"I always look at things and say, 'Will Barbra be proud?' "
Barbra is, of course, Brolin's third wife, the legendary singer, actress, director, producer and composer Barbra Streisand, to whom he has been married for 11 years.
"She does such elegant work. Am I the guy who is going out and doing the tacky stuff? So I weighed it a lot. I decided to do it because I wanted to do comedy stuff so bad."
This sunny afternoon, the 69-year-old Brolin is holding court in the expansive garden at the warm, beautifully rendered Cape Cod-style Malibu compound he shares with Streisand. With his gray hair and beard, Brolin is just as handsome as he was 40 years ago on the ABC series that made him a star, "Marcus Welby, M.D." Brolin may look regal, but he's friendly, funny and down-to-earth -- he dresses in denim and does his grocery shopping at Vons.
Brolin, who hails from Southern California, never had to struggle to get his big break as an actor; it wasn't a career that he originally wanted. When he toured a film studio at 15 he became obsessed with making movies. "I bought my first camera and started shooting films," he recalls.
But acting beckoned. At 18, he was stopped on the street by someone and asked if he would like to do a commercial. "I said, 'Would I have to talk?' And they said no, we just want you to drive a Dodge truck. So I did the commercial and got $400. I didn't have to get into Screen Actors Guild yet."
Then he was called to do another, but this time he had to join SAG. "The next thing I knew I had a SAG card. There was an agent at one of those shoots who said, 'Let us represent you and we can probably get you some more things.' "
But Brolin decided to ditch L.A. and travel to Tahiti for a year; then the acting gods intervened again. While in Tahiti, he looked up a friend of a friend, producer Aaron Rosenberg, who happened to be on the island shooting "Mutiny on the Bounty" with Marlon Brando, Trevor Howard and Richard Harris.
Rosenberg was looking for a young man to play Brando's son in the prologue and epilogue of the film. Brolin had a SAG card and the right look, though his scene later got cut. "I was written in and out," Brolin says, but not before spending time on the set with the actors.
After his role was officially written out, Brolin came back to L.A., where he parked cars for $40 a week at Lawry's on La Cienega. Barely able to make ends meet, Brolin visited that agent who was interested in representing him. The agent sent him over to Fox.
"I had an appointment at 10 in the morning and by noon, not only was I under contract for seven years, I was off working in something -- dubbing other people's voices when it was legal. And I did a lot of Fox's one-hour TV shows."
When his seven years were up, he moved over to Universal and three weeks later he tested to play the young Dr. Steven Kiley opposite Robert Young's veteran doctor on "Marcus Welby, M.D."
The series became an instant hit, and in 1970 won four Emmys, including for drama series, lead actor and a supporting actor statue for Brolin.
One of the series' directors was young Steven Spielberg. "Of every director we ever had, he was the shyest," says Brolin. "I knew he asked for a crane for three days and they said, 'No, you have it one for day,' and he said, 'No, I'll need it for three days.' I think they settled for two. He loved to be up on the crane so he didn't have to be near people."
But Spielberg wasn't the same guy when Brolin worked with him for 2002's "Catch Me If You Can." "He is now the most conversational guy ever, so friendly and easygoing," says Brolin.
He's justifiably proud of his son, Josh Brolin, who starred in "No Country for Old Men" and received an Oscar nomination for supporting actor for "Milk." Just like his father, Josh Brolin had no desire initially to act.
"He always said, 'I would never go anywhere near your business' because he was getting picked on and teased in school because I had a success," says Brolin.
But his final year in high school, Josh Brolin opted to take acting as an elective.
"I never heard anything again and the next thing I hear he's starring as Stanley Kowalski in the school play," says Brolin.
He and Streisand would like to do a project. "We work well together," he says, smiling. "We have read scripts over the years, but she goes, 'That's not right for now.' "
He jokes: "We would like to run across something that would do well -- either huge respect or make a lot of money."
The two-disc DVD set "James Dean: The Fast Lane" features several of the cult actor's TV performances on such series as "Studio One," as well as the Pepsi commercial he shot at 19.