started shooting. I won the Emmy for the pilot, and then went on to do 170 shows. And we were number one for a good amount of time. And then, at the end of the show, when it was starting to weaken, they said, “Oh, we’ve gotta get Brolin a dame.” [Laughs.] “We’ve gotta marry him off!”

So I said, “There’s this girl, Farrah Fawcett, who I want to play the wife.” And they said, “Who? Oh, I know her. The blonde, right? She can’t act!” So I kind of fought with them about it, and they ended up bringing in Pamela Hensley. The night of the wedding, we were number one again. And the following week or the second week, we were #73. They saw it, they gave it no respect, and it was over. And then Farrah, of course, went right on to become a star. It was funny: a couple of years later we were talking, and I said, “You know, you’re tossing your hair, you’re beautiful, we’ve seen it, but as soon as you play something dowdy, you’re gonna get such respect, and maybe an award.” And then she did “The Burning Bed” right afterwards. I guess she believed me! [Laughs.]

Sadly, at this point in our conversation, I got the high sign from the Hallmark Move Channel publicist, who apologetically told me that it was time to wrap up. Knowing that the air date of the film was still months away at that point, I asked Brolin if he’d be up for continuing our conversation by phone at some future juncture. He said, “Sure!” And, lo and behold, a week or two ago, he did indeed call my house to finish our chat. Unfortunately, despite the fact that the day and time had been confirmed and reconfirmed by the publicist, I somehow managed to enter the time incorrectly in my calendar, so I, uh, wasn’t actually home the first time he called.

Mind you, I would’ve been home, but I’d had to run an unexpected errand, and I got caught in traffic on the drive back. Thankfully, I’d already prepared my questions, so when he decided to try me back, I’d managed to make it home and, once I muddled through my surprise that I’d gotten the time wrong (I had three other interviews that day, and I apparently just tripped up while typing in the information for what time he and I were supposed to chat), we quickly settled into a pleasant, low-key chat, one which ultimately veered into an incredibly fun discussion of his TV viewing habits – and those of his wife – and got his picks for his favorite movies of 2013 as well as some comments on a few of his more obscure projects to have turned up on Netflix.

Just as a caveat, I did actually post one anecdote from the interview in a piece on AntennaFree.TV right after he gave it to me, but it had to be done: it was a scoop, and I never get those things. The other caveat is that you’ll see a tiny bit of crossover between the previous conversation and this one, but that’s what happens when neither of you remember precisely what you talked about three months ago. (All things considered, I think we both did pretty well at not duplicating already-covered material.)

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BE: You and I chatted a bit during the TCA tour. I don’t know if you recall.

JB: I do remember! Because you have that great name. It’s a movie star name. It’s a top-notch novel character name. [Laughs.]

BE: Well, thank you. Most people tend to remember me because I ask them about really obscure things from their back catalog.

JB: Oh, good! I like that! I got two pages of questions last week because… I did a little video piece for my wife, who won the Legend Award at Glamour Magazine, and I got two pages of questions that were from, like, an old interview from Screen Magazine in the ‘50s. Just… [Snorts.] Just the worst questions. You know what I mean. Grammar-school questions. Anyway, I showed them. I said, “You’ve got three minutes to shoot, and I’m leaving.” So we finished, and they said, “We’d like to do it again.” I said, “No, your three minutes are up. Goodbye!” And then it played at the Awards…and everybody said, “That was the best thing!” [Laughs.] So it all turned out well. I love doing things in a pinch. I do my best work when I’m not ready for it.

BE: Same here. I do a feature called Random Roles for the Onion A.V. Club, and the best of that for me is that, although I do the research in advance as far as picking out the roles, I really don’t have questions, per se. I just roll with whatever the person’s memory of the project is and build on that. As a result, it’s amazing how many times someone will offer up an anecdote and then say something like, “You know, I don’t think I’ve told that story in 20 years.”

JB: [Laughs.] That’s good! I like that.

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BE: We talked a fair amount about “Christmas with Tucker” during the TCA tour, but I do still find it impressive that, despite the fact that the rule of thumb is that you never want to work with children or dogs, you seem to have had a good experience with both on this film.

