As it turns out, Brolin cleans up pretty good. His performance as idealistic Sen. Bill Sterling has given a jolt to NBC's midseason lineup and quickened pulses across the country. "He's easy on the eyes," says costar Audra McDonald (Chief of Staff Jackie Brock). "But you forget that in 10 seconds because he's got a big old heart."
Lately it's been working overtime, thanks to his new love, actress Diane Lane. Brolin, 35, and Lane, 38, crossed paths several times in the past decade, but never when he was available. Until they met last year in L.A. "I said hello and...I'm a flirt. I would never deny that," he says. The feeling wasn't mutual. "I've never seen somebody not flirt as much," admits Brolin, who refused to throw in the towel. "Five hundred pages of e-mails later, here we are."
The actor says he and Lane are "extremely happy. When you look at somebody where it's really right, there's no questioning it. That's the way it feels right now." He has been her biggest supporter during this awards season, calling her at 5 a.m. Dec. 19 to celebrate her Golden Globe nomination for Unfaithful. "I guess he had his hand on the phone," Lane told USA Today. "It was so sweet. He was so proud of me."
He's just as dedicated to Trevor, 14, and Eden, 9, his children with his ex-wife, actress Deborah Adair. "I only wish I could have been as great a father as he is," says James Brolin, 62, who asked his son to be his best man at his 1998 wedding to Barbra Streisand.
As a child, Josh avoided following in his father's footsteps. "I hated what my father did because there was zero job security," he says. "One year we were in a big house, the next year we were in somebody's guest house." Only one thing remained constant: the family's 97-acre ranch near Paso Robles, Calif., run by mom Jane, an animal activist.
By his teens Brolin had softened his stance. He starred in a high school production of A Streetcar Named Desire and got hooked on acting, making his feature debut in 1985's The Goonies.
Three years later he married Adair and soon moved to Rochester, N.Y., where he cofounded the Reflections Festival, a summer theater program. But when mom Jane died in a 1995 auto accident, Brolin inherited the family farm and returned to California. At first, "I said, 'I don't want to do TV because it's redundant, it's lazy,' " he says. ("I was always open to someone else's opinion," says dad James. "He's not.") Then he followed 1996's critically acclaimed Flirting with Disaster with duds like Nightwatch and The Mod Squad, and Brolin, by then divorced, quickly realized that some TV writing "was not only good, but it was better than the majority of movies."
His then-low wattage didn't stop Minnie Driver from falling in love. The pair announced their engagement in April 2001, only to split that October. "Rightfully so," says Brolin, who remains tight-lipped about Driver.
Because of the Sterling schedule, Brolin occupies a one-bedroom, Spanish-style West Hollywood apartment during the week and escapes to the ranch on the weekends with Lane and his kids. There he relies on his neighbors to keep him grounded. "Once in a while, they'll say, 'I saw your fat mug on TV the other day, and it looked like you were constipated,' " says Brolin, laughing. "Good people, that's what it's all about."
Monica Rizzo in Los Angeles