James Brolin, at 77, is still directing, still starring and still producing. And to hear him tell it — as I did last week in an extended conversation — he's just beginning.
As you may have heard, this Hollywood legend has a famous son (Josh) and spouse (Barbra Streisand). But enough about them. What about him? He stars in CBS' "Life in Pieces" — entering its fourth season most likely in early 2019 — which is his first regular series role in nearly 20 years (since "Pensacola: Wings of Gold"). He's developing a film, which he'll direct, on Ruby McCollum, a black woman in Florida convicted in 1952 of the murder of a white doctor whom she said had raped her and forced her to have his child. It's a story of race, gender and sexual violence, also a departure for Brolin, who — ready for this? — hit stardom nearly 50 years ago as young Dr. Steve Kiley on the long-running ABC hit "Marcus Welby, M.D."
A star of many movies as well, Brolin was in the faux Long Island 1979 thriller "The Amityville Horror."
Here's an edited version of our chat.
Why are you doing this interview? There's no pretext, no new series, no movie. What gives?
We ["Life"] don't get a lot of press and just this week some people said, we just discovered your new show, and I said, "Well, this is going to be the fourth year."
Speaking of which, your last starring role was at the beginning of the century. Why'd you take so long to get back into the series grind?
One of the things I've found in the past is, after you do a series, you need a five-year cooling-off period before people can forget your old character and get ready for the new one. Not that I've had choices — I did two pilots that didn't sell and knew making them was going to be a risk but I needed to pay the rent.
Your son, Josh, has had some luck, I've heard. What advice did you give him about avoiding the Hollywood piranhas?
I told him in the beginning, the first thing I've ever told anybody, is start your own university of filmmaking — study acting, directing, editing or whatever your interest, and become your own graduate student, then graduate magna cum laude. You go study until you can't stand it anymore, and Josh did just that.
How did you come to be interested in the story of Ruby McCollum?
The idea came from a book by Bill Huie ["The Crime of Ruby McCollum" by William Bradford Huie] that was bought by one of our producers. Others wrote a script based on it, and I rewrote it. It was a wonderful script but it needed work. In '52, McCollum's was the biggest court trial, publicity-wise, in the history of Florida. Everybody was interested in it, and there's a lot of interest now, but only black people that I talk to know much about it. It's amazing that this has never been done before.
There's been a long-running debate in the African-American film community about white filmmakers appropriating the black experience and black history. How would you respond?
There will be more white players in this than black. It's what whites did to blacks and still do.
Directing or acting: What do you love more?
Directing. Always have. I was making pinhole cameras when I was 10 years old and had a darkroom, too. I've directed now over 30 hours of television.
It's been — if you can believe it — 42 years since "Welby" left the air. Do you ever find yourself having to explain what the show was or who Steve Kiley was?
When you ask kids what do you think of "Godfather" the original, and they say, "What's 'The Godfather' "?, then you realize they wouldn't even bother to deal with "Marcus Welby." But a lot of seniors will come up and say, "We just love it."
Would you ever play Kiley again?
It has been suggested [by production companies] that I do "Steven Kiley M.D." as a series. We've talked about it back and forth. But if I were to do it, I would do it as if he hadn't been bought by the drug companies and use it to teach nutrition and how to live longer, healthier lives. But I wouldn't do it for another 10 years.
Wow! "Steve Kiley, M.D. 2028?" starring the one and only James Brolin?
Could be. I started working out with [big wave surfer] Laird Hamilton three years ago and it's changed my physical being and mental outlook.
You know I do have to ask, did you ever even go to Amityville when you were shooting "The Amityville Horror"?
Oh no, we shot a lot of that in Toms River [New Jersey], then we moved to the stage at MGM, which is now Sony, and did a lot of interiors in the basement. … It was a laugh every day.