JB: Yeah! Now, one reason for that is…well, you’re probably not old enough to remember my first wife (Jane Cameron Agee), who had a wildlife way station, and consequently I was stuck with getting truckloads of chicken necks in Bakersfield and dragging them back to the ranch. We had three mountain lions, one female African lion, three or four wolves, a harpy eagle…all kinds of things would come in over the years. And then having raised children and being a pretty good father… I just like the whole mix, y’know? [Laughs.] The children I would’ve done, the animals I probably wouldn’t have done, but as long as I got into the middle of it, I was pretty good at it.

BE: Well, once you’ve worked with mountain lions, I guess working with a dog…

JB: A dog’s an easy deal, yeah! [Laughs.]

BE: As of the summer, I hadn’t had a chance to watch the film, but now I have, and it’s very sweet. In fact, I have an eight-year-old daughter, and to my surprise, she had the attention span to sit and watch the entire thing and enjoy it with us.

JB: Oh, great! I’ve heard… I’ve been looking for somebody that didn’t like it, because I wanted to know why. Because, you know, when you’re right, you haven’t learned a thing. When somebody tells you where you’re wrong or why something was wrong for them, you go, “Oh, okay,” and you’ve finally learned something. Your thoughts go in new directions. So I’m waiting for somebody to say, “I hated it because…” [Laughs.] But everybody seems to like this little film!

BE: I thought it was very enjoyable. Between their two channels (The Hallmark Channel and The Hallmark Movie Channel), Hallmark has carved out a nice little niche for themselves that isn’t really being offered anywhere else.

JB: Yeah, I had heard… Well, actually, I’m doing Larry King tomorrow in L.A., along with a few other things, and then Monday I go to New York and do a whole week of stuff, but…I’m not sure what they’re doing with this, because I haven’t grilled anybody on it. But they say that every year they show all the great Christmas films, and I don’t know what they did last year, but this year they said they’re leading them off with this film that they made.

BE: Yeah, this is the first original film they’ve done for the Hallmark Movie Channel.

JB: Oh, it is? See, you know more about this than I do. [Laughs.] But I’ll get brushed up on it before I jump into these interviews tomorrow.

BE: Oh, I see how it is. I’m your testing ground.

JB: Yeah! [Laughs.] But, you know, I must say – and I may have said this to you when we talked last time, but I think it bears repeating – I was ready to… [Sighs.] To not be treated well, with fast shooting, low budget, all of these things…  But it was just the opposite. I was treated so well by these people, and I have been ever since. And even my trip to New York next week is so well done.

And, you know, I’m spoiled! [Laughs.] 15 years in prime-time with the networks spoils you. You’re treated pretty darned well, because they want you to bust your ass, y’know? But in many aspects of the picture business, those days are gone…except this experience with Hallmark. They were just great! And Steve Solomos is just one of the best producers I’ve ever been around in my life.  He was always in earshot of the camera, always helped prep for the next setup and shot, always approving of everybody, and yet he was getting all of this done in a very, very tight budget. All of these problems that Murphy’s Law allows were there, and he was so good with them that I said, “If I get a production financed, I’m calling Solomos out from Toronto to work out here in California for a while!”

BE: All right, time to dive back into your back catalog. I always look for interesting character names, and I couldn’t help but laugh at one where you’re credited – sort of – as Man Doing Twist on Yacht in “Goodbye Charlie.” I say “sort of” because you’re apparently uncredited, really, but that’s how you’re described on IMDb, anyway.

JB: Geez, I wish I remembered that for sure. [Laughs.] We never actually went out on a boat, I know that. But maybe there was a yacht set. That’s very, very possible, because…let’s see, “Goodbye Charlie,” what year was that?

BE: That was 1964.

JB: ’64! I was well into… That was the same year I was with Sinatra and went on the best of all locations for three months in Europe, in “Von Ryan’s Express.”

BE: Absolutely. We talked about that a bit last time.

JB: Oh, okay. Yeah, you know, I went in to Fox as a young actor in 1960, and for 40 weeks out of 52 or however many weeks it was per year, I was paid to do whatever they told me to do. And, actually, I started out the first day in ADR, dubbing another guy’s voice that was too high to be a Marine. [Laughs.] I was 20 years old, fresh back from a year in Tahiti and parking cars in La Cienega when I got the job, and I was there at Fox for six and a half years. I guess the biggest thing I ever did there was starring in a movie, a remake of “Pickup on South Street” called “The Cape Town Affair,” with Jacqueline Bisset as the leading lady.

BE: Not bad as leading ladies go.

JB: No, it was a good time! [Laughs.] But it wasn’t until I finally told them, “Look here, I want to do more movies more often.” And they let me out, and three weeks later I was at Universal, and three weeks after that I was shooting the pilot for “Marcus Welby.”

