James Cromwell: “Don’t become an actor, you’re too damn tall”Don’t be an actor, you’re too goddamn tall.


Bob DylanI was born in 1940 and went to Pottstown, Pennsylvania, in the 1950s, to an American prep school, the Hill School.

They were all white boys: no colored boys, no Hispanics, no Chinese, and they were all very organized and tradition-driven. People like Johnny Mathis, Frank Sinatra, and Tony Bennett took records to school for other kids. To me they seemed like stylized crooners singing about some pretend feeling, and I found them pretty boring.

Later, I liked Tony Bennett a lot, but at the time, through his songs, he didn’t seem to project that wonderful personality. The figures at the beginning of American rock and roll, including Buddy Holly and Elvis, seemed to be directed at me as a teenager, but I can’t say that they influenced me. They didn’t change my lifestyle because I had no out-of-school life.

Until my early 20s, when I was exposed to folk music through artists like the Clancy Brothers, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, music did not play a role in my life. The folk revival was music that you hadn’t really heard before. Joan Baez and Bobby Dylan were talking about things that were going on in the world as a young man, I started to understand. My three parents I’m lucky to be the scion of three talented actors.

When I was about five years old, my father [John Cromwell] took me to the set of Anna and the King of Siam, which he was directing, and I hid under the table with the little Thai kids. Nigel, whom I knew as Willy, was best friends with Bruce, who played Watson on the radio in The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Basil Rathbone. My mum, Kay Johnson, was the first leading lady of Cecil B. DeMille when he went from silent to talkie.

She took me to the local movie theater to see westerns or something else that wouldn’t bother the kids on Saturday morning showings, while we spent much of our time crying and tossing popcorn and jujubes.

A member of the New York Community Theatre was my stepmother, Ruth Nelson, whom I consider my second mother. We saw her in Mary Tyrone’s role in Into Night’s Long Day Journey. When they announced her name, the crowd booed, which was odd.

She got a standing ovation at the end of the game. Tennis I played junior tournament tennis in the summers-not very good, I have to admit, but I had natural balance and I looked good. The issue was having a backhand or a forehand back again.

I’m probably just going to strike the ball one time in ten.

I was incredibly harsh on myself and hit the racket a lot. I went from tournament to tournament, getting beaten and going home in the first round.

In the end, I just asked the people running the tournament to put me with the No. 1 seed in the first round so I wouldn’t have to sit there for as long then.

The other kid showed me what I had done wrong after beating me 6-0 in the first set, so I got a free tennis lesson. A Matter of Morality I made it through the skin of my teeth through my high school years and went to Middlebury College, a really good college in Vermont.

My goal was to become an engineer. We had fraternities where all their manic stupidity could be carried out by out-of-control college students.

The day after the big gathering, my father came to visit. There were broken bottles of beer, vomit on the floor, and hanging on the wall were women’s stockings.

I think he was appalled.

When I was 18, my stepmother proposed that he take me to Sweden to watch him make a film with Eva Dahlbeck and [cinematographer]Sven Nykvist – A Matter of Morality. I was so excited that I left Middlebury and went to New York’s HB Studio, a college of performing arts.

That was my father’s last thing he wanted. “He said, “You’re not supposed to be an actor. You’re too darn tall.” (Cromwell is 5’7″) I thought, “Well, I guess I’m going to have to be a director.” For 10 years, I tried to be a theater director and failed, but as an actor I got work. I went to a different theater every year and burned all my bridges; I went to another theater the next season and burned them all again. Then I got drafted into the military.

In New York, I went to a psychiatrist called Arnold Hutschnecker, who turned out to be a psychoanalyst for Richard Nixon.

I said, “I’m about to get drafted.”

He wrote a letter and said, “Give this to the inspector, but don’t read the contents at all.” We were all standing around in our underwear, mostly black.


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