James Caan tells of two recent dinners, both tales having the same theme: that however much he might want to be a civilized elder statesman, just a regular guy having a meal with the wife, someone seems to provoke him back to the schoolyard culture that formed him. The first dinner was with other parents from his 7-year-old son's school in L.A. The second was a favor to a friend of a friend who wanted him to meet a pair of business associates, young fellows filthy rich from real estate and selling skateboarding gear. Caan was exhausted from a day shooting his TV show, "Las Vegas," but he borrowed a clean shirt, met up with his wife and joined them at Mr. Chow's. If Caan believes in anything, it's being there for his friends.
He also understands why folks might ask him to such gatherings -- "to show me off, the big shot, Sonny Corleone." Sure, he's funny also, and full of stories of acting with Brando and singing with Streisand and of John Wayne, that great American who cheated at chess. But he walks into a bar and, three decades after "The Godfather," some stranger will joke how they'd better "watch out," like they could wind up in cement shoes. Or they'll put on a hothead act to show they're a man's man too. "It's hysterical," Caan says. "Just from Sonny."
So there he was at the school dinner, and a banker warns that another dad "can be a little vulgar," and sure enough the man starts cursing every third word. Though Caan has been known to use the man's favorite epithet, "he certainly doesn't know what my wife's feelings are," the actor says. He leans over and says, in his softest voice, "Do me a favor. Just watch your language." The man plays dumb, "You talking to me?" So Caan goes, "For another about three seconds, and then you're not going to hear a thing."
In the second dinner, at Mr. Chow's, the punch line is more graphic. One of the businessmen keeps using the same word in a discussion of golf, a game Caan has taken up now that he's 64 and a grandpa and a little past prime rodeo and karate days. When someone mentions Riviera Country Club, the fellow rants how it's a great freakin' track, except you gotta fade the freakin' ball, you know? "Now the smoke starts coming out of my ear," Caan says. "Luckily the guy got up to go the bathroom." Their host sees Caan fuming and says, "Oh, he doesn't mean it," so Caan picks up a piece of silverware and lapses again into a whisper. "It's because of my relationship with you," he says, "that I don't take this fork and stick it in his eye."
"I wasn't being the tough guy," Caan insists a couple of weeks later as he tells the tale of those dinners in tame L.A. "If this was New York...."
ROLLING THE DICE
We were speaking in that very city last November, the day before the premiere of "Elf." It was an upbeat time for him, but a tense one, not so much because of that holiday film as the TV series, his first ever, which was barely a month on the air. "Las Vegas" was a gamble, even if the role was not exactly a stretch -- he played a casino security chief who knows how to set cheats straight with, say, a well-placed fork. Caan had gone through a "yes-no, yes-no" debate with himself over whether to do TV and he had no doubt what the story line would be if the NBC series tanked: "that Jimmy couldn't carry this show. Movie actor fell on his ass." But initial ratings were promising and it seemed a good bet the show would survive, as Caan has himself, somehow.
I had last encountered him a decade before, during what he now calls his "self-destructive period." Caan brings up the highlights on his own: the years partying on coke and Quaaludes; the pattern of his four marriages and five children, "pregnant-married, pregnant-married, pregnant-married ...," the years, after the death of his sister from leukemia, when he quit making films to become this "mad coach," teaching baseball and other sports to boys, including his oldest son, Scott, sometimes by throwing fastball after fastball at the kid; then too often finding himself at the wrong place at the wrong time, whether it was the Wilshire Boulevard apartment where a wannabe actor fell from the balcony to his death or the drug neighborhood where Caan pulled a gun on a rapper. "Just destructive, stupid stuff," he says.
I ran into him during that time in Los Angeles at the trial of restaurateur Ronnie Lorenzo, whom law enforcement officials described as a rarity in L.A., a bona fide "made member" of the mob. Caan, in turn, described Lorenzo as "my best friend ... I love 'im," and used his Bel-Air home as security for Lorenzo's bail after an FBI informant got the restaurateur to help out in a cocaine deal. Caan said they'd met when he was filming "Chapter Two" back East, "through a couple of friends. You know, I'm from New York. Some homeboys."
