James Brolin on building aeroplanes and wooing Barbra Streisand: ‘When I first saw her I went whoa!’

James Brolin and I meet in a restaurant in Malibu, just down the road from his home, to share a loaf of delicious courgette bread and talk about his role in Lightyear, the latest Toy Story offshoot – except, it turns out, Brolin isn’t allowed to discuss the movie yet. To have the ostensible object of conversation taken off the table would be, in most interviews, something of a disadvantage. But with Brolin, 81, it is a most fortuitous development because there is so much else to discuss.

“This one time, Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman and my dentist – who had a great Ferrari – and I drove race cars on the track. Gene was the fastest, but he drove the most cars off the road,” is one typical snatch of conversation from Brolin. “The only airplane I own right now is the one I finished building during the pandemic,” is another. Who wouldn’t want to spend a day chewing the fat and courgette bread with him?

In the UK, Brolin is probably best known for being the father of Josh Brolin and the husband of a little-known singer called Barbra Streisand, and he is more than fine with that, proudly mentioning both within the first 10 minutes of our conversation. This is a relief, because I worried beforehand how soon would be too soon to bring up La Streisand. So when he casually explains that we’re meeting in a restaurant instead of his home because “Barbra and I are having the barn painted”, I make a small excited squeak, then apologise and promise not to squeal every time he mentions his wife. “Don’t worry, I totally understand,” he replies with a genial and proud smile. Taking this as an invitation to break my promise, I burble what a thrill it was to see her perform live in London a few years ago.

“Were you there, too?” he asks. “I was filming everything backstage. And when I looked out at the crowds all watching her I thought: ‘Oh wow!’” In the US, Brolin is TV royalty of long standing. He starred in the hit medical series Marcus Welby, MD (1969-1976), for which he won two Golden Globes and an Emmy, and in primetime soap opera Hotel (1983-1988). He’s sort of like a US David Jason, but with a storied movie career too, which runs from the original Westworld film to Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, and his low and rich rumble has made him a favourite for voiceovers – for Lightyear he is voicing the role of Buzz’s archenemy, Emperor Zurg.

Brolin was, and remains, strapping and dashing (Streisand ain’t no fool), so much so that he played Clark Gable in the 1976 film Gable and Lombard, and was picked by Cubby Broccoli to be the next Bond when Roger Moore, then 56 years old, said he didn’t want to make Octopussy. Tragically, the world was denied Brolin’s Bond because, at the last minute, Moore changed his mind.

“I loved doing the tests for that movie with Vijay [Amritraj] and the snake,” he says. “I came to London, I became Cubby’s best friend, we went to all the great clubs, found a flat for me, and the movie people said to me: ‘Get to work with the stuntmen, get some style going here, and go home and get your stuff and get ready to move here for a year.’” Spoiler! Did Brolin ever say to him: “Hey, you stole my part”? “No, but that was interesting, yah,” he says in his languid, somewhat folksy way. “Was Roger just playing a game with the producers? I don’t know. He was pretty old by then. I think he thought: ‘I’m going to go off and do other movies’ – but then there weren’t any. Now, do you know about the rest of my career?”

Charlton Heston (left) with James Brolin in Skyjacked.
High anxiety … Charlton Heston (left) with James Brolin in Skyjacked. Photograph: Everett /Alamy

I thought I did, and had my questions all cued up about what it was like to work with Charlton Heston (in Skyjacked) and Rod Steiger (in The Amityville Horror). But Brolin means his other careers, which include working in the lumber business, raising cattle and horses, flying planes, racing cars … all of which he did while acting. Brolin is very much a Hollywood star of the old school, back when actors lived genuinely exciting lives, as opposed to curating their content on Instagram. When he lived out on his ranch, he used to fly himself to meetings in LA, and if he has a few hours in an afternoon he still likes to take to the skies.

Does Streisand ever join him? “Oh no. She’ll say: ‘Jim, I’m not going with you!’” he says, doing a pretty good imitation of her.

Brolin was born and raised in southern California, the son of a building contractor and a housewife. As a deeply shy teenager, he harboured no youthful dreams of being an actor, instead working as a valet and in garages, perfecting his knowledge of cars. Plus, he surfed a bit, “but I was never a really good surfer,” he says, “not like Josh. He came fourth in the state of California!”

Despite his reticence, his good looks were noticed and when he was 18 he was asked on the street if he’d appear in a commercial. He agreed, on the condition that it wouldn’t be a speaking part. Soon after that, his old schoolfriend Ryan O’Neal, “who had always been kind of a ruffian, getting into fights, although I have to watch my words”, was cast in the TV show Empire, and he suggested that Brolin speak with his agent.

Getting cross … James Brolin in The Amityville Horror.
Getting cross … James Brolin in The Amityville Horror. Photograph: Collection Christophel/Alamy

By 1960, he was under contract at Fox, which still operated under the old studio system, where young actors were taught to dance, do ballet and fence, “all that 1940s stuff,” he says. Brolin forced himself to overcome his shyness in the acting classes. “But on the first day of any shoot, I still get – and I don’t know if this is a real word – the collywobbles,” he admits. Collywobbles would have been understandable during one of his first jobs, when he was cast as Marlon Brando’s son in Mutiny on the Bounty. Alas, the part was later cut from the film, but Brolin still got to spend a year in Tahiti with Brando. “I must say, it was a hell of a year,” he says with, surely, some understatement.

