'I Don't Need Hollywood': The Lost James Caan Interview - Rolling Stone
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‘I Don’t Need Hollywood’: The Lost James Caan Interview

In a 1981 interview online for the first time, Caan opens up about his reputation as a real-life Sonny Corleone, his role in Thief, and his dream of being a cowboy

James Caan 1983 Credit: Ralph Dominguez/MediaPunch /IPXJames Caan 1983 Credit: Ralph Dominguez/MediaPunch /IPX

James Caan in 1983

Ralph Dominguez/MediaPunch /IPX/AP Images

It was meant to be a festive night for James Caan. It was his forty-first birthday, and friends and celebrities gath­ered at the trendy Moustache Cafe in Hollywood to toast the actor and the release of his latest film, Thief, which was already looking like a hit. But somehow Caan, squished up against the wall, his back to the crowd, lighting one Marlboro after another, jerking his head from side to side, smiling awkwardly at well-wishers, didn’t appear to be having too much fun.

Finally dragged to the center of the room, he smiled and waved for the photographers and then stared down at his cake. He seemed to be in existential pain, and at that moment, he resembled no one so much as Axel, the character he played in The Gambler.

“Don’t forget to make a wish, Jimmy.

“Smile, Jimmy.

“This is the stupidest tradition,” Caan muttered. “All these people spitting over the cake. …”

“You’re only as old as you feel, Jimmy.”

“Smile, Jimmy.”

“Ready, Jimmy.”

“Everybody ready?”

And sure enough, everyone looked up, smiled into the flash, then lowered their heads and spit all over Caan’s birthday cake.

James Caan will tell you he’s had a lot of problems, too many for a man who enjoys so much success. He’ll tell you that even his success is a problem, an im­age problem that started with The Godfather. Indeed, Caan’s brilliant portrayal of Sonny Corleone is so firmly etched in our minds, it’s easy to believe that Jimmy is Sonny — a volatile guy, macho and crude, the type who would take on a whole bar by himself, who needs at least ten women a night. (“They want me to play Sonny for the rest of my life,” Caan quips.)

The stories you’ve heard only reinforce the image: that he grew up fast on the streets of New York, that he loves all kinds of sports, especially contact sports, that he has an affinity for cowboys and the rodeo and that his idea of a quiet evening is an orgy at the Playboy Mansion. Then, last year, there were those pictures of Caan’s ex-wife, Sheila Ryan, all bruised and battered, on the front page of the National Enquirer, and the story that he had inflicted the beating. And now, in Thief, Caan portrays a high-line crook with the same explosive violence he brought to Sonny — only more so. Caan’s Frank makes Caan’s Sonny look like a boy scout.

But hobbling down the stairs of his Bel Air home in jeans and cowboy boots, still stiff from the previous night’s rodeo in Phoenix, James Caan doesn’t seem like, well, James Caan. His coarse brown hair is flecked with gray and his forehead is deeply lined. But his cheeks are smooth and his blue-green eyes sparkle with life. He looks more like a shortstop than a guy who played football for Michigan State. He seems relaxed, with none of the angst radiated at his party, as he eases himself into a deep leather chair and begins to discuss his life, his son, his parents and how anxious he is for Thief to do well. Also missing is all that macho stuff audiences have come to expect.

While Caan is talking, Sheila Ryan bounces into the room and announces that she is going home but will be back later to pick up Scott, their four-year-old son. Caan nods and watches as she walks to the door. “Why,” he suddenly demands, pointing at her pink T-shirt, “do you have to walk around with your little boobs hanging out for the whole world to see? It’s disgusting.” Ryan smiles, waves and is out the door.

“It’s just a simple statement,” snaps Caan defensively. “I happen not to like it. I say it, and I am immediately labeled macho. That’s my image: big macho slob pig who treats women badly. I gotta listen to Gloria Steinem talk about macho. I don’t even know what macho is. I only have to be concerned with how I treat a woman and how she treats me. I say I believe that if a woman is going to be a mother, she should act like a mother, and it is immediately misconstrued that I think all women belong in the kitchen. I have no problems with a woman who wants a career. I just don’t think I could be in love with a woman who boxes for a living.”

