JAMES CAAN COVER STORY
The bright lights burn once more for a heavyweight of the silver screen.
© Corbis Outline
WORDS BY DAVID FANTLE & TOM JOHNSON
New Yorker James Caan has found incredible success halfway across the continent playing "Big Ed" Deline, a fearsome casino security chief in the smash hit series, "Las Vegas". It's one notch on a career in the film and television industry that's spanned five decades. He talks exclusively to Go about the highs and lows, growing up in Queens and playing cowboy.
When veteran actor James Caan, 65, joined the cast of the NBC series "Las Vegas" in 2003, he never thought the show would become the number one new drama with the highly desirable 18-49 demographic. It was a career gamble that would pay off handsomely, and the show is now a better-than-even-money bet to be picked up for a third season. He's been up and he's been down, but it's never wise to bet against Caan.
In "Las Vegas", Caan plays "Big Ed" Deline, former CIA operative and now head of a surveillance unit that oversees security in the fictional Montecito Resort & Casino. If not exactly made to order, the part mirrors a few of Caan's real-life predilections—he's been testing his luck in Vegas ever since his salad days as an actor.
"It's [a weekly TV series], something I never thought I'd do in a million years," he says. "Not that it's beneath me. Creatively, I think this show is really terrific and partnering with NBC and DreamWorks, we assembled a great bunch of people. Steven Spielberg and Jeff Katzenberg are behind this and they're really good guys.
"One of the reasons for taking the series is that I've worked a lot the last few years, but I was mostly in Canada and New York City. I have my kids and miss them a lot," he continues. "I probably got to see them maybe 10 weeks the entire year. So this series is attractive because it's filmed here in Culver City, and I'm able to stay home and be with my kids."
We also note that it can't be too hard co-starring with all those hot young actors and actresses (Molly Sims, Nikki Cox, Vanessa Marcil and Josh Duhamel) who are attractive enough to grace the pages of GQ, Cosmopolitan and FHM.
"It's sure better than looking at Brando every day!" he jokes. "They're really sweet. They kind of, in a nice way, look up to me. They're all young and very anxious to make good, but they'll be great because they're willing to learn. Chemistry on the set is vitally important to a successful show. Of all the people I've worked with in my life, the nicest were invariably the most talented."
''Chemistry on the set is vitally important. Of all the people I've worked with in my life, the nicest were invariably the most talented.''
Life in Tinseltown—an air-kiss town with an air of noblesse oblige—is a far cry from Caan's hardscrabble youth on the streets of Queens (he was born in the Bronx), where being handy with your fists brought respect from the neighborhood toughs. Like fellow New Yorker James Cagney, who was raised in the Yorkville section of Manhattan some 40 years earlier, Caan's streetwise upbringing was more valuable than any Stella Adler Method Acting class could ever be.
"My dad kicked my butt out into the schoolyard, and there were hundreds of kids you had to deal with all the time," he says. "You learned how to win. You learned how to lose in a hurry. You learned who to push, and who not to push and you developed a sixth sense. To this day I'll shake somebody's hand and just say 'hello' and know pretty much—and I'm almost always right—whether this is a person who is going to be friend of mine or not. You're forced to be around so many people, you develop a nose like an animal."
My dad kicked my butt out into the schoolyard, and there were hundreds of kids you had to deal with. You learned how to win. You learned how to lose in a hurry.
The actor also filed away much of that experience for later use in his array of movie tough-guy roles. "You learned how to handle yourself," he says. "But if you look at my body of work, people don't remember films like Cinderella Liberty or Funny Lady. I've done more than 70 pictures, and I'd venture to say that I only killed people in 20 of them."
Caan decided early on in life to not carry on in his family's meat business and pursued a college education. He entered Michigan State University at the age of 16 and eventually transferred to Hofstra University to study law. An impulse decision to audition at Sanford Meisner's Neighborhood Playhouse dashed any ambitions to become a lawyer.
He began his stage career in the off-Broadway production of La Ronde and scored guest roles in TV shows of the early '60s, including "The Untouchables", "Dr Kildare" and "Get Smart". Caan's film career started with a bit part in the 1963 Billy Wilder comedy, Irma la Douce. His first major role came the next year as one of Olivia de Havilland's tormentors in Lady in a Cage.
Cowboy Caan as Frank 'Buck' Athearn in Comes a Horseman, 1978
While best known as a screen tough (most famously as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather), Caan first made his mark on television as terminally ill Chicago Bear football player Brian Piccolo in the indelible 1970 TV movie, Brian's Song.
Caan's move from the big screen to the small screen doesn't seem so earth-shattering now. But when he left a burgeoning film career to star in the made-for-TV movie, Caan was taking a huge, calculated risk.
"The truth is, years ago when I did Brian's Song, I turned it down four times for all the wrong reasons because there was this stigma about film actors doing television," he says. "I didn't create the stigma. But, unfortunately, I was being dictated to by the people who were hiring me. I had to follow their rules. If you did a TV show then, you were out of work. You couldn't fight it. Now, the better movies I see are on HBO or Showtime because they're character- driven. The average age of the moviegoer is, like, 12, so they do these horrendous films with directors who, in my view, couldn't direct traffic or certainly couldn't direct the likes of Bobbie Duvall. Years ago, what made a movie star was a certain unpredictability about whoever was portraying that role."
