Faith, Media & Culture

Faith, Media & Culture


Mini-Review: “Christmas with Tucker” tonight on Hallmark Movie Channel + “Tucker” star James Brolin reflects on dogs, family, politics and an eclectic career

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Shades of Lassie. How long has it been since TV aired a great boy and his dog story? If you say too long, that lack is remedied tonight (10/25) when Hallmark Movie Channel airs the holiday-themed Christmas with Tucker at 9:00 PM (ET). Tucker, of course being the pooch, who stars opposite 13-year-old Canadian actor Gage Munroe as George McCray, the boy with whom he forms an emotional bond.  Adult star power is provided by James Brolin and Barbara Gordon as his grandparents, the parents of his late dad, and Josie Bissett (Melrose Place) as his widowed mother.

Synopsis (from the Hallmark Movie Channel website): While coming to terms with his dad’s recent passing in a tractor accident, 13-year-old George McCray (Gage Munroe) is living with his grandparents on their Kansas farm. George misses his mom, Jill (Josie Bissett), who has moved to Minnesota to deal with her grief, but there is the promise of their reunion at Christmas. George feels needed on the farm as he helps his grateful grandfather Bo (James Brolin) with daily chores and comforts his grandmother Cora (Barbara Gordon). He has also made friends with Mary Ann (Helen Colliander) and became attached to Tucker, the smart and friendly dog the McCrays take in when his troubled owner Frank Thorne (Ron Lea) lands in jail.

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Mini-Review: I have to admit it. I’m a sucker for dog stories and have actually, on occasion, felt sorry for today’s kids who won’t have their own version of Timmy and Lassie to look back on. Now, in a way they will, since Christmas with Tucker comes about as close to catching the spirit of that TV classic as anything I’ve seen in a while. It even has its own of a “Timmy’s in the well!’ scene. So, for nostalgia — and, of course, for the children — Christmas with Tucker is Recommended. Honestly, the film is no dog. In fact, I don’t think Hallmark would be barking up the wrong tree if they considered a spin-0ff series. Call it Life with Tucker. Personally, I think it’s a fetching idea.  Paws for thought?

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I recently had the opportunity to talk with James Brolin. The iconic actor plays Grandpa Bo in the Christmas with Tucker. It is, of course, just one of many memorable roles he has played over the years — including Dr. Steven Kiley (on TV’s Marcus Welby, M.D.), Clark Gable (in 1976’s Gable and Lombard) and Ronald Reagan (in the 2003 TV-movie The Reagans).

JWK: Why did you decided to do Christmas with Tucker?

JAMES BROLIN: When I was a kid I think I was such a sucker for Lassie. I don’t know why this kid — Timmy, the little boy and Lassie just really got to me (on that) television show. I found myself really attached to it and then after that I had several dogs. One was the greatest dog that got dysplasia after two years and I had to put him down. He was my best friend and understood everything I ever said.

JWK: How old were you when you had him?

JB: I was 16. We had had a couple of family dogs before but I never really felt personally attached like a friend until this dog came along. He was given to me by somebody that had to go somewhere else in the world I think. It was a German shepherd. So, anyway, we became such buddies. We were together all the time. No matter what I said, he just seemed to know what I was saying. And then it got to where the pain got so bad that we put him down.

JWK: What was his name?

JB: Duke. So then, after that I had (other dogs) in my lifetime. I had been around dogs in my first marriage and the boys raised lots of litters of different dogs. My ex was so into any animals…that we became a part of that. As far as any real personal emotional involvement with them, I never really (had that) until I bought myself an Australian shepherd and really trained him well. He was my buddy for years (until) he went…I think it’s the lesson of life. I think they teach you how to let go and leave this world. It’s the cold fact that we all don’t want to grasp, you know.

JWK: I think there’s a lot more that goes on inside the head of a dog than people even want to acknowledge.

JB: Absolutely! It would be really interesting to (know what they think), wouldn’t it?…Then I had another dog. He was an Australian shepherd and taught to herd cattle and sheep, I guess. So, when I got him his only problem was (when) a skateboarder went by. He was good at nipping heels without anybody really noticing. He would just turn his head and take a little nip and skateboarders would go like “Hey! You’re dog just bit me!” (I’d go) “My dog doesn’t bite.” Anyway, otherwise, this was the perfect dog. My gosh, he was great! Every day we worked on training. I’m an ex-horse trainer also. I do believe that, both horses and dogs, the more they’re trained, the happier they are. I understand this doesn’t go down well with circus animals like elephants. They’re trained in a whole different way — out of fear…But dogs just love it. They love to please you. They love to watch you. And horses are much slower version of that but I think they’re of the same mind.

JWK: So, would you describe yourself as an animal lover?