There is no stopping Caan now. He is up and pacing. “I am a ro­mantic. I have to believe in bells going off, in falling in love. Other­wise, I don’t want to live.” He throws up his arms in frustration, getting angry. “If macho means I wear the pants, then I’m macho. If macho means I’m going to drive the car, then I’m macho. And if you’re my girl and someone’s smart to you, I’ll slap him in the mouth. That’s me.” Caan calms down a bit. “There’s just something kind of nice about a woman taking care of her man.” He looks up, catches himself, rolls his eyes. “There I go, I’m in trouble again. …”

“I’m going to tell you the truth,” says Caan’s sister, Barbara, who runs his production company and lives close by, “no matter how angry macho over there gets [indicating the direction of Caan’s house]. These stories about being poor, and Jimmy growing up in the streets, are just not true. He did get into a lot of fights, but when I read about all the poverty he had to struggle against. …” Barbara giggles. “He’ll hate me for this. But we were brought up in a lower-mid­dle-class neighborhood and lived in a modest apartment. My father was not rich, but he was devoted to his children [they have a younger brother, Ronnie], and he was an education freak.”

Caan did go to college, first at Michigan State University and then at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. After about a year, he decided the aca­demic approach was not for him. He went home to Sunnyside, Queens, and announced that he wanted to become an actor.

“Are you nuts?” Arthur Caan recalls asking his son. “Come home and tell me you want to be a butcher, a baker, a bricklayer, any­thing, but don’t tell me you want to be an actor.” A deal was struck: Jimmy would apply to the pres­tigious Neighborhood Playhouse in Manhattan; if he got in, fine, if not, he promised he would go back to college. “What can I tell you,” his father says, “they took him.”

After a year at the Playhouse, Caan studied with private acting coach Wynn Handman for two more years before he felt ready to audition. It was for a part in an off-Broadway revival of Arthur Schnitaler’s La Ronde, and he got it. Caan remembers those early years in New York as tough and rowdy and fun. He says that to support himself, he hustled pool and gambled. “I never knew how I was going to pay the bookmaker, but it always worked out.”

In 1964, he made his first film, Lady in a Cage, playing a vicious thug who torments Olivia de Havilland. Caan hasn’t stopped acting since. Along the way, he got in his licks, worked with some of the best people in the business and developed a reputation as his own man, and an outspoken one as well. Caan remembers working with John Wayne in El Dorado. “Why’d ya do it, Luke?” Caan asks, imitat­ing Wayne. He laughs. “I was twenty-seven, and this was the Duke. You had to prove yourself with the Duke and then it was okay. He taught me to play chess, and the son of a bitch always cheat­ed.”

In 1967, he made Countdown with Robert Duvall, who remains one of Caan’s closest friends. He taught me a good lesson,” says Caan. “You can’t be good in a bad movie and you can’t be good in a bad scene. Many actors want you to look bad so they can look good. They are usually the ones who have the least to offer.”

Caan received his first real no­tices for Francis Coppola’s The Rain People, and his big break­through came, of course, in The Godfather. “Brando is my idol and the nicest guy in the world. One night, we were having dinner in New York, and he asked me [Caan does a perfect Brando], ‘Jimmy, if you could have anything in the world, what would you want?’ and I said, ‘To be in love,’ and Brando said, ‘Yeah, me too.’

“I had a ball making The God­father because the character was this real ball-breaker. And Francis is one of the greatest directors. I would work with him in a second. But he thinks he’s God. He wanted to cast me in Apocalypse Now,” explains Caan, but they couldn’t agree on a fee. “He said, ‘All you guys are interested in is money.’ I said, ‘Well, shit, Francis, you made a lot of money, why shouldn’t we?’ Francis said, ‘I do good things with my money.’ And I said, ‘I do good things with my money, too; I eat in good restaurants, drive good cars.’”

