James Caan Enjoying His 'Misery' : Hollywood's Reputed Bad Boy Resurfaces in the Rob Reiner-Directed Psychological Thriller

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He's back.

A little more gray. A lot less angry. And just as outspoken as ever. "Oh, yeah, 'Ol' big mouth' got myself in trouble many times in the days when I used to be a star," rues James Caan as he quickly claps his hand over his mouth to emphasize his new circumspect self.

But then he proceeds to poke fun at Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, and, of course, James Caan. Like the fact that his role in his new film, "Misery," which opens Friday, probably won't get him the cover of GQ anytime soon.

"I mean, I play a total victim. I get the crap beat out of me. And I look like I'm between 80 and death," he says proudly.

Suddenly, it's very clear that Caan is not so much giving an interview as giving a performance in his new role as the Comeback Kid, who's surprising the Hollywood suits who until recently had written him off as the Goodby Guy.

"We got them going again, don't worry, they're coming around," he whispers as if a gaggle of studio executives were in the next room eavesdropping. And then, in an even smaller voice, void of any of the braggadocio that used to bolster his image as the macho-est of macho guys, he continues: "Basically, all in all, things are just swell now."

Certainly, 1990 will go down in the record books as the motion picture industry's year for spectacular star resurfacings. But somehow, it's especially fitting that, just when the much-anticipated "Godfather III" is going to sizzle on the silver screen, Caan's career is hot, hot, hot again.

No, he's not in the Francis Ford Coppola sequel (even though it may have seemed that way since Al Pacino "was calling me from Rome all the time," Caan notes). Instead, building on an all-too-brief cameo role in "Dick Tracy," Caan is the leading man in two major movies back-to-back--"Misery," the Rob Reiner-directed psychological thriller based on the Stephen King novel, and "For the Boys," a big-budget musical comedy with Bette Midler which is already in pre-production.

Given all this activity, it's hard to believe that just three years ago, Coppola had to fight the powers-that-were to cast Caan in the 1987 "Gardens of Stone." Or that, for the 5 1/2 years prior to that, the actor who consistently made the "Biggest at the Box Office" lists throughout the 1970s (culminating in 1972 when he was nominated for both an Oscar for "The Godfather" and an Emmy for "Brian's Song") voluntarily bade goodby to the business after his sister Barbara died of leukemia.

"She was like my best friend, and I was just devastated," Caan recalls. "And sometimes it takes terrible things in your life to make you realize what's really important. I realized that passion is the most important thing in my life. And I had lost that passion about the movie business."

During this time, Caan "had a ball" coaching his son's baseball and basketball teams full time. "The best thing about it was seeing something happen right in front of my eyes with the kids. I didn't have to wait six months for them to edit it, cut it and put music to it," he says pointedly.

"But I also think one of the reasons for the self-induced hiatus was that it was better than having to act in that whole spree of kid movies going on. I just didn't see myself being a goonie, or captain of a spaceship."

It wasn't just that Caan knew the character-driven movies he had long claimed as his own--like "Thief" and "The Gambler"--were giving way to special-effects films. What really pained him was that his sort of stardom just wasn't in demand anymore.

"At that time I think the directors were taking themselves way too seriously," he says. "And it's my belief that they would hire actors who didn't distract from either their prowess or the special effects. So you had a whole series of these young actors who don't glue you to the seat because they're very predictable."

Meanwhile, Caan's absence seemed to lend credence to the stories that had always swirled around this actor famous for living life to the fullest and also infamous for dating Playboy Playmates and even living in Hef's Bel-Air bunny hutch for a time. The rumors involved drugs, decadence and--perhaps most career damaging--his walking out on the movie "The Holcroft Covenant."

Caan acknowledges being unhappy with the script for "The Holcroft Covenant," but denies walking away from the project. His role was eventually filled by Michael Caine and the movie flopped, but he says rumors about his behavior on the film slapped the dreaded "difficult" label on him in Hollywood.

"I've never been difficult to anybody or with anybody on a picture," he says. "Especially when you're in that nice status of hierarchy of actors and actresses who get to approve directors. Because once you make that choice, it's my belief that the director's boss."

As for the rest of the rumors, they're were "gross exaggerations," Caan maintains. "I would hear this stuff about myself, I mean, this dope and this decadance, and then I would say, 'Gee, I wished I'd only done half of these things. What fun I would have had.' "

As for drugs, "I had gone through that, but--and I'm not condoning it in any way--never to the extent that you hear about. I knew actors who came to work and they were gone. But I never missed a day's work in my life."

Caan says he probably would have left Hollywood for good if he hadn't run into financial problems. He said money he had entrusted to business associates had somehow disappeared and instead of being "set for life," as he believed, he found out one day that "I was flat-ass broke."

He even almost lost his house on Stone Canyon Road. "I didn't want to work," he says. "But then when the dogs got hungry and I saw their ribs, I decided that maybe now it's a good idea."

For his first comeback film, "Gardens of Stone," Caan says he only received a quarter of his pre-hiatus salary, and then had to kick in tens of thousands more to the completion bond company because of his "Holcroft" experience. "I don't know what it is, but, boy, when you're down, they like to stomp on you," he growls. "I'm still not getting my full salary."

Of course, full salary for leading men these days can mean $10 million to $12 million and more--sums that don't just stagger Caan, they almost seduced him to finally do the kind of special-effects/action-adventure movie he has resisted making throughout his career. He came close in 1988 with "Alien Nation"--a film whose name "made me gag so badly I'd rather say gonorrhea," he jokes. "I always look to do something different. But I didn't want to do another potato-head movie."

Then, he was offered an obscene amount of money to do an Italian action-adventure picture on the order of "Die More Erect," or whatever, he recalls. "I said to myself, 'What the hell should I care for anyway? Why shouldn't I just make the money?' It was a piece of crap, but I was ready to go."

But then, within a couple of days of making a final decision, Caan was handed the "Misery" script by Reiner when it became clear that the director's first choice, Warren Beatty, would be bogged down in post-production on "Dick Tracy."

Caan's role in "Misery," that of a bedridden romance novelist held hostage and tormented by a crazed fan, is about as far removed from his explosive early work as possible, and though the effect on audiences is likely to be heightened tension, even Caan was bemused by his selection.

"I sometimes wondered if this was a sadistic joke on Rob's part," he says. "You know, 'Let's get the most hyper guy in Hollywood to stay in bed for 15 weeks.' . . . I was doing something I'd never done. For me, this being a totally reactionary character is really much tougher."

If Caan was venturing out of his realm, so was his director. Although Reiner has adapted one other Stephen King work ("Stand By Me," from a short story), "Misery" is his first full-out thriller and Caan says he overheard the director scolding himself one day on the set, blurting out "Who do you think you are, Alfred Hitchcock?"

As difficult as it was to act out his furies internally for "Misery," Caan says the experience of working on the production reminded him of a lesson he had learned long ago in his Hollywood career.

"The truth of the matter is you're the only person who closes your eyes at night. Nobody closes them for you," he says. "And if I'd have made that picture in Italy, I don't think I would have slept for two years."

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