BE: That worked out well.

JB: Yeah, it did. I had some good luck early on. So all I’m saying is that, in 1964, I had done some things that I was kind of proud of, and the fact that I was doing the Twist on a boat somewhere in the background was just another assignment. Again, I was just glad to be there and be in any movie. Who was in that one? (Walter) Matthau?

BE: Walter Matthau, Tony Curtis, Debbie Reynolds…

JB: Yeah, a whole group of people who were just a lot of fun to be around for a few days. I also did “Morituri” with Marlon Brando. I did “John Goldfarb, Please Come Home” with Shirley MacLaine, who I actually just did “Elsa & Fred” with. I was a real lucky boy early on.

BE: Was there anyone in particular that you felt like you learned the most from, or did you try to pick up whatever you could from whoever you were around?

JB: I don’t know. I was too scared to death! [Laughs.] All I knew was that I wasn’t very good at it – I couldn’t even give a book report in high school! – but once I got my pay from Fox every week, which was $93 net the first year, I spent every nickel of it I could to be in a different workshop every night of the week. So I had lots of rehearsal time to get ready for the following week. I mean, I was a guy who said, “I’m either gonna get washed out of this and never be able to get inside these gates again, or I’m gonna learn to be good at it.” Because I’m not a natural, but I love the movies, and…I love being part of the crew, y’know? Actually, at 15 I set out to be a cinematographer and a director. I bought my first movie camera at 15, but I had a darkroom at 10 and was doing still shots and even making my own pinhole cameras. At 10 years old! I was doing some interesting stuff.

So, anyway, I got screwed out of being a cinematographer and a director… [Laughs.] Well, no, that’s not true. I’ve been a director for 30 years. I’ve directed a movie, and I’ve directed 25 hours of television.

BE: You directed your son (Josh) in something, didn’t you?

JB: Yeah, in an episode of “The Young Riders,” in Arizona.

BE: You know, I mentioned that we talked a bit about “Von Ryan’s Express” last time, but I don’t think you ever actually talked about the experience of working with Frank Sinatra.  

JB: Um…I found him very likeable. He liked to be very friendly, but aloof at the same time. In other words, he’d be very close and call you by first name, and then the next time you came in, you’d say, ‘Hi, Frank,’ and he’d look over and give you a look like, “How dare you call me Frank! It’s Mister Sinatra!” [Laughs.] He was an interesting star. Some of these stars are so nice and so available. But, you know, in those days, they made up names, they played lots of games, they did a lot of promotional stunts… Now you don’t have to do a promotional stunt. You get your name on the front of the rags anyway!

BE: What were the challenges of playing Clark Gable in “Gable and Lombard”?

JB: Well, I’ll tell you, that was my favorite time in front of the camera.

BE: Oh, really?

JB: Yeah. I was at Universal, in my last…well, let me see. I was in my fifth year of “Marcus Welby,” and I had done two movies for MGM that did quite well – “Westworld” and “Skyjacked” – and I was saying, “Hey, guys, listen, I’m in the movies somewhere else, and that’s what I want to do here,” which…I had never changed my tune about that. With television, if you have a big hit, you get to do the same thing 200 more times. I found that a form of punishment, in a way. I’d rather do…I mean, ideally, I’d rather do three movies a year. Josh is in such a delicious position right now, and I hope it lasts a long time for him.

So for some reason, at the same time, the studio was going, “We want to do ‘Gable and Lombard,’ and we think Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw are perfect for it.” And Sidney Furie, who developed it and who had done “The Ipcress File” and won the British Academy Award and everything, said, “No, no, you have a guy under contract who’s the only guy I know who can play Gable.” And they said, “Well, no, he’s just a kid in one of our shows.” And he said, “Well, I’m pulling the movie, then, and going somewhere else with it where they’ll talk to me.” Next thing I know, I’m going to Sidney, saying, “Sidney, I can’t do this. My mother identified with this guy, but I don’t even identify with this guy with the bad breath and the wooden teeth and the big ears…” And he said, “No, I want you to do this. I want you to start looking at his movies.”

So he would set up four movies a day in a screening room, and I would sit there – it was during hiatus – and look at four movies a day. They kept bringing ‘em in. It was Thursday, I think, when he came in and asked, “What do you think?” And I said, “You know, I just got the most incredible feeling, this twinge, on these last two movies I