In 1972, The Godfather came out, and Caan was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. He also earned an Emmy nomination for the television movie Brian’s Song. Caan never looked back. Soon came Slither, Cinderella Liberty, Rabbit, Run, Freebie and the Bean, The Gambler, Funny Lady, Rollerball, The Killer Elite and Comes a Horseman. Over the years, he developed some defi­nite ideas about what it takes to make good movies. “There are these little things you do,” he says. “If a guy’s been in the navy for twelve years, he walks a certain way [gets up and demonstrates]. I was mad at the director of Cinderella Liberty, Mark Rydell, who was a friend of mine at the time. He wanted that line at the end, ‘I hear they got some big shrimp in New Orleans.’ I said to him, ‘I have just spent two hours creating a character who has no quit in him, who only sees the good, and if the audience doesn’t know he’s going down to New Or­leans, then I have done a terrible job.’ He said, ‘Just say it, we won’t use it.’ Well,” adds Caan, disgust­edly, “it’s the loudest goddamned line in the movie. It really pissed me off, plus it’s bad drama.”

Caan has little to say about Norman Jewison, who directed him in Rollerball. “Jewison’s a guy who said he left this country be­cause he didn’t want his kids to grow up in a materialistic society, and so he goes to England, buys a Jaguar and sends his kids to the best schools in Switzerland.” And Caan has even less to say about Alan J. Pakula. “The guy cannot direct traffic. Making Comes a Horseman felt like I was doing time. I can’t work with someone just because he’s a creative genius. I have to like him personally. I wouldn’t work for Antonioni on a bet. I hear he doesn’t want anyone too good in his goddamned films because he wants to show everyone just how well he can direct.”

By 1977, Caan, frustrated and unhappy, decided to take the reins and direct himself in Hide in Plain Sight. Those who know him well say it almost broke his spirit. It certainly still makes him angry.

“I wanted it to be honest,” says Caan, his body visibly shaking, “but Dick Shepherd [then an exec­utive at MGM, the studio bankrolling the film] and Andy Albeck [then head of United Art­ists, the studio distributing the film] had other ideas. We would send back dailies, and this guy Shepherd would say, ‘How come you didn’t cover it this way or that way?’ He’d say, `Zeffirelli shoots a scene fifty different ways and knows he’s only going to use two.’ I said, ‘What the hell are you talking about? It’s a waste of time and money.’”

Caan’s face gets red and his voice trembles. “UA didn’t believe in the picture and put its money on The Champ, which Shepherd told me he considered a perfect film. Then the reviews for Hide in Plain Sight came out, all terrific, but it was too late.” Caan shrugs. “It was just an honest, little picture, and maybe some people would have appreciated it for just that. There were no tricks, no gimmicks, just a little slice of life.”

The critics picked up on that and so did a lot of people in the industry. Dustin Hoffman sent him a note. It meant a lot. “You can fight and argue and scream,” sighs Caan, “but when it comes right down to it, it’s their money and there’s nothing you can do.

“See,” he says, “it’s not the quality of the work that counts, it’s the money.”

After Hide in Plain Sight, Caan went immediately into Neil Simon’s Chapter Two with Marsha Mason. His disillusionment with the film business and those who run it intensified. “I trust people, and then I get hurt. Like with Neil Simon and producer Ray Stark. I heard that they told people it was Marsha’s picture. They made an ass out of me. The one thing that gets me most is having my in­telligence underestimated. That’s when I want to choke somebody.”

After Chapter Two came Thief. Things just had to improve.

Caan’s performance in Thief is arguably his best since The Godfather. And it was his toughest. “I started the film at 175 pounds and dropped to 150. We worked eighteen-hour days. This director, Michael Mann, it was his first picture, and this guy is bright, crazy but bright. He made me go to this shooting school. We had fights. I said, ‘Michael, what the hell am I going to this stupid school for, hanging out with this Nazi?’ But I was wrong. I got so into the character, I could see peo­ple backing away from me. I was like a maniac. And I had to work very hard to make Frank human, because the guy is really a prick, a killer.

