The Ultimate Caan

Despite a tumultuous career and personal life, actor James Caan stays true to his ideals—and his friends.
| By Betsy Model | From 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."

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.

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.

"It's unpredictability that keeps you from getting a popcorn or going to the bathroom or going to the refrigerator," says Caan, "and this show has that ability. When you're in Vegas there are no boundaries. I mean, kings come, queens come, gangsters come, senators come, vagrants, degenerates…it's very true to life. Listen, I've known people there for many years. You go to any one hotel and go to their security office or the bosses' office or their surveillance room and there's nine thousand stories…It's there…Vegas is a zoo, man…it's a zoo."

If Caan gets off on the unpredictability of Las Vegas, the city, the people behind "Las Vegas," the show, say that selecting Caan to play Big Ed Deline was nearly inevitable.

"Personally, I think Jimmy's one of the greatest actors out there, and when we first thought of a 'hard as nails' guy who didn't take [crap] off of anybody and who was capable of running security in a top casino, we immediately thought of Jimmy," says Scott Steindorff, the co-executive producer and co-creator of "Las Vegas."

Steindorff, whose production credits include the recent Nicole Kidman feature The Human Stain, also admits that the potential inclusion of guest stars in the television feature may be easier with Caan on board. "One of the things about Las Vegas as a town is that it draws top-name talent and we've left room to include some folks into future episodes. Having Jimmy there makes sense to them."

Apparently, trying his hand at a television series also made sense to Caan. He says that doing a series means more time at home with his children, something that he'd not done in the past and had subsequently regretted. When it comes to his children, Caan is unabashedly gooey. When his two youngest burst into the hotel suite to announce that they're going swimming, they do so only after tumbling onto their dad's lap and spending 15 minutes confidently throwing questions at the interviewer and wanting to play with the tape recorder. When conversation turns to eldest son Scott, Caan says, simply, "he's the apple of my eye" and brags about Scott having won a prize at the 2003 Las Vegas Film Festival for his feature Dallas 362.

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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