Did he hang out with Brando?

“I did a little bit. He was in his late 30s and I was 19, but I didn’t feel threatened by him. He was a manipulator, but I loved him. I even got invited a couple times to dinner at his house. It was a lot of late nights and a lot of Tahitian dancing, which is very difficult. So everybody was in great shape – well, except for the booze,” he says.

I learned about handling Barbra from my previous marriages, and we’ve been terrific. It’s been 25 years now.

After almost a decade of bit parts here and there, he was cast in Marcus Welby, MD, as the handsome, motorcycle-riding Dr Kiley – a precursor, in many ways, to George Clooney’s similarly star-making role on ER. But unlike Clooney, Brolin was a married man with two sons, Josh and Jess. Was he able to be a good father despite being a celebrity? “I think so, although nothing compared to Josh. He is so attentive! Every moment they’re off and running on another adventure,” he says, again self-deprecating to boost his son.

It’s a striking reversal from the competitive dynamic of most father-son acting duos; Kirk Douglas, for example, was devastated when women started walking past him to meet his son Michael. Has Brolin ever felt competitive with Josh? “Oh no, I learn from him. But if I say to him: ‘If you need any help, let me know,’ then the wall comes down and it’s: ‘I want to do it myself.’ And that’s fine, that’s the father-son syndrome,” he says.

Drive my car … Jeremy Piven and James Brolin as auto salesmen in The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard.
Drive my car … Jeremy Piven and James Brolin as auto salesmen in The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard. Photograph: Everett /Alamy

Brolin Sr had a steady career as a leading man in the 1970s and 80s in films such as Night of the Juggler and High Risk, all the while keeping all his other careers going, including car racing. He was asked to be in a race that was part of the famous Grand Prix of Long Beach, where celebrities race against professionals, and competed as a professional. “And I beat the celebrities, which was a big thing for me,” he says. In the 80s, the family moved from the ranch to the now very ritzy area of Montecito, into a house that Brolin built. Sadly, they later sold it. Its last owners recently parted with it for $39m. “If only I’d kept it! But that’s everybody’s story, isn’t it?” he says.

Well, not everyone’s, probably, but how many houses does Brolin have now? “We have three houses on our property,” he says in a tone that suggests this is very much the tip of a property iceberg. So he and Streisand have three houses next to one another? “Yes, there’s the house where we live, the centre house is a guest house and for music recording, and there’s the house that she uses for storing all the stuff she’s been collecting.”

What does she collect? “Anything: rare furniture, jewellery, whatever she thinks is beautiful. And usually it turns out a great artist made it,” he says, proud as punch.

Before Streisand and her three houses came along, Brolin was married to the US actor Jan Smithers, the mother of his daughter Molly. She was his second wife, having previously been married to Jane Agee, the mother of his two sons. He and Smithers divorced after a decade. “I learned about handling Barbra from my previous marriages, and we’ve been terrific. It’s been 25 years now. The other day we were in the market, walking around, holding hands and looking at ice-creams, and this guy came up to us and pointed to one of the rag papers that said we’re getting a huge divorce! Well, it keeps those papers alive,” he says.

The two met when a mutual friend called Brolin’s manager and asked if he would be interested in a date with Streisand. “I’d seen her twice before, at a luncheon and at the Oscars, and went: ‘Whoa!’ She was different from what I expected, because we all have preconceptions about people. So I said: ‘Yes, absolutely interested,’” he says. The same mutual friend invited them to a dinner party, but Brolin had made the rookie error of recently shaving off most of his hair, as he’d decided to stop dyeing the grey and go natural. Streisand walked behind him as he sat down for dinner, put her hand on his head and said: “Who fucked up your hair?” “And that was it – I fell in love,” he says, enjoying the memory.

Brolin, like every sane human, is clearly a little in awe of Streisand: “The way she designs a house! She’s so good at saying: ‘Do this, I want to see it tomorrow,’ and the guys get on with it, they know how she works. And afterwards you go: ‘Whoa, she made something I did not envision!’” Did she allow him to design any part of their houses? “She allowed me to design my area. But then she would say: ‘You don’t want the door there!’”

At the time of our interview, Streisand’s 80th birthday is mere weeks away. Is she hard to buy presents for? Brolin looks surprised at the question. “Oh no. She recently said: ‘My birthday is coming up but I know what I want, and I want it now,’ and I said: ‘OK, get it,’ and she got a Cartier watch,” he says. See? Easy.

Tragically, I must now rush to the airport. Brolin is anxious that I might get hungry on the flight, so he carefully wraps up the remains of our courgette loaf and puts it in my bag. He gives me a big hug goodbye before driving off, and it’s like being embraced by a gentlemanly bear. Lucky Barbra.

Lightyear is in cinemas from 17 June.