Around the time of Brian's Song, the actor was also making headlines for living life in the fast lane, even shacking up for a time at the Playboy Mansion, courtesy of landlord Hugh Hefner.
Kathy Bates is Caan's number one fan in 1990's Misery."I have no regrets," he says. "There was nothing perverted about it. It was like the best nightclub in the world. There were beautiful girls invited on Sundays and a few creeps showed up. My job was to throw some of the creeps out."
In the mid-'80s, after a string of hits, Caan took a self- imposed hiatus from filmmaking for much of the decade to wrestle with some personal demons.
"I lost my sister during that time [to leukemia] and got all twisted. I decided I wasn't going to do anything unless I'm passionate about it," he says. "I had gotten into this whole self-destructive thing. I can tell you after those years away, absence did not make the heart grow fonder.
The industry buzz became, 'Have you heard...? This guy's trouble.' The truth of the matter is that I've never missed a day's work in my life."
I've done more than 70 pictures, and I'd venture to say that I only killed people in 20 of them.
He burst back onto the screen in 1988 with Alien Nation and followed with the 1990 hit, Misery, playing a best-selling author held hostage by a psychotic fan (Kathy Bates in her Oscar-winning role). In 2003, Caan co-starred in the holiday hit Elf with Will Ferrell, one of the biggest comedy hits of the year.
Indeed, it's a measure of Caan's career longevity that he's not only still in the game, but is beginning to witness the creation of remakes of projects he made years ago, films like Brian's Song and Rollerball. Far from feeling flattered, Caan avoids (like the plague!) seeing remakes.
"There was no upside for me to see them," he says. "If I saw them and didn't like them, and then somebody asked me, and I'd say 'no', that would sound like sour grapes. If I said 'yes, it was wonderful', they'd say I was condescending. No upside no matter what I said."
Caan has engaged in a number of extreme activities, including boxing, karate and a nine-year stint on the Pro Rodeo tour roping steers and occasionally calves. It's because of these unconventional off-camera pursuits that the late Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray once wrote, "Jimmy Caan was not born, he was embroidered". And he has the aches and pains and surgical scars to prove it! These competitive juices once resulted in a meagre $86 in prize money on the rodeo circuit in exchange for rope-burned hands torn to the flesh.
"I fell on my head, I guess," he says about his unusual hobby. "When I first came to California, I bought a horse because as a kid we used to play and make believe we had horses. I then made a picture called The Rain People in Nebraska where I became friendly with a group of cowboys. A friend of mine had a ranch in Las Vegas where these cowboys would practice. I was this kind of Walter Mitty maniac and a pretty good mimic, and I didn't have a whole lot of brains. I felt indestructible. I loved the atmosphere. I liked the guys. There was no phoniness. I finally became a professional, and after getting over the fear of not looking stupid as opposed to thinking about winning, I got fairly good at it."
In Comes a Horseman in 1978, Caan co-starred with Jane Fonda. The story about rival ranch owners set in the '40s gave Caan a greater appreciation for the cowboy life and fueled his passion for rodeos.
"The point of the story is that these people do what they do because they love what they do," he says. "I had all my cowboy friends, and we were roping wild cattle in the middle of nowhere. It was great. And Jane was in there riding, learning and roping. You'd see these people get up at 4.30 or 5 in the morning, their hands all callused, and you'd say, 'what are they doing?' These people love what they do, and 99% of the people in the audience don't love what they do. That was basically what the picture was about. It's not about money. You do it because you love it."
These days Caan's biggest love is his burgeoning family, and that has him playing (with relish) another unlikely role, that of "Mr Mom".
Caan and fourth wife, Linda Stokes, are the parents of three young sons, ages 14, nine and six. This is in addition to three grown children from his previous marriages. On the morning of our conversation, Caan had just returned to his Los Angeles home after dropping off his kids at school.
Caan plays Will Ferrell's long-lost dad Walter in holiday hit Elf, 2003."I'm not exactly Anthony Quinn yet... or Larry King... or Tony Randall," he says referring to celebrities who fathered children at a more mature age. "I'm a little ways from that. I'm a pretty active guy. Yeah, sometimes I get a little worn out. But the kids are great."
To escape the plasticity of Hollywood, Caan, a few years back, moved his family to Park City, Utah in an effort to bring more normality to his young family. It was an experiment that yielded mixed results.
"It was great for me. I skied every day," he says. "The kids went to school. It was nice, but my wife couldn't shop to her liking. And the truth is, it wasn't good for work. Out of sight, out of mind. All that stuff."
Now back in LA, Caan approaches Tinseltown with a healthy dose of cynicism. "It's as crazy as you want to make it," he says. "To arrange for a sleep-over here, you have to exchange social security numbers and check with the FBI before you can make a playdate. Then you have to drive your Mercedes 28 miles to get your kids there."
And for Caan, that arms-length attitude extends to show business and the belief that play-acting isn't all work.
"It's got to be somewhere in between," he says. "You can't be a goof. If I'm a surgeon I don't just want to remove chips from an elbow every day. I need the challenge."
A hit TV series, a constant slate of incoming and ever-evolving movie projects (we'll see him in the horror spoof Santa's Slay later this year), a growing family: if that doesn't constitute a challenge for Caan, we'd like to see what does!