James Cromwell said goodbye to his friends, raised a fist into the air and then entered through a door into darkness.
Standing there in the garage-like space that greets the newest inmates of Orange County jail, Cromwell couldn’t see any cameras, nor much of anything at all. He suspected the powers that be wanted it that way ― on the off chance a new inmate needed a little roughing up. After making his way through another set of doors, the darkness washed away, only to be replaced by the sterile world he’d call home for the next three days.
“There is no humanity [in there],” he told me last week. “The desk is not human, the chairs are not human, the color of the floor, the ceiling ― nothing. There’s nothing to hold onto.”
The guards first made Cromwell strip and lean over to spread his cheeks. They asked him if he was anxious about being raped, he said, and then if he was anxious to rape someone himself. Finally, the guards led him to his gray, seven-by-nine-foot cell, complete with two sets of underwear and the white jumpsuit doled out to uncategorized inmates. The foam that had once made up his mattress was long gone, leaving a bed made of metal and plywood, which felt hard on the 77-year-old’s back. On one of the walls, Cromwell spotted a series of inscribed words: “God is love. Love is pain. Get me out of here.”
Cromwell could have avoided the Orange County jail had he just paid the $375 fine the state wanted. He had been arrested a few years back for his role in a sit-in on the site of a prospective natural gas-fired power plant near his home in Warwick, New York ― part of a larger movement to fight its completion. But he felt he had done nothing wrong, and viewed the idea of paying the fine akin to admitting his own guilt.
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements. Learn more
So, from July 14 to July 17, 2017, there he lay.
Ever since the election of Donald Trump last November, numerous Hollywood celebrities have positioned themselves as part of “the resistance,” denouncing the president and everything he represents on platforms ranging from Twitter to the Academy Awards. But Cromwell is something different: a rabble-rousing hell-raiser of a man.
The actor has been removed from corporate events and escorted out of Democratic Party fundraisers. He has been arrested in Virginia, Wisconsin, New York and California. At 77 years old, it can’t be easy. These days, the actor ― who has played characters including George H.W. Bush and Prince Philip in major motion pictures ― walks with a clear hitch in his step, one made all the more apparent by his towering frame.
But ask him if he’s ever considered slowing down, stopping all this political nonsense and enjoying something like retirement, and Cromwell replies with what could be best described as a scoff. That makes sense: Even at 77, Cromwell exudes energy.
When I asked how he was upon meeting him in Manhattan, he launched into the details of whether the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation would or would not soon grant a particular permit related to the power plant. As he was leaving, he hurried back over to me and asked that I make sure to include information about one of his causes, which, he wants you to know, can be found at protectorangecounty.org.
In between, he told me with pride about a 60-mile bike ride he took the day before. And all the while, he spoke in a voice that boomed with passion while discussing the world and its ills.
Whatever you think about the individual merits of his various causes, it’s hard to argue with one thing: James Cromwell genuinely seems to give a fuck.
It didn’t always seem like things would go this way for Cromwell. Born in 1940 in Los Angeles, he was a child of Hollywood stardom. His mother, Kay Johnson, racked up more than 20 acting credits to her name over the course of her career; his father, John Cromwell, more than 40 directorial credits, including 1934′s “Of Human Bondage.”
The two divorced when Cromwell was just a boy, landing the then-6-year-old with his mother on the East Coast, where he later attended prep school. His father wrote him letters, which Cromwell refused to read, he said, “as a way of punishment.” Consequently, Cromwell did not understand until his late teens just how dramatically his father’s career had been affected after being blacklisted by Hollywood during the Joseph McCarthy era.
After high school, Cromwell attended Middlebury College and Carnegie Mellon University. Eventually, the same interest in theater that consumed his parents overwhelmed him, too, leading Cromwell in 1964 on a trip through the deep South with the Free Southern Theater, a community theater group closely associated with the civil rights movement.
Before the trip, the young man from the Northeast possessed only a superficial knowledge of what was happening in the southern United States in the mid-1960s. When he spotted a “Colors Only” sign the first night, he thought it was a relic from the Civil War. When he and John O’Neal, one of the founders of the Free Southern Theater, were told they weren’t welcome at a restaurant because O’Neal was black, Cromwell could barely control his indignation, while O’Neal calmly told the man he was violating their civil rights.
As they played throughout states including Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, Cromwell learned about firebombed churches. A young black girl told him how she had been beaten, kicked and spat upon while trying to integrate a local lunch counter. “I not only couldn’t believe that I was there, [I couldn’t believe] that my people ― this,” he said as he pointed to his skin, “had done this to her. How could these black men possibly contain their fury?”
“I began to understand what had happened, how slavery had been transformed into Jim Crow, and what Jim Crow meant ― the injustice of it,” he continued. “From then on, that becomes the prism through which [I saw].”
When Cromwell returned to the Northeast, he was changed. He directed a piece of protest art in Connecticut while the Black Panthers’ Bobby Seale was on trial in Connecticut and housed members of the Black Panthers at his father’s apartment without his knowledge. In 1971, he was arrested on May Day in Washington, D.C., while protesting against the Vietnam War.
He felt an anger boiling inside him as authorities shot unarmed college students at Kent State University, and the FBI’s counterintelligence program went after people deemed subversive. He eventually started to doubt the importance of acting. “I thought, I’m in the wrong profession, nothing I can do is going to address [all this].” And so, he left to travel the world ― and, by motorcycle, the U.S., too. During that time, he came upon stockyards in Texas that convinced him to become a vegetarian.
