The Ultimate Caan

Despite a tumultuous career and personal life, actor James Caan stays true to his ideals—and his friends.

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The elder Caan, who put his last couple of films (including the recent holiday hit Elf, opposite Will Ferrell) into the can before starting "Las Vegas," also says that his upcoming role in the second installment of Danish director Lars von Trier's America trilogy is now officially off his work calendar. "I did this picture last year with Nicole Kidman and Lars von Trier, Dogville, and it's supposed to be a trilogy, but now that she's walked away from it, I'm walking from it. He is very anti-American, so screw him. I'm very pro-America. I'm a conservative, basically."
Rather like his co-star from the 1996 film Eraser, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger? Caan pauses for a moment and then says, "Arnold…Arnold has obviously been in this political family for quite a while. And Arnold, say what they may, he's very, very sincere about a lot of things."
One of the things that Caan is feeling sincere about at this particular moment is the need for some pain relief. He's just returned from playing 18 holes of golf and he's visibly hurting. Years of baseball, basketball, football, boxing, tennis, rodeo roping and karate (Caan's a sixth degree black belt) have taken their toll on his frame and it's evident in the way he moves. There are few joints on his body that haven't been operated on, including his shoulder, which bears the scars from 11 surgeries. His injuries, stitches and subsequent scars are the stuff of legend, enough so to cause the late sportswriter Jim Murray to once quip, "Jimmy Caan was not born, he was embroidered."
When asked about the results of the morning's game, he winces. "I looked at my birth certificate and decided to play golf! Otherwise, it's just a nice walk spoiled. I'm getting there [but] I don't have fun unless I'm playing well. I'm a little competitive."
He also claims that his biggest handicap on the course is his own lack of "patience, which I really don't have a lot of. I mean, I can play really well and then I'll miss some stupid, easy shot and it'll bother me for four holes, which is the worst possible thing. It makes you really stupid and it's not a perfect game."
As for perfect patience, Caan says he's working on that one. "I'm getting to have some. I'm heavily medicated," he says with a laugh. "I worry about the little stuff, I get all bent out of shape about stupid shit, you know? I'm trying not to worry about stuff. It's just stuff."
On that note, you have to question whether the medication that Caan refers to was working the day of one particular golf game.
It seems that Caan was participating in a charity golf tournament, where participants pay a large fee to play alongside a celebrity. His partner, a short business executive in his mid-60s, had paid $1,500 to play alongside Caan and, says Caan, for some inexplicable reason was being harassed by another celebrity and the celebrity's friend. He declines to name the celebrity, calling him only an "entertainer who was drunk and had some Tijuana hookers with them."
According to Caan, the entertainer and his pal ruined the first few holes of his partner's game, yelling as he'd swing and being rude and obnoxious. "They didn't know each other, I didn't have any idea what was going on. I kept my mouth shut but I [thought], 'Jesus, what the hell is going on?' Anyway, finally we got up on this one hole and it was about the sixth or seventh hole and this entertainer had like a fifty-foot putt. Now, mind you, this guy [Caan's partner] didn't say a word. Not one word. And [the entertainer] got over to this fifty-foot putt and he left it about forty feet short. And the only thing this little guy said, finally, was 'nice putt.' He said 'nice putt!
As Caan tells it, that's when the real trouble began. After yelling some obscenities, the entertainer's friend charged the hill where Caan and his partner were and threw a poorly aimed punch at the business executive. In spite of a very large audience, that, says "Killer Caan," was when he saw red.
"I just blacked out. I hit him a shot and he went down like a lump of crap, and the next thing I realized I was sitting on top of him, choking him. And it all happened so fast that I wasn't really satisfied, 'cause I hadn't said a word through the whole thing. And I just wanted more of him 'cause he was just down already, so I picked him up. I said, 'Get up. You want to fight? Get up. C'mon,' and he went, 'No, Sonny, no!'
"I was so embarrassed!…I looked around and all these people, they probably thought he wound up with cement shoes! And like, it wasn't fair, because the guy could have…killed me, I don't know. But wherever I went that weekend, if I was sitting with ten people, all these drinks would come out. They were picking up checks, picking up dinner checks, seven drinks -- it was hysterical! It's stuff like that that's kinda funny."
