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Veteran Tv Soldier Brolin Takes Command Of A New Action Drama About Marine Pilots And Growing Up

September 21, 1997|SHARON BERNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Dr. Steven Kiley on the old "Marcus Welby, M.D." series, James Brolin played a cute young motorcycle-riding doctor whose black hair and quick smile were meant to draw in youthful viewers.

It's only fair, then, that the role Brolin hopes will spur a comeback plops him squarely on the other side of the equation: as a gray-haired Marine colonel whose job is to bring balance and generational tension to a cast of beachgoing, plane-flying twentysomethings.

Brolin plays Col. Bill Kelly on the syndicated series "Pensacola: Wings of Gold." The one-hour drama, produced by Eyemark, CBS' syndication arm, stars Brolin as a 50-ish fighter pilot at a Marine training base in the Florida pandhandle, called in to lead a group of promising young fliers after their commander is injured.

It's the second time in recent years that Brolin has been cast as the silver fox leader of a bunch of attractive youngsters. In 1995, he starred briefly in "Extreme," an ABC drama about a ski patrol team that ran for only four episodes.

Brolin hopes to avoid that fate with "Pensacola." He has been pushing its producers and writers to beef up the characters and storylines, an effort that he says has met with mixed success.

"I wanted it to be more like 'ER,' " he said over coffee at a Malibu restaurant. "I didn't get a warm reception on that."

He spoke frankly about his career, which has wavered between big successes like "Welby" and the 1980s hit "Hotel," and long stretches of commercials and small movies.

"There were years where I'd have a run of luck and I'd think I had it made, and then nothing," he said.

After the success of "The Amityville Horror" in 1979, Brolin said, he expected the offers to pour in. "It was a huge success, and then everything just went silent," he said. "I didn't get another call for two years."

For all his efforts on the big and small screen, though, Brolin is getting the most publicity these days over his engagement to superstar Barbra Streisand.

The publicity drives him crazy, he says, with reporters writing stories nearly every weekend that claim that the couple was seen to have been married on this island or at that resort.

"We're being married today in New York," he joked, very ungroomlike in an open courderoy shirt on the opposite coast. "One weekend we were married on a yacht and we were also maried on Catalina."

Just for the record, he says, the date has not been set.

Like his "Pensacola" character Bill Kelly, Brolin sees himself as a kind of salt of the earth guy, taking Streisand out to shop at Target ("She loves it") and the supermarket ("Keep an eye out for us at Von's") and driving her through Laughlin, Nev.

"Today we're going to the Valley to test-drive cars," he said. "You think she's ever done that? She looks in a magazine and says, 'That one.' "

They are so happy, said the twice-married Brolin, they can't believe their good luck.

"I said to her the other day, 'I feel like I've been married to you since the day we met,' " he said. "I wish I'd met her 30 years ago."

Brolin criticized the tabloid press and its photographers, saying they were "downright rude and dangerous" in dogging him and Streisand, weeks before Princess Diana died in a car crash as her intoxicated driver tried to flee paparazzi in Paris.

The role of Bill Kelly on "Pensacola" is a fitting one for Brolin, an accomplished pilot who had wanted to fly for the navy before he caught the acting bug.

Aircraft were very much a part of his life growing up in Southern California. His father, Henry Bruderlin, was an engineer at Douglas Aircraft, working on the DC 3 and other planes.

The oldest of four children, Brolin grew up in Westwood and Benedict Canyon, moving 14 times within the region after his father left Douglas to become a contractor. The family would move from house to house as Bruderlin worked on different projects.

Helen Bruderlin, Brolin's mother, still lives in Southern California, and the four children--now all middle-aged--still troop down to her Newport Beach home on weekends.

"Everybody still drops in on Sundays," said Brolin, who has three children of his own. "We're all in our 50s, but we're still doing it."

Brolin was just 15 when a trip to Warner Bros. studios inspired him to buy a camera and try to make movies. It was 1955, and the contractor's son walked into an elaborate indoor set and realized it was just like a construction site.

"I wanted to be that guy up on the crane telling everybody what to do," he said.

Three years later, when he was 18 "someone on the street asked if I would do a Dodge commercial. They said, 'All you have to do is drive this car around.' "

That led to more commercials, and in the spring of 1960, Twentieth Century Fox signed him to one of the last training contracts under the old studio system.

"Marcus Welby" went on the air in 1969, and ran for 120 shows, establishing Brolin as a TV hearthrob. He won an Emmy Award as best supporting actor in 1970, the same year his co-star, Robert Young, won as best actor in a drama series.

He moved into film after the series ended, landing roles in "Capricorn One," "Westworld" and "Gable and Lombard."

He recently directed his first feature, "My Brother's War," which is set in Ireland, and he is looking for a distributor..

"Pensacola" airs Saturdays at 7 p.m. on KCBS-TV Channel 2.

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