It’s Monday night at the Forum. Boxing night. A pair of bantamweights bobbed around the ring, sweat splashing in all directions. Near the dressing room entrance, pacing back and forth, was a nervous fight manager, anxiously awaiting his boxer’s turn in the spotlight.
“Our kid’s hungry,” he told a visitor, who was standing with one of the boxer’s trainers, a short, friendly man with a bent nose. “Anytime you’ve been in jail at 16 for armed robbery, you want to go through anything but that again.
“When we first saw him, he was awful. But he had tremendous raw talent. He’s got a good jaw, he’s very fast and he can really hit. But he’s got no left, so we gotta teach him some technique. That’s if he’ll listen.”
A roar came from the crowd. The manager--who is also a movie star named James Caan--eyed the ring just as one of the bantamweights bounced off the ropes. To hear Caan good-naturedly complain about his protege, Mike (The Bounty) Hunter, you’d think the 26-year-old ex-con turned aspiring heavyweight was personally responsible for the gray creeping into Caan’s curly, auburn hair.
“Yeah, our kid’s got a long way to go,” Caan said, wiping sweat from his brow with one of his big, meaty hands. “When I first saw him, he was a real clown. He’d come out with this long gunfighter’s coat and a mask and all this cocky. . . . I mean, he was the kinda guy you wanted to see get knocked out.
“So I told him. OK, you got the attention. So from now on, I’ll wear the outfits. You do the punishing.”
Caan tugged at the crotch of his jeans. “I’ll tell ya, he didn’t do any punishing in his last fight. He looked like a bum.”
He laughed. “I told him afterwards, ‘It’s a cinch you went in for armed robbery, ‘cause the way you were fighting out there, you certainly couldn’t have done any time for assault ‘n’ battery!’ ”
James Caan has only been a fight manager for a few months. But when you hear him discuss fight strategy with trainer Joey Mangiapene--quick, rhythmic talk about counter-punching and cutting off angles--you wish you’d brought Damon Runyon along as an interpreter. Caan certainly looks the part. His brow creased with wrinkles, his stocky build still firm, his hands gnarled from years of rodeo riding, he looks far more like an aging sparring partner than a movie actor.
The fight crowd seemed to agree. A few onlookers stopped by, asking for autographs or wanting their picture taken with him. But most treated Caan like a regular. Born in Long Island City, Caan has the staccato enunciation of someone who grew up by the subway tracks in the Bronx. He blends right into the colorful fight-game scenery--a blood ‘n’ sweat subculture that seems frozen in time--relishing the fierce combat, the oddball characters and the easy male camaraderie.
Of course, that’s not the only scenery the fights offer. As Caan and Mangiapene head for the dressing rooms, the trainer spots a leggy gal in line at the beer stand. He nudges Caan, pointing in her direction. Caan studies her outfit, a backless dress held up by one lone button below her neck.
“Geez!” Caan exclaimed, shaking his hand va-va-voom-style. “But what’s up front?” Mangiapene nodded with mock-gravity. “Plenty.”
Caan reached into his pocket and pulled out a pen-knife. “This oughta do the trick,” he said mischievously, flicking the knife in the air. “One button is no problem at all.”
Just then, Caan and Mangiapene reached the entrance to the dressing rooms. A baby-faced guard let Mangiapene pass, then put out his hand, asking Caan to show his identification.
Mangiapene was indignant. “Hey, whaddya doing?” he said. “Don’t you know who this is?”
The guard stared blankly at Caan, then shook his head. “Come on,” Mangiapene growled. “This is Jimmy Caan. What’s your problem, huh?”
It’s no surprise that the guard didn’t recognize Caan. The youngster was probably still in nursery school when Caan was nominated for an Oscar in “The Godfather” and an Emmy in “Brian’s Song,” movies that won him a reputation as a “skyrocketing” star and prompted one newspaper poll to tout him as the No. 3 “Sexiest Man” in America (the winner was Tom Jones).
It’s been nearly 15 years since those triumphs--and time has not been on Caan’s side. At 47, Caan’s lean, boyish good-looks have been replaced by a ruddy, but rugged middle-aged build. He’s trimmed down considerably from the chunky frame he showed off in his current film, “Gardens of Stone,” where he gained 20 pounds to play the part of a grizzled Army sergeant.
But Hollywood isn’t always nostalgic about its less-fortunate sons, especially ones that have been out of the public eye for a few years. As one studio exec put it when he spotted Caan around town recently: “Wow, the guy looks so old. “
Caan won’t get any Oscars for his choice of films either. With the exception of 1981’s “Thief,” the critically acclaimed picture he made with Michael Mann, he hasn’t starred in a top-notch film in over a decade. His directional debut, 1980’s “Hide in Plain Sight,” won friendly notices but was a box-office bomb.
If you think he’s hard on his fighter, you should hear his candid assessment of his other films from that era. He admits he walked out of a preview of “Kiss Me Goodbye” and has described “Chapter Two,” a film he made with Marsha Mason, as “a piece of Neil Simon crap.”
After “Goodbye,” Caan largely dropped out of sight. He turned down a variety of parts, got into financial difficulties, fought off a drug problem and grieved over the untimely death of his sister, Barbara. Cut off from the Hollywood mainstream, he threw his energies into power-boat racing, playing pick-up basketball and raising Scott, his 10-year-old son, who plays soccer and Little League under the tutelage of an expert coach--his pop.
“I was a recluse, no doubt about it,” he said a few days before the fight, sipping coffee in his Bel Air home. “I was never a drinker, but I did dabble with drugs where I’d never dabbled before.”