Though public relations people might advise any movie star to steer clear of such trials, Caan had ignored such cautions before. In 1985, he attended one in New York of Anthony Russo, a rising member of the Colombo family whom he befriended when Russo hung around, with his "crew," at the filming of "The Godfather." More than 30 years later, these are nothing like other actors' fleeting infatuations with real-life tough guys. Russo's son served as best man at his wedding and Caan invested in a Beverly Hills pizzeria that Ronnie Lorenzo was supposed to manage. When a jail sentence made that impossible, Caan helped Lorenzo's family by arranging for his wife to man the counter at the Mulberry Street Pizzeria, whose walls displayed a vintage tommy gun in a violin case above a photo of old-time gangsters Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, "the Jewish boys and the Italian boys," Lorenzo's wife quipped one time.
Caan later sold his interest, however, so I ask him about that when we meet in New York, and he updates the story: how they all were supposed to get rich bringing authentic New York pizza to L.A., using a brick oven that would cook the pies at 650 degrees, not 350, but he went off to make two movies and Ronnie remained indisposed, so Caan opted out, only to have another partner dispute the terms and make "a claim here in New York, going through these channels like they do," the actor says, not talking about the civil courts. "I flew in and sit down, this is like a bad movie, yeah.... And that's where it was settled somehow."
Caan adds a few qualifiers about how his pals are not "shoot 'em up" types like John Gotti, but nonviolent sorts who never ask for favors in Hollywood. "There's never been a phone call for me to do anything ... give anybody a job," Caan says. "Never, ever, ever."
Caan has long portrayed his own roots as a "boy from Sunnyside," a Queens neighborhood across the East River from Manhattan, as not much different from the mean streets of the wiseguys. True, his father was a kosher Jewish butcher, but also a never-cry-in-public sort who "would have broke my nose," Caan says, if he didn't show up for his friends. In the family history Caan tells, his mom, Sophie, was not naive about that society, either, even if she did send him to camp in the Poconos. "My mother had coffee with this guy's mother," is how Caan puts it, "and this guy turned out to be a guy in the garbage business." Besides, that's where he learned to box, at the camp.
That came in handy at P.S. 150, Caan says, where another student, Billy, "was reputed to be like the toughest kid," so "about the third or fourth day ... I said, 'Let's get it on,' or something."
Sitting in the lobby of Manhattan's Four Seasons hotel, a few miles from the old neighborhood, yet worlds apart, the stories pour out of whipping Billy in the stairwell and learning "life skills," and how to throw elbows, on the schoolyards of Sunnyside. Later, he would distinguish himself as the "hatchet-man" captain of his high school basketball team, but the survival lessons were picked up on those blacktops, he says, where kids would crowd in to play three on three, and you only kept the court if you won, so "you learn who to push, you learn who not to push ... and you develop the sixth sense, so to speak.... I can shake hands with somebody to this day, you know, 'How do you do?' and know somehow instinctively that this is not going to be a great friend of mine."
Caan says this not long after shaking my hand, so perhaps that's why I hesitate to wonder aloud how he could have been among the baddest on those schoolyards and yet graduate from Manhattan's Rhodes School at a precocious 16 and head to Michigan State in 1956 to study economics before he transferred to New York's Hofstra University and gravitated to theater classes and where a fellow student was Francis Ford Coppola, who years later cast him as Sonny.
But as I ponder how to separate the myth from reality in the Jimmy Caan story, a friend comes by for lunch, a nicely dressed man with his polite teenage son and a "What's doin'?"
"This is Ronnie's friend," Caan says, and the man gives his name, and only later is it apparent the actor may have to lend moral support at yet another trial. But the annoyance of this pal's indictment -- a little loan-sharking matter -- is weeks in the future, and first there's an opening to attend, over a candy cane-colored carpet.
