By Michael A. Lipton
March 25, 1996 12:00 PM

A RAMBUNCTIOUS TERRIER NAMED Colin bounds into the kitchen of James Cromwell’s antiques-filled house in Sherman Oaks, Calif., excitedly jumping on Cromwell’s wife, actress Julie Cobb, 48. But Colin scampers away as his master approaches. “What am I? Chopped liver?” harrumphs Cromwell, 56, with mock chagrin.

You might think he could charm any animal. In the sleeper hit Babe, the actor spends most of his onscreen time talking to pigs, ducks, cats, dogs, even ewes—while seeming not to hear them squeal, quack, mew, bark, baa and gossip together about him. Indeed, so convincingly did he pull off the role of kindly yet taciturn Farmer Hoggett, who raises Babe, an orphaned piglet with a strange yearning to work as a sheepdog, that next week he’ll find himself in a much bigger barnyard—L.A.’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion—competing for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, one of Babe’s astonishing seven nominations.

No one’s more surprised than Cromwell, who says, “I’m not considering my chances at all” against Ed Harris, Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey and Tim Roth. Yet the lanky character actor, who is usually cast as “heavies and doofuses,” as he puts it, was always the front-runner to play Hoggett. “When we saw James, we just saw Hoggett,” says Babe director Chris Noonan (himself an Oscar nominee). Still, he says, “it was a difficult job. Hoggett is very withdrawn. I kept saying, ‘Do less, don’t smile, don’t give anything away’ James was brilliant.”

He comes by his talents naturally His father, John Cromwell, who died in 1979 at 91, directed such Hollywood classics as 1934’s Of Human Bondage, in which his wife, actress Kay Johnson, costarred. The two were married in 1929 and divorced 17 years later, when James was 6. After the divorce, his mother left the business, moving with her son to Waterford, Conn.

In 1960, while James was a student at Vermont’s Middlebury College, his father invited him to spend the summer on the set of a film he was directing in Sweden. “I thought, ‘Damn, this is the life!’ ” James recalls. He dropped out of Middlebury and enrolled as a theater major at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie-Mellon). A year later, “I left in a huff,” he says. “Institutions and I get on each other’s nerves something fierce.”

He spent the next 10 years performing in 10 different repertory companies up and down the East Coast. Then he hopped on his motorcycle and headed for L.A., where in 1974 he’ caught the eye of All in the Family producer Norman Lear, who cast him as Archie Bunker’s pal Stretch Cunningham, “and my career took off,” says Cromwell. He starred in Hot L Baltimore, a short-lived 1975 sitcom, and went on to play a French manservant in 1976’s Murder by Death.

In his personal life, though, he was struggling. A nine-year first marriage to actress Ann Ulvestad ended in 1986. Cromwell retained custody of their three children: Kate, now 18 and a freshman at Smith College, John, 16, and Colin, 14. But even before the divorce was final, Cromwell found himself smitten with Cobb, a fellow student in their L.A. acting class and daughter of actor Lee J. Cobb.

The attraction was mutual. “He had a unique capacity for listening and caring and tenderness,” says Cobb, whose credits include CBS’s Charles in Charge. The couple wed in 1988. But their blended family (including Cobb’s daughter from a first marriage, Rosemary, now 12) was no Brady Bunch. “The kids were confused,” says Cromwell: ” ‘Who is my mom? Who is my dad? Why are these two people yelling at each other?’ ” Cobb agrees: “It was difficult at first.” It was hard, too, for Cromwell to be away for the five months it took to shoot Babe in Australia in 1994. “We ran up an incredible phone bill,” he says, “but Julie visited for three weeks.” Since Babe, the roles have gotten choicer. In The People vs. Larry Flynt, a film due out later this year, Cromwell plays banker and antiporn activist Charles Keating (who was convicted in 1991 in a savings-and-loan scandal).

Still, he wishes his father could have seen him in Babe—especially in what he calls “my favorite moment.” After watching his rookie sheepherder at work, Hoggett quietly tells him, “That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.” While addressing the camera, Cromwell says, he saw his father’s reflection in the lens: “It was like he was saying to me, ‘You did good, Jamie. You did good.’ ”

MICHAEL A. LIPTON

JEANNE GORDON in Los Angeles

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