This was the first time James Cromwell and I have spoken, but it wasn’t the first time I was in his presence. Starting at age 13, my family began making semi-regular visits to Los Angeles to visit relatives. That meant ordering tickets for tapings of television shows.
All in the Family was a staple in the Marks household, and on two of the trips I was lucky enough to secure seats in the studio audience. It wasn’t a show that I’ve followed faithfully in reruns. The name Stretch Cunning still brings a bell — according to Archie, Stretch was the funniest man on earth — but the actor who played the character on three episodes had long slipped my mind. It wasn’t until researching this interview that it dawned on me that I had the privilege of watching James Cromwell perform before a live audience!
That was over 40 years and almost 200 credits ago, and James Cromwell continues to delight audiences with his performances. As you will soon learn, he’s also an outspoken human rights advocate.
By the time the interview had ended, Cromwell had spent more time on the phone with me than he does on screen in The Promise, the epic romance set during the last days of the Ottoman Empire. His is a blink-and-you-miss-him cameo, but it’s a subject he felt strongly about and was eager to make the promotional rounds.
We begin with a question about his father and brilliant director, John Cromwell.
Scott Marks: You were something like 10 or 11 when your father was blacklisted. Your parents were divorced at the time, and you were living with your mother (actress Kay Johnson). Would you talk about how conscious were you of what was happening and the effect McCarthyism had on your family?
James Cromwell: I really didn’t know anything about it. He and my stepmother were in New York. My father was doing a play on Broadway with Henry Fonda called Point of No Return about J. P. Marquand. They had people over to the house…everything seemed just fine. It wasn’t until five years later that he started to tell me what had happened in Hollywood, why he had been blacklisted, who had been involved, and how his friends had reacted.
My stepmother, Ruth Nelson, told me what a toll it took on my father. My father went on from Point of No Return to do two hit plays in New York, Sabrina Fair and Mary, Mary. It didn’t really affect his career except that he would never go back to Hollywood again. Ruth was in the first company at the Guthrie Theatre where many of the people who had been blacklisted came from. It cost her dearly because she was supposed to do Linda in Death of a Salesman with Lee J. Cobb.
She told (director Elia) Kazan that she couldn’t leave my father because he was so devastated by the reactions of his friends on the lot, mainly Robert Montgomery. Montgomery cut him and would not speak to him even though he had nothing to testify about because he came to Hollywood way, way before the Communists got involved in New York.
I think it actually saved his life that he left this community — which I think he was basically sick of — and went to New York and then to Minneapolis where the theatre community supported him. Working on Broadway really stimulated him. So he did fine.
SM: Your father directed a string of unbroken masterworks during the war years: So Ends Our Night, Son of Fury, Since You Went Away, and The Enchanted Cottage. My answer to the following question would be Son of Fury. What’s your favorite John Cromwell movie?
JC: I’m very fond of The Goddess because I was there on the set for some of it and I know what he went through trying to deal with Paddy Chayefsky. After he shot it, Chayefsky took over the cutting of the picture. He bullied my father until my father said, “You do it, Paddy” and walked away. Paddy cut stock. And he cut stock in order to basically cut Kim [Stanley’s] performance or bring Kim’s performance down. After a couple of weeks he called my father begging him to come back. My father couldn’t actually repair the damage that Paddy had done because the takes wound up in the garbage.
SM: I’m not familiar with the term “cut stock.”
JC: When you cut your film, you make a duplicate print. You have the original and then you make your cuts in the duplicate. You take the dupe to whatever production house and they actually cut the stock according to your final specifications and that’s your film. What Paddy did was, instead of making a dupe he cut the original raw stock.
SM: Got it!
JC: And in answer to your question, I am very fond of So Ends Our Night. My mother is in Of Human Bondage, and I love her performance.
SM: I went on Facebook and asked my friends if they had any questions for you. Lalo Flores from Chicago writes, “While filming L.A. Confidential, did he have any idea that it was going to be so good? The film had horrible promotion, and you couldn't really tell what it was going to be like from the trailers.” If I remember, the poster was equally unfriendly.
JC: The three of us — Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, and myself — had a lot of problems with Curtis Hanson. Curtis had a very distinct directing style, which was different for the three of us. With me, it was to say no to everything I suggested. With Guy, it was to tell him that he’d made a mistake casting him in the first place. And Russell…I don’t know about Russell. The first day of rehearsal when I met Russell he was fit to be tied. That just continued and we were constantly trying to figure out how we could fix it by playing these games with Curtis.
It turned out that Curtis was more expert than all of us put together. (Laughing.) He made a wonderful film, in spite of the three of us.
SM: I’m so glad this had a happy ending. I didn’t want you to go on record slamming Curtis Hanson!
JC: I kicked dirt on him. I didn’t punch him, but I punched the car. I called him every name in the book, and as soon as the film opened it was like we were best friends. He was great. He had forgotten all about it.
SM: Before this interview is over, I will have spent more time talking to you than you do appearing on screen in The Promise. An hour-and-a-half into the picture and I’m beginning to wonder if I’m in the wrong theatre.
JC (Laughing): Right?
SM: You can’t be on screen for more than five minutes, yet the subject matter means enough to you that you’re willing to promote it as if you were the star. Why?
JC: This man who produced it, Eric Esrailian, is a doctor who never made a movie. He went through all the hoops that Hollywood demands. He came to make a distribution deal armed with a script, a director, and $100 million dollars and people balked. It wasn’t a walk in the park for Eric.
People can disagree that the story seems to overwhelm the background or trivializes it in some way. The important thing for everybody was this genocide has got to be addressed. If the Turks, bless their hearts, have the courage to acknowledge what had happened and make amends, then maybe countries like the United States can acknowledge our responsibility in the genocide of the Native people of America and the black people who were brought from Africa.
We paid lip service, but there’s no resolution before Congress as there should be. And there should be restitution paid to both those communities for what they went through and continue to go through. It would change the nature of this country profoundly as it would if Turkey would acknowledge what they did to the Armenians. Then maybe we could avoid what is going on in Syria and Yemen and Somalia and the Sudan and every other place where ordinary people are suffering the ravages of a geopolitical conflict done for profit and influence and greed.