At the premiere the next evening, the co-chairman of New Line introduces the "wondrous goof of a film" in which Will Ferrell plays a human raised among Santa's elves who leaves the idyllic North Pole to find his real dad, who turns out to be Caan, a children's book publisher on Santa's naughty list whose heart needs a thawing, which it gets, as Christmas is saved in the end.
"I mean, 'Elf" isn't 'The Godfather,' you know what I mean?" Caan says at the party by the Rockefeller Center skating rink.
Yet he's in a better mood than at the 1972 opening of that Oscar winner, when he couldn't get over how some of Sonny's best moments had been cut. "Would you believe ... I didn't want to go to the premiere?" Caan says. "Go ask Mario Puzo. He'll say, 'Jimmy's the only one who got screwed.' "
He's not going to nitpick "Elf," which is what it is -- good, light fare -- and will go on to gross $173 million. Besides, Miss USA is coming his way, asking, "Can I have a photo?"
"You can have several," he says.
Two boys, about 11, ask for autographs.
"Don't you know I'm a guy you don't mess with?" Caan says.
"Yeah," one boy says, "but you were good."
BACK IN L.A.
They were going to shoot "Las Vegas" in Vegas but found it hard to "control" a real casino, so they built a sprawling casino set in Culver City, and that suited the marquee star, for it meant he could move his family back to L.A. from Park City, Utah, where he'd tried log-mansion life for a few years.
Caan recalls a landscaper asking what trees to plant. "I said, 'I had one tree eight blocks from my house [growing up]. We called it "The Forest." OK? Just put in some freakin' trees.' " He goes on, "There's different kinds of wilderness. I don't need to be sleepin' with the bears, if that's what you mean.... When I say 'wilderness,' it's like roughing it is pretty much watching TV without a clicker."
Caan is on the phone to Jake Bloom, the entertainment lawyer, when I arrive on the set of "Las Vegas" in early January. Bloom introduced him to one new sport he found competitive enough in the wilds, fly fishing ("You have to do this perfect cast"), but the call is about a less pleasant matter, switching agents. Caan says only that his guy isn't acting like a friend anymore and he's going back to Jim Berkus, head of the United Talent Agency. "With my career right now, I need a friend," Caan says, then adds, "I hate those times."
A moment later his mood lifts and he's entertaining the faux casino -- extras, cameramen, guys schlepping cables -- by whizzing about on a motorized scooter, a gift of country music's Brooks & Dunn, who were on a recent show. Their card said, "A big shot like you shouldn't have to walk to catering -- this is how us hillbilly singers do it."
"Cool, isn't it?" Caan says as he speeds to announce what's being served today. "Meatballs."
The audience for Caan's antics includes some familiar faces, his own personal "crew," such as Jimmy Decloss, his stand-in on and off for decades and now "the only one-legged stand-in," Caan says. "He had an accident a year or so ago and lost his leg. I told him he'd have to work for half price."
There's golf pro Greg Osbourne, whom Caan got a job playing a security man at the "Montecito Resort." Caan's been known to bellow on breaks, "Osbourne, get over here!" and soon they're waggling clubs and sharing swing thoughts.
Then there's stunt coordinator Walter Scott, who met Caan on the Sam Peckinpah-penned 1965 western "The Glory Guys," when Scott was the real cowboy and Caan a cocky "subway guy" earning his second film credit. Soon Scott was teaching him to rope and Caan was joining the cowpunchers in a Mexican ring, "down there fighting bulls," Scott says as he and Caan reminisce by a blackjack table.
The pair also recall how they briefly became brothers-in-law after the actor introduced Scott to the sister of his then wife. "Once he got married, I quit, I left him with that family," Caan says.
"That's been his downfall," Scott says. "He loves his women, but he'd rather be with the guys."
The stuntman taught horsemanship to a new generation of Caans when Jimmy's son, Scott Caan, was cast in 2001's "American Outlaws."
