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Black Panther, drunk priest, kind farmer

'Salem's Lot' actor James Cromwell's eventful life

By Stephanie Snipes

James Cromwell plays an alcoholic priest in the new version of "Salem's Lot."
James Cromwell
Stephen King

(CNN) -- James Cromwell has lived a life of extremes -- on screen and off.

On screen, the actor's varied roles include the gentle farmer in "Babe," the shifty police captain in "L.A. Confidential," the clever warp drive inventor Zefrem Cochran in "Star Trek: First Contact" and President Lyndon B. Johnson in the TV movie "RFK."

This weekend, he stars in a remake of Stephen King's "Salem's Lot" on TNT and he's taken a regular role in "Six Feet Under" on HBO. (Both TNT and HBO are units of Time Warner, the parent company of CNN.)

Off screen, Cromwell has participated in a number of civil rights and liberal causes. He traveled into the American South in the 1960s with an integrated acting group to encourage voting and civic participation; speaks out on aboriginal and Native American causes; and joined the Black Panthers at one time.

The Black Panthers?

Well, the story goes like this: In the late '60s Cromwell, a self-described "bourgeois white boy," joined the radical Black Panther Party by becoming a member of "The Committee to Defend the Panthers." Their focus was to free 13 Panther members who had been jailed in New York on conspiracy charges.

"The goal of the government was to get all the leaders of the Black Panther Party in jail so that they could be killed systematically through prison violence, and that way they could stop what was a very powerful and evolving movement," Cromwell maintains. The Panther 13 were acquitted in 1971 after two years in jail; a jury found them innocent of all 156 charges against them.

Cromwell believes strongly that if given a chance the group, which inspired passion from friends and foes alike, would have changed the world for the better.

"I don't think we would have the kind of prison population now and what happens in this country with the gangs if the Panthers had been allowed to continue what they decided to do, which was basically empower black communities to take back their self control ... and reestablish the dignity of being a black person in this country," said Cromwell.

'The odd piece of television'

In "Babe," Cromwell played the gentle Farmer Hoggett, who manages to win prizes with Babe the pig after the pig is saved from slaughter.

Cromwell is as passionate about his art as he is about his political beliefs. Among his favorite roles are Warden Hal Moores in "The Green Mile" and the aforementioned Farmer Hoggett in "Babe."

"I watched this wonderful thing ["Babe"] and I enjoyed it, but I looked at the faces of the people when they left and I thought 'Oh man, that's great.' When you can have parents walk out looking the same age as their children you know you have a wonderful film," said Cromwell.

Cromwell has also played memorable roles on the small screen, including guest-starring roles on shows ranging from "All in the Family" to "ER" and "The West Wing," and a recent recurring role on "Six Feet Under."

On "Six Feet," the show about a funeral home-owning family that began its fourth season last week, Cromwell plays George Sibley, new husband to Fisher family matriarch, Ruth.

"I can't say I enjoy all TV ... I'm enjoying 'Six Feet' because I think it's beautifully written, and wonderfully acted and beautifully produced. I enjoy the odd piece of television," said Cromwell.

His Everest desire: Lear

His latest venture to the small screen is an updated version of Stephen King's vampire tale "Salem's Lot," starring Rob Lowe and Donald Sutherland, which airs Sunday night. (Cromwell's wife, Julie Cobb, starred in the 1979 version.)

In the film Cromwell plays Father Callahan, an alcoholic Catholic priest who battles the temptations of the vampires. For Cromwell, an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq, the theme of temptation still has resonance.

"Some people pass and some people don't. Some people make choices that lead to the Iraq war and Abu Ghraib, and then some people rise above it and do something extraordinary and heroic," he said.

In the coming year, Cromwell plans to combine his passionate political beliefs and his devotion to his art by producing films about Vietnam and Afghanistan.

But, even with all these accomplishments, there is one role that has eluded him -- King Lear, the Shakespearean monarch embroiled in a battle between his three daughters. Cromwell says that playing Lear would be his ultimate acting accomplishment.

"It's like people say, 'Why would you ever want to climb Everest?' ... but those that do, those that climb, those that have, that's the deal, you have to have gone up Everest," he said. "And for an actor there's no greater climb than Lear. Lear is the ultimate mountain. You're not going to make it, but it's OK."

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