JB: Yeah — when I find one that I love, I’m an animal lover. But…nobody would want to hear this. If you get a bad dog from the pound, you just don’t stick with him. Take him back to the pound or find him a home. To be stuck with the wrong dog for up to 15 or 16 years is a tough thing on that dog because that dog does have somebody that he’ll sync with.

JWK: You play a grandfather in Christmas with Tucker — and you are one in real life. How has that affected your perspective on things — and the roles you choose to play?

JB: Gosh. My children are anywhere from 25 to in their 40’s. My grandchildren have all escaped the house…The closest one is an hour and a half drive from me and the farthest one is a 13-hour flight.

JWK: So, even your grandchildren are, basically, adults.

JB: Oh, yes. They’re all adult age…I don’t remember what it was like when they were little kids — except they were wonderful, you know? They were gift to my son, especially. Josh is so close to his children. It’s a joy to watch.

JWK: How many kids do you have?

JB: I have three and only one has children.

JWK: And that’s Josh.

JB: Yeah.

JWK: Is he the only one that went into show business, as well?

JB: Well, my daughter was at a college of music and she now is a budding musical show producer and video camera producer. She’s working with a co-op out of Brooklyn right now. I don’t know what direction that’s going in but I know she’s very good at it. She’s a good leader. It’s funny. She went in as a concert pianist and came out a video/film producer.

JWK: What does your other child do?

JB: He’s sort makes do. He lives in a mountain town north of Los Angeles and does small jobs. He may be the happiest of all of us. He works week to week.

JWK: How does it feel to have Josh following in your footsteps?

JB: He’s been doing this for many years at this point. It was always the plight of (an actor that) when you finish a job, you’re looking for another one. Your full-time job is trying to find a job and all that. He’s past that point right now. He’s got this run where he’s a movie star with certainly…a very, very good chance at making himself secure for a while. It feels just wonderful…We’re really close and really good pals. He’s gone on these things for months at a time, so I don’t get to see him every day.

JWK: Have you ever done a movie with him?

JB: Yeah. We did the first Turner movie ever did. It was called Finish Line about a father trying to drive his son into the Olympics at any cost — and the son starts doing steroids and it kills the son.

JWK: Of all the films you’ve made, what’s your personal favorite role?

JB: If I think back to the one I had the most fun, it was probably Gable and Lombard. I don’t know how many people know that film but was a major-financed film at Universal.

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JB: Capricorn One was a really interesting film.

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JB: Also even recently playing Reagan.

JWK: I was going to ask you about that. What was it like to play Ronald Reagan?

JB: Getting nominated (for an Emmy and Golden Globe) was a nice reward because I went in their saying “I can’t do this. This is not for me. I don’t identify with the person. I don’t know what I’m gonna do with this role.” I was hired eleven days before we started shooting. I had very little prep time. Then I just got so involved in it. I would walk around with a laptop and a DVD all night. Sometimes I wouldn’t go to bed until four in the morning and I’d wake up to be at makeup at 6:30 (AM). I’d get two and a half hours of sleep, if I was lucky. I was just trying to immerse myself in what this guy was about. Then, every day you do your best and then when I was nominated for a Golden Globe and Emmy, that told me “Okay, at least I was on the right track.”

JWK: Did you find yourself liking him more or liking him less after playing him?

JB: I liked him more…He could be very astute. Early on he had a radio show. You can’t have a radio show without being pretty quick but he got very slow and very distracted at least by the time he became president or governor, even. From what I learned, he had times where there were important meetings — national meetings with groups of people — he’d be watching television and talking about a program that was on and trying to get everybody’s attention to watch (and) do what he wanted…(But) I don’t think there was anything nefarious about (him). I think he meant well. That’s what I liked about him because you find so many politicians are only making decisions that can be of advantage to them and not their constituents.

JWK: How did you feel about the controversy that broke out over the film that pushed it off of CBS and onto Showtime? Did all the attention actually benefit the movie?

JB: It didn’t benefit it. Actually, I think they lost at least 50-million viewers…I felt that it was unfair and, in the end, there were people that were afraid of the film — afraid that it was damaging to him. (But) many times I heard “You know, I never really liked him but, since I saw the film, I like him and I understand him a lot more.” That made me feel good because that’s kind of how I felt…

…At Thanksgiving, it was not uncommon with him to be locked in his room writing and then (his kids) would finally say “Pop, come on out and have Thanksgiving with us!” He’d be sitting there with his cards — if he had a speech coming up — going over his cards and not relating to his family. “He (may have been) focused on something very profound but not his family and, of course, the family did suffer. It’s all the kind of things that…for an actor they give you something to get your teeth into. For me, it’s nothing more than that. Each role, I grab it, I try to make something out of nothing as best I can.