Walter Scott has lived through good times, and others, with Caan. He recalls the one-year stretch when Caan had "the best movie on TV and the best movie in the theaters," showing his sensitive side as the doomed football player in 1971's "Brian's Song," then another side as Sonny. Asked if Caan might like to go back and take things anew from there, Scott says, "I think we all would."
A loudspeaker calls the cast for a scene offering comic relief in a show that mixes moments of Scorsese-esque menace with lots of eye candy -- not many buffet bellies in this casino -- and a parade of guest stars that could put "Love Boat" to shame, Jon Lovitz (as a suicidal loser) and Paris Hilton (as a gold-digger) in this episode alone. In this scene, Caan's "Big Ed" Deline has to disperse the gawking gamblers with a "Show's over, folks."
It's TV, so they run through eight pages a day, not the two he'd do in a feature. "It isn't Kurosawa," Caan says, but that doesn't keep him from working the lines ("Is it funnier to say....?") or suggesting better angles to enter a scene or wondering about that huge urn of flowers. "What is this, a casino or a funeral home?"
He also keeps working the room. The next break, he schmoozes the visiting family of former soap opera heartthrob Josh Duhamel, who plays his protege at the casino. Their characters have a father-son relationship, and Caan is trying to educate him off camera as well, though the neophyte has a ways to go. He actually tried to stick an egg in Caan's shoe. "It took me 11 seconds to figure out who did it," says Caan, who is making rumblings about using his appearance later that night on TV's "Jimmy Kimmel Live" to tell the world, "He's gay!" which Duhamel ain't, but he's nervous, as if Caan might do it. "Oh, please," Caan says. "You're getting married."
Another actor interjects, "You've had a couple of wives."
"Yeah, four," Caan deadpans. "There's nothing funny about that," but that's their cue to laugh.
Caan says he's had this compulsion "to do a take" for people as long as he can remember, both to ease the pressure of the moment and seize the stage for himself -- he may have been the class clown, as much as the tough kid, at P.S. 150.
Now it's part of elder statesmanship, Jimmy Caan style, along with the Hollywood war stories he passes down to eager ears.
This afternoon, it's a Brando yarn inspired by a scene in which Duhamel swipes his 6-iron. As if to show how a practical joke should be done, Caan stuffs heavy weights inside the golf bag to ding actor James Lesure who, as the casino's head valet, has to cart off the clubs. "Why can't you pick up that bag?" Caan taunts him.
Cast members then gather around as Caan recalls how he and Robert Duvall had to carry Brando up the stairs when Don Corleone was brought home to recover from gunshot wounds. "They go, 'Rolling! Action!' and I go, 'Oooooo.' There's like 500 pounds," Caan says. "Halfway up the stairs, Bobby and I are dying. 'Oooooo.' "
The show's creator, Gary Scott Thompson, prefers the John Wayne stories of the man he calls "sort of the godfather to the cast here."
Thompson saw Caan from the start as his "tough guy with the heart of gold," but never dreamed NBC could get him. Caan tested him when they met, after Thompson said his favorite movie was "El Dorado," the Howard Hawks western in which Caan played a knife-throwing cowboy in a goofy top hat who teams with Wayne and Robert Mitchum. "He goes, 'OK, what's my name?' " and Thompson knew it, "Alan Bourdillion Traherne, but they called you 'Mississippi.' "
Caan rewarded him with his tale of how that "cheatin' " Wayne kept moving chess pieces when they played. "He'd say, 'Jimmy, there's a phone call for you,' and I'd come back and I'd go, 'Wait a minute, hey, Duke, that rook wasn't over there.' 'Whaddaya mean, kid?' "Thompson also risked a lot by doing TV, having come from film himself as writer of the street-racing hit "The Fast and the Furious." It's one thing to be a TV star and fail -- as many have -- at film. To go the other way, to "come from features and you fail in TV...."
Thompson doesn't need to finish the thought.
There's been good news, however, since I'd seen Caan in November: Ratings are strong, especially among 18- to 49-year-olds, establishing "Las Vegas" as the top new drama in that "key demographic." The series has been renewed for 2004-05, a first step toward the run required to open TV's treasure chest -- syndication.
