Hollywood Flashback: James Cromwell Reflects on 'Babe' 25 Years Later

Babe - Photofest - H 2020
Universal Studios/Photofest

The star recalls how he fought for his role in Chris Noonan's film, which earned seven Oscar noms and spawned a sequel.

Like its title character, Babe, released a quarter-century ago, is the story of an underestimated little thing that went on to stupendous achievements.

It began as the 1983 Dick King-Smith children's book The Sheep-Pig, about an orphaned piglet who demonstrates a knack for herding sheep. In 1986, director George Miller (Mad Max) was on a flight from Sydney to London when a woman next to him laughed as she read the book. Miller immediately began negotiating with King-Smith for the rights — a process that took nearly a decade, with one sticking point being Miller's determination to shoot in his native Australia. ("Pigs don't fly, and neither do I," said King-Smith, an Englishman who died at 88 in 2011.)

Also slowing things down was the fact that the animals in Babe were going to speak and behave in ways the movies had never seen — and the technology for that wasn't yet available. But by the time production got underway in 1995, with first-time feature helmer Chris Noonan shooting a script he'd co-written with Miller, it was. The four-legged denizens of Arthur Hoggett's farm — a mixture of 500 trained animals and Jim Henson's Creature Shop creations — moved their mouths through CGI magic.

James Cromwell was 55 when he auditioned to play Hoggett and had mostly flown under Hollywood's radar. "It was a little film and I had no [negotiating] weight. I did it for very little money," recalls the Los Angeles-born Cromwell, whom Noonan had to fight for. (Producers wanted an Australian.)

Only once he got to the set Down Under and saw what Noonan was cooking up did Babe's potential begin to dawn on him. "Chris' humanity and heart and sweetness of vision is really imprinted on the way he shot that picture," he says, adding that Miller had a darker vision that he ultimately got to realize when he directed the sequel, 1998's Babe: Pig in the City, which included a realistic dog-drowning scene that Universal execs insisted be cut.

It was the original, however, that captured the world's heart. The $30 million movie ($50 million in 2020 dollars ) made $254 million worldwide ($430 million today) and earned seven Oscar nominations, including those for best picture, best director and best supporting actor for Cromwell — also Emmy-nominated this year for his work on HBO's Succession — who spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about that life-changing performance.

It’s been 25 years. Can you believe it?

Uh, no. I actually don’t think about the years. I try to stay in the moment — in the perpetual now because there’s a lot going on.

Babe radically changed the direction of an already storied career.

I wouldn’t say my career was so storied. It’s a story to me. It was a little blip at the bottom of some other important columns. I had worked 10 years in the theater and I had done a number of pictures — really just [1976's] Murder by Death and [1984's] Tank — but mostly television. I had a really hard time getting people to take me seriously as a serious actor because then there was a division between people who did television and the people who did features.

When my agent, a wonderful agent named [Ro Diamond] would say, "You know, what about Jamie Cromwell?" "Oh we know him, he does situation comedies. [Cromwell's All in the Family character] 'Stretch' Cunningham, Norman Lear kind of things." He said, "No, he’s a classically trained actor. He can do other things." It was really like pulling teeth to get an audition. And so, because Ro had a friend who was casting this picture from Australia and the friend liked my work, I went down and auditioned for the director.

Describe the audition.

I had a great time, a wonderful time. There were no lines, nothing you could read, so you had to improvise. I didn’t know which dialect to do, so I did my cockney dialect. My cockney guy is inside me; he's very familiar to me. So I was quick enough that I stumped the director. He couldn’t go on with improv. But I never heard anything again. I mean, I thought, "Well, that’s that." And then [the director] called me up about six months later and says, "Can you sing?" I said, "Oh, like a bird." I do love to sing. He said, "OK, I really want you. I’m having a lot of trouble with the producer, who wants an Australian, but I want you so I’ll do my best. I can’t promise you anything but I hope it works out." I said I hope so too. Then they came and made an offer. They offered me a very little bit of money.

What did you make of the Babe script?

I had read the script, but I only really looked for my role. It was this film about a pig and the animals talked and I thought, you know, they’re gonna put peanut butter in their mouths. I knew nothing about CGI and nothing about what [director] Chris Noonan and [co-writer and producer] George Miller wanted to achieve, which was to make the animals relate to each other as if they were human beings. In other words, they'd have a human consciousness. Real animals look straight ahead when walking, otherwise they’ll run into trees; but human beings count on their peripheral vision, so they look at each other. And that little difference between the way George and Chris conceived the film was one of the things that made it unique.