Caan laughs uproariously as he tells this story and there's no question that he enjoys both the story itself and his having been confused with Sonny Corleone of The Godfather. Academy Award nomination aside, the role of Sonny Corleone is his signature and he scoffs at the thought that it would bother him to have people confuse him with the character.
"Look, you only pray when you start in this business that you get to the point where people recognize you or quote you. I mean, I've got a lot of people who are, like, 'Hey, your ankle OK?' from Misery. I get that a lot. It's harmless. Or they'll say, 'Hey, don't go through that toll booth again' or 'Have the right change.' That's great! First of all, it means that they remember the picture. There's nothing not to like about it. The only thing that I get a little upset about is when I'm in a restaurant and people go like this [crooks his index finger] and beckon me with their finger. I get a little sideways. I go, 'No, you come here! What, am I a taxi or something?' "No, I hope they never stop. You know those actors who say, 'I want to be alone' or they're walking around with their friggin' bodyguards? A bodyguard! I'd never have a bodyguard. I mean, who wants to hurt me? But the point is that they have the bodyguard so that they can say, 'Leave me alone!' It's this revolving door thing. If somebody didn't recognize them, they'd have a heart attack, the bastards."
As for the occasional rumor about a return of The Godfather series, Caan says feggudaboutit. "A Godfather Four? Not by Francis, anyway. Who cares? There shouldn't have been a Godfather III."
If people on the street confusing Caan with the character of Sonny leaves him unfazed, the confusion about his connection to Sonny-like organized crime figures -- or to those deemed "wiseguys" -- seems to alternately amuse and infuriate him.
Caan's been known to refer to some of his old friends in New York as "not exactly bakers." He's admitted in print to having had a friendly relationship with reputed gangster Meyer Lansky following the making of The Godfather, and he attended the racketeering trial of friend Andrew Russo in 1986. In 1993, he attended the drug-trafficking trial of Ronald Lorenzo, who's linked to the Bonanno crime family, and in 1999, he appeared in videotapes shown at another trial of Russo, a trial that convicted Russo of jury tampering and obstruction of justice in the racketeering trial and conviction of his own son, Joseph. To Caan, all this simply falls under the category of "loyalty" and "friendship."
"Look, some of them [the media] -- they'd say 'you're connected.' I'm not connected to anything! I abhor crime. I hate crime. I work with the police…I train the police [in martial arts] in Culver City [California].
"Now," Caan continues, "one of my dearest friends is Andrew Russo. He's the most loyal guy I've ever met, he's my friend to this day thirty years later. I've never known Andrew to commit…any kind of violent crime. But if he's a so-called boss or this and that…I know he's not a carpenter, OK? I know probably he's involved in maybe the same thing the city does, which is, you know, bid for jobs, whether it's the garbage business or construction business. I'm sure that he's involved in that. I would never be that naïve to think that there isn't, you know, some white-collar stuff going on, but I personally do not know of one violent thing that this guy's done.
"He's a true valued friend, [and when] his son was in trouble, I offered to help with his legal matters. God forbid I ever needed something. I'm not saying 'needed something' like getting someone beat up, but if I needed help…."
Caan wants to be very clear on one subject. "I'm a loyal, really loyal, guy. Loyalty is the key. I don't say that with a sense of boastfulness. I've got a couple of friends from back east -- one of my best friends is a guy from Mulberry Street [in Manhattan] who owns a pizzeria and went away for a while for a small, minor thing."
As reticent as Caan is on some subjects, once he's rolling -- sometimes in a quick-to-surface anger -- the words and stories just flow, sometimes, it seems, to his later chagrin.
"I don't go out of my way to hurt other people's feelings. I have opinions and I try to keep them to myself. I try, but sometimes I find it necessary to spout them. I don't have an edit button!"
Ironically, despite his reputed association with mobsters, Caan has twice been the recipient of the "Italian of the Year" award from an Italian-American businessmen's association in New York. Of course, Caan's not Italian. He's just a nice, middle-class German Jewish boy who happens to be from a little neighborhood in Sunnyside.
Say grazie, Sonny.
Former NPR/BBC correspondent Betsy Model contributes to more than 30 domestic and international publications.
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