Actor rediscovers self in new drama

Sunday, September 16, 2001

LOS ANGELES -- What about Elliott Baines will not be like James Cromwell?

Cromwell responds to this question with a long silence.

Eventually he says, "Well."

He falls silent again.

Then he says, "I don't know."

Smiling, the 61-year-old actor confesses it's satisfying to finally play someone whose nature and beliefs are close to his own.

"Citizen Baines," a new CBS drama series, had been scheduled to premiere Saturday, Sept. 22, but the network was delaying the start of its new fall schedule by at least a week in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Baines, a three-term U.S. senator, has lost his seat. He returns home to Seattle, where he must find a new purpose in life and reconnect with his three adult daughters.

"Citizen Baines" was created by longtime "ER" collaborators John Wells and Lydia Woodward. The role was offered to Cromwell after his guest performance last season on the NBC medical drama. His portrayal of a terminally ill bishop has earned him an Emmy nomination. It also, he believes, enabled producers to "basically audition me."

Woodward considers Cromwell, best known for playing the kindly Farmer Hoggett in 1995's "Babe," the ideal choice for her drama "about adults for adults."

"Jamie has the stature and the dignity and the sense of honor. ... And the sense of humor," she says, noting that Baines' problems won't get so earnest as to exclude laughter.

Was too tall

Baines and Cromwell aren't exactly alike. Baines is a widower with three daughters. Cromwell, married to his second wife, Julie, daughter of the late Lee. J. Cobb, has two daughters and two sons.

Born into an acting family, Cromwell grew up in Los Angeles. He planned to become a mechanical engineer and sports car designer. He changed his mind after seeing his father, actor-director John Cromwell, at work on a film in Sweden.

His father advised Cromwell not to go into acting because of his height.

Just how tall is Cromwell?

"Just put 6 feet 6 inches," Cromwell says. "It's a little more than that, but 6 feet 7 inches sounds terrible."

His career as a "tall, large-nosed character actor" usually precluded being the leading man. He made a living as a villain or comic eccentric on stage, in film and on TV sitcoms.

By his 50s, he was disillusioned.

"I didn't have a career. I had this hodgepodge that made me very unhappy," he says.

His stepmother, actress Ruth Nelson, provided inspiration. Witnessing her continued joy in her work "re-taught me to be in love with the work that you do and dedicated and disciplined and inclusive."

Then came "Babe," and his Oscar nomination for his role as Farmer Hoggett. Since then, his films have included "L.A. Confidential" and "The Green Mile."

Last year, he was nominated for an Emmy for his portrayal of William Randolph Hearst in HBO's "RKO 281."

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