But it didn't pay much money, and I’ve got 17 lines. I had a dear friend named Charles Keating, a wonderful actor, and he said, "Hey, listen — it’s a free trip to Australia and if the movie fails it’s the pig’s fault, it’s not your fault. The pig's got most of the lines." I thought, "Yeah. It’s a freebie." That’s the attitude I took to Australia.

Did that alter your outlook?

My attitude changed pretty quickly when I got there because we did a makeup testing. I had grown these sideburns — I don’t know why it occurred to me. I thought, "Yeah, that looks great." I wasn’t really sure about the area of the country that [Hoggett] came from, down near Brighton. He’s got a very particular dialect, and so I had been working on the dialect and did the makeup test, and George, the first time I met him, the first time I saw him actually, he had seen the makeup test, and as he walked past me he said, "Lose the sideburns." I don’t know why, but it just irked me. I said, "No." And he looked at me like, "Are you out of your mind?" I don’t think I said another word to George for the entire shoot of that picture.

George and Chris famously squabbled over Babe until long after its release.

Chris’ humanity and his heart and his sweetness, his vision, was really imprinted on the way he shot that picture. All those qualities are not George's qualities — although he has them; but he doesn’t use them very often when he makes pictures. George thought there should be more edge [to Babe], and he came one day to the set, we were well into it by then, and he pulled Chris away from set down into the middle of the field and I could see them, George and his righthand guy, sort of grilling Chris. Waving their fingers in front of Chris’ face. I thought, "Hum, that’s not so good. Let’s not have that." So I walked down and sort of inserted myself into the conversation, which of course made it more difficult for George to say whatever he had to say and he sort of harumphed and walked away. I don’t think we had anymore problems until much later in the process.

He did the sequel, of course, a much darker version.

That’s funny you should use that word. What Babe was not [to George] was this benign, bucolic story of a pig that has a destiny and a sense of direction and the willingness to be the thing that he wanted to be. The line, the first line of the movie, "This is the story of an unprejudiced heart." OK, so unprejudiced hearts are either really sweet characters that through the dint of their sense of wonder and pureness and honesty manage to survive. But I think what George wanted was more like It’s a Wonderful Life. So you think "A Wonderful Life, it’s gonna be a wonderful life, perfect, everything is perfect. But it gets darker and darker and darker and darker.

So when George made the second one, he believed that you could do that, overcome the first Babe. George finished the picture and he didn’t show [Universal] this picture until it was fully cut, balanced, print. They asked George would he be willing to show the film for management at Universal and their children, their families, before? And George says yeah, sure. Well they got in the first cut when they go to the hospital, if you remember the picture, that’s a vivisection laboratory. There are animals with posts drilled into their skulls and sores, cancers, it was — oh my God.

And then the dog-drowning sequence — my son actually worked on that as a CGI artist, and when I saw that thing I thought, "They can’t show this to kids. The kids’ll freak!" And so they said to George, "You gotta cut the picture. You gotta cut all that out." He said, "I can’t just cut out what you don’t happen to approve of. I have to rebalance the whole picture." And they said, "If you have to rebalance the whole picture just do that because we can’t show that." And so they had to cancel the opening. Well, in Hollywood, when they smell that something has gone wrong, everybody wants to know what's it all about, so they all would call up the studio to find out what happened. Why are you not opening this picture? And what they were told by the publicity department or whoever made those statements, [was], "The film is a little dark." Of course that was in every review. So, it wasn’t fair to George’s film, which is a very good film.

Did he cut those sequences out?

Oh yeah. Absolutely. They really cut the dog drowning sequence down to practically nothing. It’s still pretty harrowing, but I mean, with the way George shot it, you actually think that that’s a real dog that’s going through that. That’s an animatronic puppet. Vivisection was completely gone, and the last part, the terrible thing that happens to all the great apes, to the orangutan and to the chimpanzees, abused by the man who brought them together for this show and kept them locked up and didn’t see them as creatures with feelings and desires and a consciousness — it’s a very powerful theme about how we relate to each other, how we relate to those we consider to be other, which we are seeing a lot in our culture right now. Both of those films were really, really, they were not for kids. They are parables for adults. We didn’t have an opening for our film. Universal was appalled by the film and they wanted to kill the film.

