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Spotlight: James Cromwell in 'Waiting for Godot'

March 28, 2012 |  1:15 pm

Waiting for Godot
Tall, lanky James Cromwell, 72, is best known for his Oscar-nominated role as Farmer Arthur H. Hoggett in 1995’s “Babe” and most recently as the dedicated valet of George Valentin in the Oscar-winning “The Artist.” He’s also appeared in countless movies, including 1997’s “L.A. Confidential,” and in TV series such as HBO’s “Six Feet Under” and NBC’s “ER.”

The son of award-winning actor-director John Cromwell (“Of Human Bondage,” “The Prisoner of Zenda”) and actress Kay Johnson (“Madame Satan”), Cromwell has toiled in the theater since the 1960s.

He is treading the boards once again in the Mark Taper Forum’s well-received production of Samuel Beckett’s masterwork “Waiting for Godot.” Cromwell plays Pozzo, a bombastic, vicious aristocrat who keeps his slave Lucky, who is saddled with heavy baggage, on a long rope.

Cromwell talked about how “Godot” has resonated in his life.

Times critic Charles McNulty said in his review of “Waiting for Godot” that you are skinnier than most actors who play Pozzo.

I heard someone say I wasn't fat enough. The idea we have of the oppressors is always of the bombastic. So they usually think of [a heavy person]. But I am not fat and I think that fascists come in every shape. Of course, I can't approach the person I am patterning him after, which is Newt Gingrich. He is a little on the pudgy side.

The Taper production is not your first experience with “Waiting for Godot.”

My roommate [at Carnegie Tech] was very sophisticated and brainy. I was in the directing unit and I had to do my thesis play. He said I should do “Waiting for Godot.” Then I read the play. I hadn't the foggiest idea what to do with that.

So did you have problems directing it?

I started rehearsals and the head of the directing department took the play away from me, but the student body struck to get my play reinstated. The faculty decided that they would not allow any of the school to see the play. I have no idea what it was like. Then a couple of years later, I had been in England at the National Theatre and when I came back, my father had cut out a little squib that a theater touring in the South was looking for actors and directors. I became one of the directors and the play I was to direct and be in was “Waiting for Godot.” So I had another shot at it, but this time I had a context.

What was the context?

The theater was sponsored by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and toured Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia in the midst of the civil rights movement. So my introduction to Mississippi was to enter McComb, where the site of the black church had been firebombed. I went to the Freedom House, where I saw more black men than I had ever seen in my life and they were listening to a 14-year-old girl describe how she had just been beaten and spat upon trying to integrate the local Woolworth's lunch counter.

“Godot” was a life-changing experience for you.

Definitely. We rehearsed it in New Orleans, where I was thrown out of my first restaurant because I went with the head of the theater, who was black. The minister of the Baptist church in the black neighborhood in New Orleans said something to me that I had never heard really described as succinctly. He said the master is as tied to the slave as the slave is tied to the master — the reciprocity of that relationship. That was the beginning of my understanding of the play.

Did the Civil Rights movement fuel your vision for this production featuring a black and white actor as Estragon and Vladimir?

I tried to deal with the race issue in the play. I was white and Lucky was black. The slave relationship [of Pozzo and Lucky], which they understood all too well, was represented. I put on blackface and the black actors put on whiteface.

What was the reaction?

The audience thought that was the stupidest thing they had ever seen. I used to ask [audiences]. In Greenville, Miss., I said, “Do you think Godot is coming?” This black-gloved hand went up in the back of the room. She said, “No.” She sounded so sure about it. I said, “How do you know?” She said, “I looked in the program and his name wasn't listed.”


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Photo: James Cromwell, right, as Pozzo, and Hugo Armstrong, left, as Lucky in "Waiting for Godot." Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times