One of the finest and most underrated actors of his generation, James Cromwell is best known to folks of a certain age as Babe’s Dad. Obviously, he wasn’t literally the talking pig’s father but the character actor with decades of memorable work under his belt earned an Oscar nomination for his heartwarming portrayal of a loving farmer/father figure. Since then, Cromwell's career has spun off into eclectic roles as everything from the villainous Irish cop in L.A. Confidential to a tough George Bush Sr. in W., a silent butler in The Artist, and a creepy bald doctor in American Horror Story.

This week, Cromwell appears on screens in Canada in Still Mine — the touching true story of Craig Morrison, an inspiringly stubborn old farmer, who decides to build a house for his dying wife. It’s another quietly authoritative performance from an actor that seems to specialize in them. TORO recently got a chance to chat with Cromwell about the film, his approach to portraying actual people, his career-sparking relationship with sitcom maestro Norman Lear and, of course, creating the world’s most iconically annoying laugh in Revenge Of The Nerds.

How did you find out about Still Mine and get involved with the project?

Well, you know, the way it works in Hollywood is that you have an agent and it’s not so bad. The process is OK. I don’t like it when an agent won’t tell you about a project, but usually it’s fine for me. People contact you and make an offer and I always say that if they don’t have much money but it’s a legit offer and I’m not being nickeled and dimed, I’ll read the script. So I read [Still Mine] and I maybe didn’t read it as carefully as I should have, but it didn’t matter because I did it anyways. [Laughs] The script was wonderful, really wonderful. Michael McGowan is great. Everyone asks, “How do you choose your projects?” Well, I don’t. They sort of choose me. They show up in my life and as long as I don’t resist, it tends to work out.

Did you spend any time with the actual Craig Morrison?

I met him on the last week of shooting in New Brunswick. He’s a 93-year-old guy and a simple man. I could have sat there and interviewed him, but he’s not really that type of person. But sitting in his house and realizing that he built every piece of it for the woman he loved so that the last moments of her life could be spent in comfort with a beautiful view was just sweet.

I’ve noticed that when you played George Bush in W. or Prince Philip in The Queen that you didn’t really focus on mimicry. You just treated them as characters to be played. Is this a natural tactic of yours?

Well, it’s different from movie to movie. Philip, I didn’t have any problem with. I’d actually performed for him and the Queen and met them afterwards. Philip, at that event, gave a wonderful speech that he was very proud of and wrote. I was very impressed and liked him a lot. In my research, I got to like him even more and really empathized with him. On the other hand, with George I did a great deal of research and when I came in to rehearse with Oliver Stone, I had a new piece of information about how corrupt and truly ill that family is every day. Finally, Oliver said, “If you’ve got this many opinions about him, you’re not going to be able to play him.” I just said, “Pfft, yeah sure. I’ve heard that before. Don’t bullshit me. He is a shit!” So, I was a little concerned because this was a man that I really didn’t like. I thought that George Bush the elder tended to shut down his feelings because his father was an abusive alcoholic. (In a George Bush impression) So his voice is kind of caught up here. On the first day of shooting Oliver said to me, “Jamie, Jamie, you’re so controlled.” I said, “Well, I’m in my house, my son is behaving like a jerk, of course I’m controlled!” He said, “No, no, I want you like your father.” Meaning the elder Bush’s father who was an alcoholic. He said, “I want you angry!” So, the more I did that, the less Bush there was and the more me in the part. Oliver beat my caricature out of me and what he got was what he wanted: the relationship between a father and a son — which I get because I have sons and I have the problem of a father and a son. So luckily, he beat it out of me. He did not beat it out of Thandie Newton who played Condoleezza Rice and even though she’s a very talented actress, a lot of people didn’t like what she did because it seemed like a caricature. I think it was accurate, but a bit sycophantic. You have to be careful.  

I heard you worked on the Still Mine script a little bit?

What I did was I read it cursorily and gave Michael notes. I don’t know what I was thinking, but Michael included them in a second draft which he sent back. I got it and as I looked at it I thought, “This isn’t as good. Oh, that was my suggestion!” Every suggestion I made was wrong, so when I got back, I called him up on the phone and argued with him to get it back to what he’d written. Basically, he’s very nice and says I made the script better, but the script was just fine the way it was if I had just kept my mouth shut. It helped me, but I usually go through that and have to be weaned off it on every movie.

Was there ever a movie where you did dramatically change the role?

I rewrite every part I do. I don’t change anybody else’s lines or the structure of scenes. But I’ll fix mine because I’m very specific about language and what words mean. I know how I form ideas in my head. Some people resist it and resent that an actor has a point of view. Other people enjoy it and are very collaborative. Every time, I go through this to find out what the latitude is. With Michael, he was very open. If he didn’t agree, he’d say and I’d do it his way.

You’ve probably gathered by now that I enjoyed Revenge Of The Nerds quite a bit growing up and I’ve read that you were the one who came up with the famous nerd laugh. So I’ve got to ask, where did that came from?

[Laughs, but not the nerd laugh] It came from my ex-wife, but I didn’t know that at the time. I did the laugh just spontaneously on set and they loved it. I taught the other actors how to do it and it was just the perfect laugh. Then a few months later, I’m sitting in a screening with the cast and crew watching the film and I came on and the minute my wife saw me she did the laugh. I went, “Holy cow! It’s her.” [Laughs]

You stuck with that franchise through the end, was it just because you enjoyed every involved so much?

Yeah. The first one is charming. This shows you what happens in Hollywood. There was this wonderfully charming movie that existed because no one paid attention to it except for the creative people. You know, I didn’t even want to do it because I hated the term “nerd.” When I auditioned for it, I tried to throw it away. I didn’t want to have to say to someone, “I’m in Revenge Of The Nerds.” So anyways, it was a success. The studio got a hold of it as a franchise and blew it completely out of proportion. But I kept sticking with it because Robert Carradine, who I love, kept calling and saying, “we’re going to do another one and we’re going to do it right this time!” They never really captured that magic again which is too bad. But that first one is very sweet and now I understand there’s even a reality show? You know, it’s remarkable. I hope they do it with sweetness. We get so inundated with this idea that we have to live up to a cultural idea of how we have to act and look that we often miss the humanity in each other. 

I also wanted to ask you about your relationship with Norman Lear because I gather he brought you in as a potential replacement for Archie on All In The Family and then ended up creating Hot L. Baltimore for you because he enjoyed working with you so much.

Well, I was brought on to All In The Family because Carol O’Connor had quit the show in order to get his name above the title and a lot more money. Norman’s position was, “What do I tell Jean Stapleton because she’s as much a part of the success of the show as Carol.” So I was hired to play Archie’s friend Stetch who took him on a bus trip and then lost him. So we got three episodes in before Carol came back. When I did the show, I hadn’t even seen All In The Family. I didn’t know anything about it. I just channeled Art Carney. So I went up and met Norman and he loved actors, so we got along quite well. I ended up working on five or six shows for him. Norman loved actors, he was savvy, he had a strong political point of view that he wasn’t afraid to voice, and he was savage with his writers because he wanted the shows to work. Every show he created worked because of him. He was just a delight and I owe my career to him. I’ll never forget him.

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