The first one?!

Yes, for Babe. They didn’t want to do anything with the film. So what happened was, they invited the press down to Houston for Apollo 13, a big thing, you know how they invite everybody down, stay in a wonderful hotel. And on a bus, evidently, [the guests] thought was taking them to the airport the next morning, [the studio execs] said, "Listen, um, we hate to do this to you, but we have this other little film about a pig." Everybody in the bus was, "Ughhhh … oh my God." And they showed the film, and not only did all of them really like the film, but Gene Siskel just thought it was the cat’s pajamas. He loved it. And so he pushed it a lot.

The studio opened that film in the middle of the day, in a little theater in Santa Monica, with no press. I don’t know how they got an audience in there. I was there. I hadn't seen the film. So I didn’t know that the opening begins in the slaughter house and the pig that goes to the carnival is saved from the slaughter house while his mother goes in the big truck to be killed. And then it begins with Roscoe Lee Brown’s impeccable, wonderful, magical opening. "This is the story of an unprejudiced heart." And when the first joke came, I heard not the kids laugh, I heard an adult laugh. I thought, "Oh, we got 'em. The adults are in this picture, they’re seeing this picture from the point of view of the animals, the pig."

You've done a lot of great work in the area of animal rights, even getting arrested while protested a lab experimenting on dogs. Were you an animal activist before Babe?

No, no, no. I wasn’t an activist. I had come across the country on my motorcycle in ’75. And I went through the stockyard in Texas for what seemed like an entire day. Animals on either side of the road in pens, as far as you could see, and in the far background you could see the slaughter house, and the smell, the sight, the sounds, the panic, the scent of death almost knocked me off my motorcycle. And I said to myself, I can’t do this. I’ve got to do something about this. And so I thought, "Well, I’ll become a vegetarian." It’s more difficult than I thought because I really liked to eat and it took me a while.

And then when Babe came, we would work with the animals and the animals were trained and they were extraordinary. So I just watched these extraordinary animals do the things that they did — and then I would go to lunch, and bless their hearts the Australians like to kill whatever moves and eat it. And so on the lunch table would be all the animals that I had just worked with. There was duck and there would be lamb. I thought, "Oh man, this is really horrible. I have to go vegan." 

Do you like having a catchphrase? Or does it get tiresome having fans ask you to say, "That'll do, pig, that'll do."

They do very infrequently ask me that and in the nicest possible I say, "No, I don’t want to do that. It exists in the picture. If you want to hear that line said the way you remember, watch the picture." Because that’s my favorite story about the entire experience. That was the final sequence of the sheepherding. And if you know anything about sheep, sheep will never do anything they’re told to do. They are skittish and erratic and ornery. And this wonderful woman from New Zealand had worked with them for the entire five months to get them to walk in unison — 12 sheep, three abreast, four rows — and follow this little pig through this course and then come across from the last obstacle and I open the gate and the pig sits at my feet and the sheep as one move into the little pen and turn around, and I close the gate.

So there was this magnificent set they built for the viewing stand, which was this Edwardian gallery, and they had over 200 local people from this little town. The second AD told them joke after joke after joke while they set up the shots. And then we did the thing. The pig sat down, one sheep came up to him — I couldn’t hear what they were saying, you'd think that they were saying things to each other — and the sheep nodded and the pig turned around and started to do the course and all these 12 sheep walked in unison all the way through, and I opened the gate and they came in and they turned around and I closed the gate and you could hear it — it went "click." And the audience of 200 people went berserk because they’d never seen sheep do that with nobody forcing them or prodding them or shooing them or whatever.

So the thing was at the end, when I turned to the pig and say the line. I said to Chris, "How do you want me to do that?" He said, "Why don’t you do it right into the lens?" And I had never looked at my makeup and my makeup was me, of course, with a little aging, whatever. So I said, "Yes, sure." I turned into the camera and I looked as though I was looking at the pig and I saw a reflection in the lens — and it wasn’t me. It was my father. So as I said the line, "That’ll do, pig, that’ll do," I heard, "That’ll do, Jamie, that’ll do." And that is in that moment, I can’t re-create it for anybody. It was my dead father saying to me, "Well done, son. You did it. You did the work."

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.