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This Guy Definitely Is a Tough Act to Follow

James Caan is crazy. His mother knows it. His producer knows it. His agent knows it. He knows it.

Oh, he’s one of our age’s finest actors. I don’t mean to suggest he goes around thinking he’s Napoleon. (Marcus Allen, maybe. Hulk Hogan.) You don’t have to get a net over him.

But, he’s a big movie star, right? I mean, you’re talking Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather,” the guy who broke your heart in “Brian’s Song,” who can play Mr. Nice Guy (“Cinderella Liberty”) or Mr. Tough Guy (“Thief”) with equal degrees of skill and enthusiasm.

So, he can go everywhere by limo, right? Well, Jimmy goes by motorcycle.

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He doesn’t always get there. Jimmy drives a motorcycle as if he’s jumping 20 buses with it. The first motorcycle accident wouldn’t have been so bad except he was carrying this small hardwood martial arts sword in his side. That broke more ribs than the curb.

Movie stars have hobbies, OK? Usually, it’s a yacht with room for chorus girls and champagne. Jimmy Caan’s hobby? Rodeo.

You heard me. He’s not on a yacht. He’s on a horse with a rope in his teeth chasing a running calf. Once in a while, he gets on a bucking horse while three movie moguls faint dead away, the insurance company gets hysterical, his wife threatens divorce and his agent starts looking for a psychiatrist who will take him on.

There aren’t many rodeo cowboys born in the Bronx (actually, there is one born in New York City), and the only calves Jimmy Caan saw growing up were on hooks in his father’s kosher butcher shop.

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But, Jimmy was no Midnight Cowboy. He got busted up so many times on horseback that his pal, George Anderson, trainer of the Raiders, doesn’t send him a tie for Christmas, he sends him a box of tape. “He tells me, ‘I don’t want your heart and liver when you die, I want your skeleton,’ ” Caan chortles. “He says my X-ray looks like a three-car pileup on a freeway.”

Caan holds the listed world record for hospital escapes. He usually stays in them just till he comes to. “I tell them I’ll send over my stunt man to take my medicine for me. He does all the dangerous stuff.” Once, he says, a young nurse found him creeping out of the hospital in the wee hours with a tube still attached. “She burst into tears. ‘Oh, Mr. Caan! You’ll get me fired!’ she says. I told her ‘Honey, check the hospital records. This is the fourth time this year I went over the wall.” Most people leave a hospital by wheelchair. Caan leaves by drainpipe.

Adds Caan: “I just tell the doctor, ‘I gotta go home, I don’t feel well. And the hospital’s no place to be when you’re sick!’ ”

When a gushing fan-mag type found him in a rodeo in the San Joaquin Valley one time and said, “Oh, Mr. Caan! I didn’t know rodeo was your hobby!” Caan corrected her: “It isn’t. This is what I do. Acting is my hobby.”

He sneaked off to a rodeo in Palm Springs once during the shooting of “Funny Lady” with Barbra Streisand. “I was the ‘heeler’ in team-roping,” he explains. “Now, you can always tell a heeler. Check his thumbs. Your thumb gets caught in the rope and when your rope goes taut, your thumb is apt to go spinning to the horizon. Mine just got pulled back a little--all the way to the elbow.”

He had to take the cast off to do the love scenes. “I’m the only guy in history who ever looked as if he was trying to do a love scene in the middle of an appendectomy.” He had to try not to scream. So did the producer, Ray Stark. Another time when Caan was missing from the set, producer Stark asked bitterly, “Have you checked the alligator farms around here? He’s probably wrestling one.”

Caan has had so many stitches, he looks as if he was not born but embroidered. When he tore his shoulder and thumb, the doctor wanted to know if he should bring a needle. “You better bring a sewing machine,” he was told. Caan has had so many screws in his shoulder, he has them chromed and made into a necklace. There was a time he could set off metal detectors naked.

He played football at Michigan State. "(Coach) Duffy Daugherty liked to say he turned me into an actor,” Caan said. “He saw me run with the football and said, ‘Ever think of something else for a living, kid?’ I like to think it was the other halfback, Clarence Peaks, who turned me into an actor.”

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But James Caan has mellowed. Now, all he does is race powerboats offshore and practice karate. The powerboat attraction is that, in addition to crashing or burning, you can also drown. You can’t get a more perfect sport than that.

Karate has been his other longtime love. He’s been a black belt since 1983.

He fell under the aegis of a martial arts master named Takayuki Kubota, whom Caan holds in the same awe as kids do Batman. “In this country, when we have a riot, we call out the National Guard. In Japan, when they have one, they call out him,” Caan boasts. Kubota has trained police departments from Osaka to Los Angeles in the use of martial arts and baton techniques in subduing criminals short of shooting.

Obviously, James Caan’s type of guy. To honor his mentor, Kubota, a four-day festival of competition featuring practitioners from 40 countries will be held, culminating in the finals at Cal State Los Angeles on Sunday, Nov. 5. “Kubota is Soshihan Kubota, which means there is only one of him in the world,” Caan explains. “And I am next in command or Soshihan Dai, which means there’s only one of me in the world, too.”

The Kubota World Cup commemorating 50 years in the martial arts for the Soshihan will consist of competitions, seminars, a banquet and meditation periods. Jimmy Caan probably plans to spend his meditation time behind an open throttle--or an open parachute.


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