A character actor’s career often can be translated into a stock-market graph. Some years you’re up, some you’re down, and some years you’re just treading water, waiting for that next role that makes your stock spike in value.
“Longevity is the key,” said James Cromwell. “You’ve got to deliver when you get asked. But if you keep at it, good things happen.” And a little luck never hurts.
“I’ve been incredibly fortunate,” Cromwell said, “in the films that have picked me.”
The tall, gangly son of film director John Cromwell (“Since You Went Away”) spent decades in the episodic TV trenches, including recurring roles on “All in the Family” and “Barney Miller.” His scattered film roles were minor.
Then came “Babe” (1995), when his turn as the playfully taciturn Farmer Hoggett earned him an Oscar nomination and put him on Hollywood’s “must have” supporting player list. By 1997, he was regularly appearing in top-flight films, such as his venal, corrupt Irish cop in “L.A. Confidential.” He took recurring roles in TV series, including “Six Feet Under” and “24.”
More recently, the Oscar-winning silent comedy “The Artist” (2011) reminded movie folks that Cromwell wasn’t getting older, just more distinguished. And he had a meaty role as a taciturn farmer in the made-in-Minnesota 2012 indie feature “Memorial Day.”
At 73, this actor who “radiates an imperial authority” (New York Times) is earning the best notices of his long career. “Still Mine,” an indie drama about old age, love and resisting authority, has won Canada’s Genie Award. Cromwell plays an elderly farmer who wants to build a single-story house on his own land to spend his final days with his beloved, increasingly infirm wife (Genevieve Bujold). The local permitting authorities won’t have it. A simple film, it is “elevated by Cromwell into something more weighty, and even existentially profound,” raved New York’s Newsday.
Political bona fines
“I’ve always had a crush on Genevieve Bujold,” Cromwell cracked, when asked what drew him to the script. But the truth is he rarely turns down a role that he’s offered.
“Only over politics, or if there’s nothing to give to the role,” he said. He said he thought that he could fake his way through being a farmer physically capable of building a wood-frame house. And he really liked the politics of “Still Mine.” “Lend authority a little power, and authority will overreach for a lot more power,” he said. “That’s what this movie is about, and we see this sort of thing happen everywhere. This is a character who doesn’t believe in flouting the law. But when a law’s unjust, that is the thing your conscience commands you to do.”
He sees his character as “honest, and nonconfrontational. Very Canadian. If this film had been made in America, I wonder if at some point this confrontation would have ended in violence. That is the way we seem to resolve things.”
Cromwell’s political bona files are well-established. His father was on Hollywood’s infamous anti-radical blacklist in the 1950s. In the ’60s, James, who then went by Jamie, toured the South with a political theater company, got involved in civil rights, the antiwar movement and support for the Black Panthers. When he gets off topic these days, it’s likely to be for a discourse on the NRA and the Trayvon Martin case.
He became a vegetarian long before “Babe,” “after a long motorcycle ride through stockyards, as far as the eye could see, in Texas back in ’75. It was grotesque, the smell, the noise, all those animals penned up and waiting to die.”
He shared the politics of an old friend, TV producer Norman Lear, who gave him some big breaks in the ’70s, and some advice.
“ ‘Celebrity,’ Norman taught me, ‘is to spend. If you don’t spend it, it eats a hole in your pocket but also in your soul.’ I walk around with an Academy Award nomination, so I use what little celebrity that I have to support causes that I believe in.” Those include animal rights and anti-death penalty activism.
And the work? It’s spiking again. He has been cast in the ABC-TV series “Betrayal.”
“I’m having a pretty good run here. I have some productions I’ve been kicking around for years that I might get around to now — a production of ‘King Lear’ that I want to do, on stage, a production of Dalton Trumbo’s ‘Johnny Got His Gun,’ and a film I want to direct in Cuba.
“I am getting closer to doing those projects, even at my age, because the work that I’ve done adds up to something to some people.”