TORONTO – Character actor James Cromwell has been a towering and versatile onscreen presence for nearly four decades, with roles including Archie’s pal Stretch Cunningham on “All in the Family,” the kind farmer in “Babe” and the pontiff in “Pope Pius XII.”
But the six-foot-seven star had never had a leading part until he joined the new Canadian film “Still Mine,” a touching true story of an 89-year-old New Brunswicker (Cromwell) who fought the government to build a final home for himself and his dementia-stricken wife (Oscar-nominated Genevieve Bujold).
Even Cromwell’s role in “Babe” ultimately wasn’t considered a leading one, as evidenced by his 1996 Oscar nomination for best supporting actor in the charming piglet tale.
The Los Angeles native admits it was he who decided to enter the Oscar race in the supporting actor category for that year, feeling the competition for the best-actor trophy was too fierce.
“That year they had huge films and I said to the studio, ‘I want to go for supporting actor,’ and they said, ‘No, your name comes first,’” Cromwell recalled in a recent interview.
“I said, ‘Yeah, it comes first because you can’t say, “Babe, starring the pig and James Cromwell.” Of course you had to put me first.’ You know, they didn’t help me at all. No campaign, no advertising, no nothing.
“It cost me $60,000 to get that nomination, but it changed my life. So it was probably the best $60,000 I ever spent.”
Cromwell said from that point on he landed a flood of parts, from a corrupt cop in “L.A. Confidential” to the U.S. president in “The Sum of All Fears” and a recent turn as an evil doctor on “American Horror Story.”
And now, with “Still Mine,” he’s finally able to play a role he’s long been seeking.
“My definition of a character actor is, ‘The guy who never gets the girl,’ so I never had that opportunity to express this part of me,” said the 73-year-old.
“And that’s why I’m so grateful to this film, because it’s me, at my age … in a relationship that I get to have all the tenderness and all the love and all the attraction for. It’s a miracle.”
Toronto-raised filmmaker Michael McGowan (“Score: A Hockey Musical,” “One Week”) wrote and directed “Still Mine,” which got seven nominations at the recent Canadian Screen Awards.
Cromwell — who won the Canadian Screen Award for best actor — plays the late Craig Morrison, a farmer who faced jail time for failing to abide by strict building codes as he constructed a house for wife Irene on the Fundy coast in St. Martins, N.B.
The skilled builder was erecting the structure to replace their old home, in which they raised their seven children.
“He just couldn’t believe what they were going after him for,” said McGowan.
“Here’s a guy that had built houses all his life, he knew how to do this stuff.”
McGowan embarked on the film after reading about Morrison in a newspaper.
The story touched on a theme he’s explored in his other films — that of examining the point in life when you give up.
Co-stars include George R. Robertson, Julie Stewart, Zachary Bennett and Campbell Scott.
McGowan said Cromwell was the only actor he wanted for the lead role, feeling his tenacity would perfectly encapsulate Morrison’s attitude that “age is just an abstraction, not a straight jacket.”
“Here’s a guy that’s 73 that’s getting arrested for protesting animal rights,” said McGowan. “He seems to be tireless.”
McGowan was referring to Cromwell’s arrest in February for protesting animal testing at the University of Wisconsin. A week after the incident, he headed to Washington to speak out against the Keystone XL pipeline, which the actor calls “one of the worst things that could happen to this planet right now.”
“I know for a lot of Canadians it represents a lot of money, but we’re killing the planet,” said Cromwell.
“If this goes through, I probably will chain myself to a bulldozer. There comes a point where you have to stand up. If you don’t, you’re responsible for what you get.”
Clearly, Cromwell has just as much fight in him as Morrison, who visited the film set and got a chance to watch the drama before he died in February at age 93.
“I’m not quite to the embracing aging (stage) yet,” Cromwell, who’s now set to shoot the new ABC series “Betrayal,” said with a grin.
“I’m still on the resistant stage.”
“Still Mine” opens Friday in Toronto (Varsity, Sheppard Grande, Queensway and SilverCity Mississauga) and Vancouver. It opens May 10 in other cities, including Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Victoria.