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The Ultimate Caan

Despite a tumultuous career and personal life, actor James Caan stays true to his ideals—and his friends.
Betsy Model
From the Print Edition:
Tyson vs. King, Jan/Feb 04

(continued from page 2)

I went through some bad times, some very self-destructive stuff, you know, when I was on top. I'd got involved in partying and doing all that and I lost my sister and, basically, I got all screwed up in my head. She was like my best friend and I lost her to leukemia and I was just a mess. I had a lot of money because I'd worked a lot and saved it. I had it in a pension plan and then I lost all my money. My accountant. I just woke up one morning and I didn't have a dime. We're talking about tons…I mean, a lot of money, and I was flat broke."

Actually, things got worse. He wound up losing his home, and the Internal Revenue Service informed him that he owed hundreds of thousands of dollars. Caan felt he'd lost the passion to work and wanted simply to check out of life for a while.

Caan's old friend Francis Ford Coppola had also suffered a death, that of his eldest son, Gian-Carlo, in a boating tragedy in 1986. Still grieving, the duo completed their third film together, Gardens of Stone, in 1987. With the exception of Gardens of Stone, Caan had pretty much dropped out and turned, instead, to coaching boys baseball for the next six years. It was an experience that the natural athlete in him loved, he says, and it became the "high point of my low point. I love kids 'cause they're not full of shit, you know? People would say, 'What about your creative needs?' and I'd say, 'What are you talking about?' I take a kid who couldn't believe that he could do something, who walked on the [plate] like a little pussycat, who was afraid, who was embarrassed, and I worked with him and pretty soon he did something he didn't think he could do. He hits a home run and all of a sudden he's a little bantam rooster, right before my eyes. If he's capable and I coach properly, I could change a kid's life right in front of me. I didn't have to wait six months for them to put music into it or edit it. That was the great part." His son Scott also played baseball as well as basketball and soccer, on teams that his dad coached, but it was his skill with a bat that had his father thinking major leagues and, a few years later, thinking about cocaine rehab.

"I thought I was fooling my son. I was so stupid," Caan says. "I mean, you're never consciously hurting people, but when you look back, you go, 'Oh my God.' I didn't think he knew what was going on, you know; you think that kids aren't bright enough. But that's what woke me up, pretty much. Scott went after some guy -- Scott was 15, 16 -- with a baseball bat. He was going to kill him. A dope dealer. My son! It's like crying out of one eye and smiling out of the other, you know? That was like the rude awakening. It was over." Friends interceded and offered help, including an old-time friend from New York, Andrew Russo. A cousin to reported crime figure Carmine "The Snake" Persico, Russo researched rehabilitation centers for Caan and actually studied the hows and whys of cocaine addiction from research materials.

"When I was doing cocaine -- which was like having to tell him I was gay or something; it was that awful because it's just not part of his world -- he called me and said, 'Jim, do you think I'd humiliate you for a second?' He'd spent I don't know how many weeks reading books and books and books investigating addiction and cocaine. He'd investigated the best rehab places in the country." When questioned about why Russo would go to so much trouble for Caan, who by that time had been living on another coast for 20 years, Caan gets angry. "I'm talking about friendship. I'm trying to tell you about the kind of guy he was as opposed to what many people would misconstrue as a, uh, a guy who walks around with a baseball bat and cracks people's heads. It's just so far removed. I'm close to his wife, his grandchildren…I call him once a week to see how he is. There are a ton of assholes out here who'd just as soon see me get swallowed up into the gutter. So in a sense it was a single guy intervention."

During this time, there were multiple, well-publicized tries at recovery, as well as a third failed marriage, to Ingrid Hajek, which produced son Alex. Castle Rock Studios and an old friend, director Rob Reiner, gave Caan another chance with two movies, the thriller Misery with Kathy Bates and the comedy Honeymoon in Vegas opposite Nicolas Cage, but Caan's personal life was crumbling once again.

Caan insists that much of what was in the news about violence in his life was either overblown or fabricated. "For a time there were questions about 'how long have you been sober,' you know…there was a lot of talk about that. There was a lot of talk, you know, about this fight or that, or supposedly they wrote something like I'd pulled a gun or nonsense like that…which was, you know, baloney."

Baloney, maybe, but if so, Caan had enough of it in his life to fill a deli counter. In 1993, Caan was questioned about an odd death involving a young actor named Mark Alan Schwartz, who fell from a Los Angeles high-rise apartment building. In 1994, he was the subject of two criminal investigations, one involving a physical attack on a woman with whom he was reportedly in a relationship and one in which he allegedly flashed a gun in front of rapper Derek Lee in a parking lot. Caan was never charged with any of the crimes, but he found his way back into rehab and laid low for a while. In 1996, he completed rehab again, met and married his fourth wife, Linda Stokes, and subsequently became the father to two more boys, Jimmy and Jake.

To focus more on health and a healthy family, Caan moved to a cabin near Park City, Utah, for two years with his family, but, as Caan puts it, ultimately found out that "absence does not make the heart grow fonder. They just think you're dead!" when it comes to casting directors in the movie industry.

After moving back to Los Angeles, he landed four movie roles in quick succession and, last fall, a leading role in the NBC drama "Las Vegas." Playing a former CIA operative who's now head of security and surveillance for a posh desert casino, Caan films alternately in Southern California and Las Vegas, and it's the concept of the Strip and its stories that seems to energize him.

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