Caan has gotten a promotion on the show also, to head of the casino. "The reality is, Jimmy's 60-whatever years old and he can't be running down the Strip chasing bad guys all day," Thompson says. "Why would you do it when you're that age when you could be sending somebody else?"
Caan himself says of the move to TV: "I suffered over the decision for a while."
He still had movie offers, but too many called for him to spend 10 weeks somewhere like Nova Scotia, and that's hard on his two young sons from his current marriage, which has lasted eight years. "Are you kidding? This is my record," he says, as is having two kids with one wife. "I'm learning," he quips on. But if he's true to what he says -- "I'm a romantic, I really am" -- it's time to make the family thing work, and maybe even patch up relations with his 38-year-old only daughter, from his first marriage, who just had a baby boy -- his first grandchild -- down in Phoenix.
All those mouths is another problem with some film jobs. He played Nicole Kidman's dad in the artsy "Dogville," by Danish auteur Lars Von Trier, but like her didn't sign up for the sequel. "I'm competitive. I want to be known as the greatest actor," Caan says. "[But] it doesn't pay the bills. I've had the honor. Now's the time to have a little money. Film school is over, do you know what I mean?"
So the plan is: He busts his butt to make the TV show work four or five more years, into syndication -- what better retirement plan is there? -- then "I guess my kids could wheel me on my next vacation, you know?"
THE LEARNING CURVE
Caan belongs to a private golf club -- El Caballero in Tarzana -- but takes his lessons at a dusty public one, Whittier Narrows, in the San Gabriel Valley. Still, no one recognizes the figure at the end of the driving range in the white cap and chinos, the guy saying, "It is not fun, golf."
Saturday after the taping, Caan brings two young "Vegas" producers for lessons with Osbourne, the pro he got cast in the series. Osbourne is deferential on the set, but he's the Man here as he demonstrates shots, sending balls into orbit. "I told you," Caan tells his amazed guests.
While they get lessons, Caan practices to the side, smoothing an 8-iron shot at a flagstick. "In the hole," he urges it. But when it's his turn with Osbourne, he chunks his first shot and curses.
Given what athletics mean to him, it's no shock Caan puts so much pressure on himself in the game he took up " 'cause I looked at my birth certificate." When he first was learning, Osbourne would play with Caan in charity events and, "If there were people watching us
Early on, it was "like trying to teach a wild cat," Osbourne says, and Caan still has a tendency to play well for a while, close to par, then spoil it with a "blow-up hole." It's also hard to compliment him.
"Last time we played he kept it together for the whole nine holes. So I'm going, 'I never thought you'd ever get to this point,' " Caan's pro says. "He goes, 'Oh, that's a backhand slap! It's not a compliment.' 'Yes it is.' Basically by me and him yelling at each other, he's gotten mellowed out."
For someone who came out of New York's Method acting schools, Caan takes a surprisingly technical approach to golf. The pro videotapes his swing and they study each detail on a two-sided screen -- the other side showing Tiger Woods' swing, or Osbourne's.
"Put your toe in because that will allow you to what?" the pro asks.
"Follow through the ball," Caan says, and he does, and they head to the monitor.
"It's not a pretty swing," Caan says.
"No, it's nice," Osbourne says. "Picture perfect."
The first James Caan Golf Classic is held April 26 at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, the gated club where Wayne Gretzky has a mansion and where Tiger has held his charity events. Caan's draws 133 players, at $5,000 a foursome, to benefit Pasadena-based Impact Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center, which helped him when he decided that he had had enough -- after his son Scott followed him to his dealer's house and tried to attack the man with a baseball bat.
"This is kind of Jimmy's way of saying 'Thank you,' " says its director, James Stillwell, who asked Caan, after his care, "What about your brother?"
Ronnie Caan, five years younger, followed Jimmy west from New York, then followed him in other respects. "Believe me, I was a basket case," Ronnie acknowledges. "Someone asks, 'Would you like some cocaine?' 'Yeah,' and you come out of your house 13 years later." Now he's "five years clean" and works for the center.