In the mid-1970s, Cromwell eventually found his way back to Los Angeles. In need of a job, he asked the only person he knew in the city, a Middlebury alum named Michael Sevareid, for help. Sevareid introduced him to a casting director, who got him an audition on a show he’d never seen called “All in the Family.” He was the last person to read, he says, but he got the part of Stretch Cunningham anyway.
It was a brief role for a few episodes. But for Cromwell, by then in his mid-30s, it was a big break; a real part on a hit CBS show. Over the next two decades, he would would appear in dozens of TV shows and movies. He would get parts in “M*A*S*H” and “Three’s Company” and “Little House on the Prairie,” in “Knight Rider” and “The Twilight Zone” and “Star Trek.”
“All in the Family” gave him a way to make a living. But in retrospect, he can see it pulled something inside him out, as well. “It was sort of a period of incredible mindlessness,” he now says of that time. “I didn’t know that politics existed.”
He started eating meat again, and as he entered his 40s, he found himself getting angry not at injustice, but at the the sight of a 20-year-old man in new jeans with a Rolex on his wrist. He blamed his disconnected feelings on his “love-hate relationship” with Hollywood, which he associated with his father. “I probably was regressed,” he admits now.
Not until the mid-1990s did he come to, when he landed a role as a farmer named Arthur H. Hoggett in a film about a pig. Cromwell thought the film, “Babe,” sounded “silly” at first, but eventually came to find the story touching. Others did too, and the film netted more than $250 million at the box office, earning Cromwell a nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role at the 68th annual Academy Awards ― one of seven nods for the film.
“Babe” would give Cromwell’s career a jolt, helping him to land blockbuster gigs in films including “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” “L.A. Confidential” and “Deep Impact.” But the film also gave Cromwell himself a much-needed jolt, too. He recommitted to vegetarianism and started working with the animal rights group PETA in what would become a decades-long partnership. He narrated videos for the group and began to attend its protests. In 2001, he was charged with trespassing at a Wendy’s in Tysons Corner, Virginia, during a demonstration. He appeared at non-PETA protests as well, marching with celebrities like Mike Farrell and Martin Sheen in opposition to the Iraq War in 2003.
It wasn’t until the current decade, when Cromwell pushed past 70, however, that things really started to get rowdy. Since then, he has been arrested and kicked out of so many events, so many times, it’s getting hard to count. He’s been arrested at the University of Wisconsin for breaking into a Board of Regents meeting to protest “cruel and wasteful experiments” on cats. He’s been arrested in Watkins Glen, New York, for disorderly conduct while protesting a facility that would store methane, propane and butane below a nearby lake that provides local drinking water. He has protested against Air France’s treatment of monkeys at LAX and been booted out of fundraisers attended by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Today, Cromwell views his age as an advantage, allowing him to see issues more clearly. “The difference is now I know a great deal more than I did,” he said. He’s never confused anymore. He knows how power works, and how Washington works, and how the police work. While attending protests at places like Standing Rock, he has come to realize how people of color are disproportionately affected by corporate attacks on the environment.
But he’s also come to realize that many of the protests that once brought attention to causes seem to be less and less effective. When Cromwell and a group of protesters were arrested after blocking the entrance to a natural gas-fired power plant near his home on Dec. 18, 2015, it barely caused a blip on the media’s radar, and he took note.
“Much to my chagrin, nothing changed. We were arrested, we weren’t tried for two years, the media hardly responded,” he said. “I became aware that all the nice feelings and all the pickets and all the petitions and all the trips to Albany, the protests ... nothing penetrates.”
So, he added, “I said to everybody, we gotta do something bigger.”
Finally, they did, when Cromwell and two friends and fellow protestors, Pramilla Malick and Madeline Shaw, refused to pay a $375 fine after the trial over their sit-in, which meant that an Oscar-nominated actor would be sentenced to a week in Orange County jail.
“Suddenly, we’re news,” he said. While no one was interested in Cromwell getting arrested yet again, a jail sentence was different, and countless media outlets covered it. Cromwell trended nationally, bringing attention to what had previously been considered a small local issue northwest of the island of Manhattan.
This works, he thought to himself. Now, he is trying to convince other activists that some political protests must have consequences to break through in 2017.
“In the civil rights movement, in the anti-Vietnam [movement], in the black liberation movement, everyone knew there [were] consequences,” he said. “As long as people understand that and say, ‘Yes, but what is the alternative?’ there will be no revolution.”
Yes, by the way, Cromwell understands this is all easier for him to say. He knows he’s famous and wealthy and holds a deep respect for the many grassroots organizers doing more than he ever could every day. And he knows what he doesn’t know, too. He spoke to me at length about how he could never understand what it’s like to drive while black, or to walk by a cop as a person of color in the U.S. In jail, that was more than clear. While Cromwell was kept away from the general population, his activist friends Malick and Shaw had a harder time than him. Cromwell guesses this was because Gov. Cuomo wanted to avoid a headline along the lines of “CROMWELL ATTACKED IN PRISON.”
“Because of my celebrity, they could not reduce me to a cypher, a number,” he said. “They always had to say, ‘Yeah, he’s a number, but he’s also the guy in ‘L.A. Confidential.’”
Maybe that’s why, even at 77, James Cromwell is completely unwilling to settle down. He knows his celebrity is a weapon, and he’s not about to stop wielding it anytime soon. In fact, just a few days after he got out of jail, Cromwell jumped on a plane and headed to Seaworld in San Diego. There were some killer whales that needed saving, and he was going to go do whatever the hell he could to help get them out.