James Cromwell: 'My father told me: "Don't be an actor, you're too damn tall"'

Bob Dylan

I was born in 1940 and went to an American prep school, The Hill School, in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, in the 50s. It was all white boys: no people of colour, no Hispanics, no Chinese, and it was all very organised and bound in tradition. Other kids brought records to school by people such as Johnny Mathis, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. To me, they seemed like stylised crooners singing about some fake emotion and I found them quite boring. I later grew very fond of Tony Bennett, but at that time he didn’t seem to project that wonderful persona through his music.

The figures at the beginning of American rock’n’roll, like Buddy Holly and Elvis, seemed to be directed at me as a teenager, but I can’t say I was inspired by them. They didn’t change my lifestyle because I didn’t have a life outside of school. Music didn’t play a part in my life until my early 20s, when I was introduced to folk music by artists such as the Clancy Brothers, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. The folk revival was music that you really hadn’t heard before. Joan Baez and Bobby Dylan spoke about things that, as a young man, I had begun to understand were happening in the world.

My three parents

I am fortunate that I am the offspring of three incredible actors. My father [John Cromwell] took me on to the set of Anna and the King of Siam, which he directed, when I was about five, and I hid under the table with the little Thai kids. He was best friends with Nigel – who I knew as Willy – Bruce who played Watson in Basil Rathbone’s The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes on the radio. Uncle Willy’s laugh was contagious.

My mother, Kay Johnson, was Cecil B DeMille’s first leading lady when he moved from silent to sound films. She would take me to Saturday morning shows at the local movie house to watch westerns or something designed not to rile up the kids, although we’d still spend most of the time yelling and throwing popcorn and Jujubes. She would break into some dialect while out shopping and talk to the butcher in Italian, which embarrassed the piss out of me.

My stepmother, Ruth Nelson, who I consider my second mother, was a member of the New York Group Theatre. We went to see her perform Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. When they announced her name, the audience booed, which was strange. At the end of the play, they gave her a standing ovation.


In the summers, I played junior tournament tennis – not very well, I must say, but I had natural coordination and I looked good. The problem was returning a backhand – or a forehand. I would probably only hit the ball every one out of 10. I was incredibly hard on myself and there was much racquet-smashing.

I would go from tournament to tournament, get beaten in the first round and drive home. In the end, I’d just ask the people running the tournament to put me with the No 1 seed for my first round because that way I didn’t have to stay there very long. After he beat me 6-0 in the first set, the other kid would teach me what I was doing wrong, so I got a free tennis lesson.

A Matter of Morals

I got through my high school years by the skin of my teeth and went to Middlebury College, a very nice college in Vermont. My plan was to become an engineer. We had fraternities, where out-of-control college students can act out all their manic stupidity. My father came to visit the day after a huge party. There were broken beer bottles, vomit on the floor and women’s stockings hanging on the wall. I think he was appalled. My stepmother suggested that he take me to Sweden, age 18, to watch him direct a film – A Matter of Morals – with Eva Dahlbeck and [cinematographer] Sven Nykvist.

I was so entranced that I quit Middlebury and went to the performing arts college HB Studio in New York. It was the last thing my father wanted. He said: “Well, don’t be an actor. You’re too damn tall.” [Cromwell is 6ft 7in.] I thought: “I guess I’ll have to be a director.” I tried and failed for 10 years to be a theatre director but did get jobs as an actor. Every year I’d go to a different theatre and burn all my bridges; the next season, I’d go to another theatre and burn them all over again.

Avoiding the draft

I was delighted when I landed my first job in theatre at the Cleveland Playhouse, even though I was paid next to nothing: $25 every two weeks. Then I was drafted into the army. I went to see a psychiatrist in New York called Arnold Hutschnecker, who turned out to be Richard Nixon’s psychoanalyst. I said: “I’m going to be called up. Can you get me out?” He wrote a letter and said: “Give this to the inspecting officer, but whatever you do, don’t read the contents.”

We were all standing around in our underwear – mostly black guys from the inner city of Cleveland – and the inspecting officer announced: “Anybody got any letters?” I raised my hand, he came down the line, read my letter and said: “So have you had any paranoid tendencies lately?” Without even thinking, I said: “How the fuck should I know?” He motioned me into his office, wrote on my induction slip that I was a manic-depressive schizophrenic with a destructive tendency who would do damage to himself or others, and said: “Give this to the man at the door.” So that got me out of getting my ass blown off in Vietnam.

James Dean on screen and Burt Lancaster in the flesh

The first actor I remember just being poleaxed by was James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, Giant and, especially, East of Eden. East of Eden just killed me because of his character’s relationship to his father, played by Raymond Massey, who’d just starred in Abe Lincoln in Illinois, which my father directed. I thought Jimmy Dean was the best ever, along with Marlon Brando and quirky choices like John Ireland, whose persona I just really loved. I didn’t get to see the other actors who I now admire incredibly, like Charles Laughton, Ralph Richardson and Wilfrid Lawson, until much later.

I remember walking down the street near the Museum of Modern Art in New York and walking towards me was Burt Lancaster. I think he was the first movie star I ever saw in any context outside of their film or in a studio shooting a film. He was very athletic, had a great walk and had on the most beautiful clothes – my mouth just dropped. I couldn’t believe he was right there. A movie star just walked right past me.

• Operation Buffalo is available to stream on Acorn TV UK