The Ultimate Caan
Despite a tumultuous career and personal life, actor James Caan stays true to his ideals—and his friends.
From the Print Edition:
Tyson vs. King, Jan/Feb 04
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Of course, we're talking about a kid who developed two distinct nicknames as a young teen. "Shoulders was given to me by one of the guys and it caught on. I had these little skinny legs and I weighed about 25 pounds [with] this big square top and these little legs that stuck out…looked like they had a message tied around them. They also called me Killer Caan 'cause I boxed. You know, we boxed in a ring…sometimes it wasn't in a ring," he laughs. "But I was a tough and that was the neighborhood."
At 16, Caan enrolled at Michigan State University, taking classes in economics and playing football. Or, as the lean, 5-foot 10-inch Caan puts it, "mostly holding bags and being the tackling dummy." After a year at Michigan State, he became homesick and headed back to New York to attend Hofstra University and unload hindquarters of beef at 5:30 in the morning alongside his relatives at the meat markets.
Caan talks easily about his old Sunnyside neighborhood and about playing three-on-three basketball on concrete courts and softball on playing fields. Although he's lived on the West Coast for 40 years, his accent is sheer New Yawk and his sentences are peppered with the words "you know."
One thing Caan was clearly coming to know was that life as a meatpacker -- or as a waiter or a worker at the Continental Can Co. -- wasn't for him. A small project done at a local children's theater prompted him to think about acting and, almost on a whim, he applied to the Neighborhood Playhouse and was accepted. Rumor has it that when he learned he'd have to apply and interview three times in a single year just like every other applicant, he simply camped out until he persuaded the Playhouse folks to reconsider. At 18 and less than two weeks later, he had his first on-stage role there.
"There's so much luck involved in what I do, especially when you start. I studied, I knew I had to do it by studying, and I got the first four parts that I auditioned for," remembers Caan.
Caan's luck and opportunities continued and, by age 24, he had enough experience and film credits to head west to Hollywood. By that time he'd already married his first wife, Dee Jay Mattis, and had a daughter, Tara.
A split not long after from Mattis, a year or two living part-time at the Playboy Mansion, and success at landing parts in television and big-screen productions such as Rabbit, Run; The Rain People; The Godfather and Brian's Song led to his marriage in 1976 to Shelia Ryan. By the time his first son, Scott, was walking, Caan had made films such as Rollerball, The Gambler and Funny Lady, and would soon make A Bridge Too Far.
The marriage to Ryan ended badly in 1977, due in part to Caan's increasingly erratic behavior. By 1982, Caan admits, all hell had broken loose in both his personal and professional life.
Caan had always been pretty open about his use of recreational drugs while living and working in Los Angeles -- he's claimed to have tried marijuana for the first time when he moved to Hollywood, and in later years used quaaludes and cocaine -- but by 1982, devastated by the loss of his beloved sister, Barbara, to leukemia, Caan was out of control.
"In the late 1970s I was number one at the box office. I was way on top; everything came my way. Of course," Caan says with a laugh, "I took care of that. I just took about six years off and…quit.
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