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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

For those pop culture enthusiasts who believe that the phrase bada bing was created by the people behind the HBO series "The Sopranos," think again. The expression has been around for decades, perhaps even before actor James Caan uttered it, unscripted, in his role as Sonny Corleone in the 1972 Francis Ford Coppola epic The Godfather.

Coppola has joked that Caan should earn royalties on the phrase and when asked where he originally learned it, Caan just shrugs and claims to not remember. Perhaps from his pals from Sunnyside, Queens. The ones who still call him by the childhood nicknames Shoulders and Killer Caan.

Regardless, the Oxford English Dictionary has finally made an honest word out of bada bing, adding it to its latest edition and defining it as "an exclamation, a word spoken to emphasize that something will happen effortlessly and predictably." Ironically, there is little about James "Please, call me Jimmy…or your Holiness" Caan, the man, or James Caan, the actor, that's either effortless or predictable. He can, in the space of an interview, expose humor and disdain, poke fun at himself or tear down someone else and answer questions with a disconcerting mix of open playfulness or sudden wariness. He is as chameleon-like in his facial expressions, body language and moods as he is in the roles that he's chosen to play in his 40-plus years in the business.

At 63, Jimmy Caan is a strong man, one who's comfortable confiding that he's always pushed himself a bit too hard but who will, seconds later, argue that if you're not hard, you're not worth a dime on the streets of New York. He'll confess to crying in front of his sons but argue vehemently that he wouldn't have minded seeing his sons grow up in his old neighborhood in order to experience the "code" of loyalty and respect. He'll poke fun and tell jokes and one-liners about his trials and tribulations while expressing complete disdain for what he considers to be rumors and media myths about past transgressions.

But the transgressions, while real, come later in the story. At least the adult ones.

James Caan was born on March 26, 1940, in the Bronx and raised by working-class German-Jewish parents in Sunnyside, Queens. The neighborhood, a mix of Italian, Irish and Jewish families, was where he and his younger brother, Ronnie, and sister, Barbara, learned life skills, and for James that meant learning how to be a tough guy. That skill, Caan says, is a major part of who he is today.

"There were great lessons to be learned, you know, when I was a kid. You develop a sixth sense [because] you meet so many kids that you learn how to win and you learn how to lose very quickly.

"You get this sixth sense [where] after a while I'd shake someone's hand and say hello and I could tell you if this person was, you know, someone I was going to like or be a friend of or whatever. It becomes just like the jungle," Caan muses, "and you can smell it."

One of the intangible skills that Caan claims was learned on the streets at an early age was how to smell respect…and a rat. "You're not a quitter, you're not a rat," Caan says with finality. "My son [actor Scott Caan] grew up here in L.A. but he's got a New York morality. Now that sounds like a pompous friggin' thing to say, but there is such a thing as a New York morality, although today these guys are ratting on each other like, you know, it's going out of style. I mean, it's terrible. There are more rats in jail than thieves."

Having been tossed out of multiple public high schools by age 14, Caan found himself a niche in a private high school where he was elected class president. It didn't please the student adviser at the school, Caan recalls with a grin, because "I had my boys. I was a clown but I was also capable. Nobody messed with me."

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