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The Man Who Came to Dinner 

James Cromwell

Wednesday, Jan 26 2000
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James Cromwell turns 60 tomorrow, Jan. 27, 2000. After 40 very successful years in show business, the longtime character-actor-turned-Oscar-nominee has suddenly found himself with a whole new kind of career.

Ever since the Academy recognized Cromwell for his sympathetic portrayal of Farmer Hoggett in Babe, offers to do high-profile projects like his recent turn with Tom Hanks in The Green Mile and his role in the newly released Snow Falling on Cedars have been pouring in. Those who didn't happen to catch the talking pig movie may best recognize Cromwell as the terrifically crooked cop from L.A. Confidential. Others are likely to remember him as the oft-talked-about but rarely seen Stretch Cunningham on All in the Family.

Whatever your reference, the name of the 6-foot-7 "gentle giant" is finally catching up with his ever-familiar face. I met James -- or Jamie, as everyone calls him -- standing on Clay Street outside a darkened Ya Ya's Persian restaurant. He'd just come from one of his last rehearsals for the new Tom Stoppard play, The Invention of Love (now at the Geary Theater), only to find his favorite San Francisco eatery closed for the evening.

"No food at the inn?" I called to him from my car.

With a resigned grin Jamie stuck his head in my window and said, "I know a place."

The place turned out to be Zaré on Sacramento, where, over our menus, we discussed The Invention of Love. "It's a tough play," he said. "Yeah, it's a really tough play. I enjoy it. But I'm always very hesitant to get enthusiastic about anything too early. It's like somebody telling you about their dinner while they're still cooking it, "Oh, this is going to be great.' No, I'd rather wait for the meal. The meal is when somebody eats and says, "Ah, that's delicious.'"

Right on cue our waiter stopped by to tell us about the evening's specials, which included a vegan soup of the day and a roasted vegetable entree with eggplant and cumin, also vegan.

"Bless your heart," beamed Jamie at the somewhat confused waiter. "I just think it's really nice to go to a fine restaurant where they've thought that there are people who would like to have the soup, but can't eat it if they use chicken stock."

"How long have you been vegetarian?" I asked.

"Well, I came across the country on my motorcycle in '75," he explained. "I went through the stockyards of Texas for what seemed like a day. All day. And it was grotesque. And I thought, "No, I won't do this anymore.' I still wear leather shoes, though. Because I didn't throw them out. The idea is balance. The idea is not to go for perfection. But you can't fool yourself and allow yourself to think that you're not responsible for everything that happens, because you are responsible. Responsible doesn't mean to blame, it just means that there are no accidents in this universe, and that there's a connectedness in everything and we have to take responsibility for it.

"We've got people who live out in the Mission District out there, and the Tenderloin. We're responsible for that. They are there because of us. Because we're in this restaurant. Because we eat like this. Because of the way I live, that's the way they live."

With that our waiter served up our first course: an endive, pear, and Gorgonzola salad for me; the vegan gingered carrot soup for Jamie.

Most everything James Cromwell says is filled with an incredible passion and intensity. Throughout the evening I found relatively few opportunities to add my two cents. But I don't think I've ever been more comfortable saying so little.

Before our main courses could arrive we were surprised with a complimentary round of appetizers, delivered by executive chef/ proprietor Hoss Zaré himself. Jamie and I each dug into an amazing mixed mushroom appetizer including incredible grilled portobellos in a balsamic reduction.

"It's vegan," pointed out Hoss.

"Ah, you remembered," said Jamie, genuinely honored.

"So when was the last time you did live theater?" I asked, returning to the stage.

"It's been awhile," said Jamie. "I did Iceman Cometh with Brian Dennehey, in Chicago, at the Goodman, which was a wonderful production. And that must have been, I don't know, five, six years ago. You do theater because you basically want to, well -- to scare the shit out of yourself. Because you're concentrating that way. Committing. Balancing the necessity for having a performance fill a space that large, without violating the essential truth of what you're doing. Watching what happens to you when you have to create on the spur of the moment."

"And without the safety of several takes and an edit?" I asked.

"Yeah. If that's a safety," he said. "A lot of times it can be very unnerving. I just did a picture with Clint Eastwood and Clint -- Clint likes to get things done quick. Not even one take. Sometimes right out of rehearsal. Sometimes shoot the rehearsal and if you get all the lines right, "Great. Moving on.' And you know, you basically don't feel as though you've even warmed up yet.

"The difficulty in movies is, you've got dialogue -- that dialogue has got to be sourced from somebody. The source of that is the character that you're playing. I think most people don't go very far in terms of character. Some actors do, but we're basically doing us. We're doing aspects of us. There's a difference between the guy who does Babe and the guy who does L.A. Confidential. But what you see is Jamie Cromwell.

"In a take, man, it's, "Pop, you're on.' The camera's on. Bam, it's there. And it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter what happens to anybody else. That's the deal. That's why a lot of these kids look as selfish and as out of control as they do. Because you say anything, you do anything, you fuck anybody up, you go for anything, you go for the jugular, you do whatever is necessary. Because when the camera is on there's no friends, there's no tomorrow, there's no nothing. It's, "What do I want? How am I going to get it? What's the deal? What'll I use?'"

About The Author

Barry Levine

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