The thermometer is close to 100 when the golfers finish at 5 p.m. and drive their carts to the patio beyond Sherwood's 18th green to compare scores.
"It went pretty well," Caan says as he arrives with his playing partners, who include one pretty fair golfer for an actor. Osbourne, the "Las Vegas" bit player, apologizes that he's not had much putting practice while "working on that show." But when Caan asks what he shot on the back nine, he says, "29," 7 under par.
As a foursome, they're 22 under. Caan is a tad sheepish about winning his own tournament, but not too sheepish. How could he not be up on golf this day -- and on that whole TV business too?
Indeed, he and the pro have decided to create ... a golf show. Osbourne explains the concept: He'll give the lessons, using the split screen, and celebs will take 'em, you-know-who going first.
Caan poses for photos with the people who have come out for him, including Jack Nicholson, Sly Stallone, Joe Pesci and Ronnie Lorenzo, who long ago finished serving his time. Caan's not about to start running from his friends now.
Another of his best buddies, Don Soffer, is telling how Caan made a snake of a putt, 30 feet, maybe 50 -- it keeps growing -- and "celebrated for 25 minutes."
The Florida and Las Vegas real estate developer met Caan in the ocean, off Bimini, where the actor was in a nearby boat, in his cowboy boots. "We thought it was pirates," recalls Soffer, who was fishing off his own yacht, the Monkey Business, famous for the tryst that brought down a presidential candidate, Gary Hart.
A former Brandeis football star, Soffer was a kindred spirit to Caan, someone who has given up trying to pretend his life has been a quiet Sunday afternoon: His 70th birthday in 2002 provided the excuse for a $1 million Rat Pack-themed party in the real Las Vegas. Among the guests? Four of his ex-wives.
Soffer sizes up Caan this way: "Jimmy makes coffee nervous -- he's a nut."
A different appraisal is offered by the most elegant guest at the dinner that caps the charity outing, the woman Caan's wife, Linda, calls "the real Mrs. Caan."
"My son's a living doll," declares Sophie Caan. "He's a good son. He buys me a car every couple of years."
First they were Cadillacs, most recently a Saab. Caan's mother still drives it, at 88, to play nine holes each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at Rancho Park, a public course, perhaps, but among the top in the country. "I play only with men," Sophie Caan says. "You know why? I learn from men." She's also made four holes-in-one at Rancho.
She's done up this evening, her hair, the dress and jewelry befitting a grande dame from Beverly Hills, where her son got her a place. It's better than Sunnyside, Queens. "Ohmigod!" she agrees.
What she can't understand is why that boy talks about the old neighborhood, and his childhood, like he was a character in a Dickens novel.
"He was brought up nice," she says. "Everything, everything. Everything he had.
"I mean he's a boy, you know?" she says. But he had a nice bar mitzvah, and that Rhodes School he makes sound like a reformatory? "A private school," Mama reports. "And he did very good.... There was not a gang. No! Not at all.
"He makes it up. They all do. All movie stars -- they come from the poor families, you know?"
So his tale about her having coffee all the time with the wife of the garbage czar? She looks at me like I'm from Pluto.
"He was 2 years old, already a comedian," she says of her son.
The matter seems settled, then, the moment of truth having arrived as the sun sets over the Sherwood clubhouse. Except that Sophie Caan wanders back from the Chinese food table to modify her denial about breaking bread with the wife of a certain somebody.
"Not that I know," she qualifies it now. "Not that I know."
Then she summons me once again, after an auction of sports memorabilia and other goodies helps raise $300,000 for the treatment center, and after comedian Paul Rodriguez throws out one-liners about how this place is so plush, "I saw a white guy on a lawnmower."
It is, no question, about as far as you can get from the schoolyards. But Sophie Caan tugs on my arm to stop me when it's time to go. Jimmy Caan's mom at least smiles as she pokes a finger in my chest.
She says, "You better write something nice about my boys."