He wagged his head. “Hey, I never robbed a 7-Eleven Store. But whatever I did, it was too excessive for me. I couldn’t handle it, I didn’t enjoy it and it probably didn’t make me a pleasant person to be around. I dunno, I hate preachers so I don’t like to preach about this stuff. But I got professional help and that was that.”
Unfortunately, few personal problems escape notice on the Hollywood rumor mill and Caan did develop a reputation--he insists undeserved--as a difficult actor.
“Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder, not in this town,” Caan said, grabbing a handful of jellybeans. “They just think you’ve gone away. I thought I had enough money, so I decided to grow up with my kid. I started coaching Little League and soccer and really living through my son. I just got away from the business.
“I’ve never been hard to work with. I just didn’t want to work. After I lost my sister. . . .” Caan’s voice trailed off. “I dunno, I was really in despair. I’d made bad investments, I got robbed of almost all my money. And when I saw the scripts I was getting, well, you just can’t be good in a bad movie.
“I’m not opposed to sheer entertainment, but geez, I didn’t fit into those kids’ pictures and what else was there--'Exorcist 7,’ ‘Airplane 14,’ ‘Jaws 29!’ I just didn’t want to take those kind of parts like the ones you’d see Orson Welles do, where he’d be hiding behind a pillar or something.”
Caan shrugged. “So the word gets out. First, they’d send me scripts and I’d say I’m not interested. Then they’d stop sending the scripts all together. Once you stop, it’s hard to get started again.
“I remember a long time ago--well, maybe 5 or 6 years ago--some magazine did an article wondering what’d happened to actors like me, Dusty, De Niro, Duvall, ‘cause there wasn’t any need for guys like us anymore. It was like a dry spell, you know.”
Caan offered a crooked grin. “Well, it was a long one, wasn’t it?”
At the Forum, the fight did not go well. At 6'2, 208 pounds, Hunter didn’t give away much in size to his opponent, Levi (The Weapon) Billups. But the young fighter seemed tentative and confused, and was kept off-balance by his more experienced adversary. As Hunter backtracked, sticking close to the ropes, the crowd began to hurl abuse at the fighter.
“Come on, somebody, let’s fight,” shouted one of the many noisy patrons back in the cheap seats. Another fan complained: “You could drink half a bottle of beer in the time it takes these guys to land a punch.”
At ring-side, the regulars turned their attention to more pressing matters. A pair of policemen gossiped about a departmental hot-shot who had been bragging about putting a criminal away. “I guess he did put him away,” one said drolly. “That is, if you can take credit for walking the papers down to the D.A.'s office.”
Nearby, a couple of beefy fight managers discussed training high-tech techniques. “We got our guy working underwater,” one said. “He’s even sparring in the pool. Punching in the water makes him more explosive.”
Caan stayed in Hunter’s corner, holding the fighter’s stool, shouting encouragement and waving his arms in the air. During the rare moments that Hunter took the offensive, Caan gestured excitedly, acting out a one-two punch combination. When Hunter got repeatedly tied up in the middle of the ring or sagged on the ropes, Caan cringed, wagging his head in disgust, once actually banging it on the ring.
Between rounds, Caan--now sweaty and red in the face--would bellow into Hunter’s ear as his trainers worked him over with a sponge. “I kept saying, ‘You gotta work your way in, get way in tight, get your jab going,’ ” Caan explained later. “His left hand was gone, totally gone. I told him, ‘You gotta get going. If you want to be a $50 club fighter, then do it your way.’ But he just wasn’t listening.”
By the end of the fifth round, Caan seemed to sense defeat. Instead of booming encouragement to Hunter between rounds, he let his gaze drift over to the pretty young card girl who strolled around the ring, holding up a placard announcing the next round.
Afterwards, he admitted that his attention had wandered. “Lemme tell you, the way he was fighting, it was easy to be distracted,” he said with a laugh. “Some guy must’ve saw me watching her and he yelled at me, ‘Hey, she’s better than he is!’ ”
Caan didn’t wait around to hear the official verdict. Mid-way through the last round, he stalked out of Hunter’s corner and headed for the dressing room. Soon after the fight ended, the ring announcer made it official--Hunter had lost by a split decision.
It was Hunter’s first loss, leaving his record at 7-1, with two draws. Still, Caan seethed with anger, pacing around near the fighter’s dressing room. “I’m so . . . mad I ain’t going back to see him,” he told Mangiapene and a couple of friends. “He had that guy turned around 83 different times, with his face that far away--" Caan held a meaty hand inches away from his nose--"and still never . . . hit him. If I go back there now, I’m gonna punch him myself!”
A few days later, Caan had calmed down--slightly. “I don’t know what happened,” he said. “He should’ve tattooed him! I mean, geez, everybody was there to see him and it was just a nightmare. Everybody called me the next day, saying ‘What happened?’
“I just walked away. I thought it best that I let him know that I was very unhappy with him. If he doesn’t change, we’re gonna give him his walking papers.”
Caan seemed eager to throw himself into another acting job, buoyed by the good reviews he’s received from “Gardens of Stone.” Unfortunately, with a director’s strike looming, there isn’t much action looming on the horizon.
“Yeah, they’re afraid to do anything with the possibility of this strike,” he said. “So, unfortunately, my timing sucks, as usual. I’m just hoping that whatever’s out there, is still out there when this thing get settled.”
At least no one’s wondering whatever happened to Jimmy Caan--at least for now. “Yeah, I’ve heard from lots of people after this movie came out.” He laughed, perhaps uneasily. “I got a lot of old friends who came back to see how I was doing.”
Is he implying that memories in Hollywood are short? He chuckled again. “Well, I just hope they’ll hang onto their memories of those reviews, for a while at least.”