JWK: You’ve had three successful TV series — Marcus Welby, Hotel and Pensacola: Wings of Gold.  Do you have a favorite?

JB: Because I was a pilot — and as a young man I had fantasies of being a fighter pilot — that’s what drew me into Pensacola: Wings of Gold.

JWK: Would you do another TV series?

JB: I think if I found something that intrigued me…Lately, I did one thing on Castle...It fascinated me that Castle’s father is very independent — no contact with anybody, including family. He’s an international assassin for the government.

JWK: So, you played Castle’s father?

JB: Yes, they had a two-parter. I did the last half-hour of a two-hour show on Castle as his long-lost father who finally come to rescue him and tries not to tell him who he is but is forced to out of anger (to) finally tell him who he is. It was quite moving. What we made of this character was here’s this guy who — you know, if you go to a lot of movies — there’s a concept you have of what an assassin might be and the coldness of it — you find out this guy is crying for his child and his grandchild in the end. It was a nice reversal of your concept of a character. I love that. I love going form loud to soft, from black to white, from intense to kind. I love that in the progression of a character where you see something you didn’t expect or the man becomes something through lessons that he learns during the film. It’s a good course for all of us to learn that kind of thing or see that kind of thing is possible in our lives.

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JWK: Besides Castle, are there any current TV shows that you like?

JB: Actually, the obvious one — Homeland. And I’m just so sad that Breaking Bad is over. I hope they do the movie. Somebody said “That’s preposterous!” I said “No, it’s not. The right writer can keep you awake for two hours on any subject.” Those are basically the two that we’re glued to.

(Then there’s) Masters of Sex. I cannot believe (what they show). It’s legal porn on the air right now. I only saw one or two of those.

JWK: Did you like it?

JB: Well, I like it because it deals with the reality of what did happen. I just can’t believe that there’s really overt visual sex going on television nowadays.

JWK: Turning to politics for a bit, I know you’re friends with Bill Clinton. Do you care to weigh in on the possibility of Hillary in 2016?

JB: I think it would be wonderful. I think we need somebody (like her). I think also we need his help. If she were president, he would be there to give his good advice. I don’t think any person has done more for the world at this point than he has with the Clinton Foundation bringing business and culture and everything together to improve some of these (situations where people) were starving or dying of AIDS or whatever…We had a very healthy economy when he was president…She’s quite a star. I’ve been around them (and) I’ve never heard them talk about anything that they wanted for themselves. The conversation has always (been about) who they can help and how quickly they can get to it…These people are all for people. Sorry, I read things about them and I just can’t believe…some of these stories, you know?

JWK: How did you meet Bill?

JB: Through my wife (Barbra Streisand). We were invited actually to the White House as visitors and I met the both of them. We’ve had dinner quite a few times with both of them. It started with an invitation to the White House. One, at a party and then later on we got to stay overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom. He’s a real game player. He loves Rummikub and cards. He’s a good card player. He’s very serious about it.

JWK: Have you played with him?

JB: Oh, yeah. Actually I’ve played Rummikub with him, one of his favorite games. That’s one thing he loves (doing with) Mary Steenburgen and Ted (Danson). You know, they all are good vacation friends and play cards.

JWK: What’s next for you? Any new movies?

JB: Well, I’ve got a movie about (Ruby McCollum) that I’m hoping to direct in the spring. Right now, we have a producer Kevin DeWalt who is in London now putting together the money and getting ready for what we hope will be a spring prep in either New Orleans or Savannah.

JWK: Will you act in this film?

JB: No.

JWK: What’s the film about?

JB: It (deals with) paramour rights (Note: per Wikipedia, the presumed right of a white man to take a black woman to whom he was not married as his concubine). It’s about the rape of black women in small towns that was permitted in the south up to the forties and fifties when one very wealthy black woman was raped by her doctor over and over…and drugged until she finally went in and shot him. This is about the trial and what eventually happened to her. (It was) a one-sided trial.

JWK: Do you have anyone cast in it yet?

JB: No, we’re waiting for when Kevin gets back. We’ll have the money to make a firm offer to somebody but there are a lot of people that would love to play two or three of these roles.

JWK: How you doing otherwise?

JB: I’ve been waking up my body. I’ve been working out. I bought a stand-up paddleboard. (I’ve been) working out in the water with some friends several times a week.

JWK: From watching Christmas with Tucker, I have to say you look like you’re in great shape.

JB: Well, I’m in better shape now than I was then.

JWK: The film was shot in Canada, correct?

JB: The movie was basically all Canadians. Josie Bissett I think is in Seattle right now but they were all Canadians. We had the best time, the best shoot. They treated me so good. We were about five hours north of Toronto when we shot.

JWK: So, it was a happy set?

JB: It was a very happy set.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11



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