“I knew these guys,” says Caan of the retired thieves he hung out with to prepare for the role. “How they did it, why, how they behaved, how they looked. Frank is a pe­culiar character. He has a passion about not being owned. I chose this way of speaking, very, very slowly.” Caan speaks a line from Thief very, very slowly. “‘I … am … a … true … blue … kind … of … guy.’ When you are in a hurry, you don’t want to have to repeat yourself. You want to make sure you are understood.” Caan speaks very, very slowly. “I … am … the … last … guy … you … want … to … fuck … with.”

“James Caan is an artist,” says Mann. “I don’t care about the image or whatever he puts out there — hanging out at Hefner’s, the rodeo. This man, inside, is an artist, and he sees himself as an art­ist.”

Caan may see himself as an artist, but everyone elsestill seems to see Sonny. Crazy, violent Sonny. So when the Na­tional Enquirer said Caan beat his wife, well, people thought it was true.

He takes a deep breath. “It is impossible to tell you the whole story without getting into a whole lot of smut, without degrading my ex-wife, who doesn’t deserve it, without hurting my child.

“If I were to say to you that someone threw a phone at me … I put up my hands … an accidental slap … a backhand. …” Caan’s voice falters. “I just can’t. … But believe me, I never beat a woman in my life. I never, never could. The picture was a total fabrication. My ex-wife wrote a letter to the Enquirer saying so.

Both Ryan and Barbara Caan back him up on this. “Yes, he shoved her,” says Barbara. “There is no doubt about that. And yes, there was a bruise, but nothing else.”

And is there any truth to the stories about him and the Playboy Mansion? “Now here’s the thing about the Playboy Mansion,” says Caan, lifting himself slowly from his seat. “I spend a lot of time there during the day, playing tennis. I go there at night once in a while, but I have never seen an orgy there, let alone been in one.

“People’s opinions are formed by what they read, and it’s all nega­tive. That garbage Enquirer wrote about the time I was driving my motorcycle and some truck driver said something to me and I got off my motorcycle and beat the shit out of him. I don’t have a motor­cycle. It never happened. Then I read somewhere else that I had a $4,000-a-day drug habit. And just last week, a girl told me she was afraid to have a drink with me because her roommate’s best friend, Linda, told her about the things I had done to her in Palm Springs. Well,” Caan adds, angrily, “I don’t know any Linda, and I haven’t been to Palm Springs in two years. Where do these things come from?”

Finally, one of the sorest and certainly the saddest factor in his life as he sees it: Tara, his teenage daughter from his marriage to Dee Jay Mattis, whom he divorced in 1966. “My daughter doesn’t know I exist,” he says bitterly. “I built a room onto the house and was sup­posed to have her every other weekend. I had her once in ten years. My daughter thinks I de­serted her.” Caan pauses. “I just send the check every month. This will never happen with my son. I don’t really care about much else. I would kill.”

Caan’s house is modest by movie-star standards, comfortably decorated with lots of leather, brick and west­ern art mixed in with Tiffany lamps and French furniture. The upstairs is his private turf; and the view from his bedroom is breathtaking, or at least it should be. It looks out onto a swimming pool and a hill­side of trees and flowers, except that the hillside slid down into the pool during a ferocious rainstorm and the yard looks like a construc­tion site.

Back in the living room, Caan admires his bronze sculpture, Bronco Buster, by Frederic Re­mington. The predominance of fine western art and Navaho rugs underlines the fact that Caan went cowboy some time ago. It was back in 1968, when he was making The Rain People, that he got invited to his first branding. “It was so ro­mantic,” he recalls. “It was out of the 1800s. It was done exactly the same way. I had no idea how to do it, but I am a good mimic, and I just went out there and took to it.”

What he took to was team rop­ing, one of the oldest and certainly the most authentic of rodeo events on the circuit. It’s against the clock, two cowboys on a steer. One, the “header,” goes after the head, and the other, the “heeler,” has to rope the hind legs. Caan is a heeler.

“I have this thing about not wanting to stick out,” he says. “It’s nice to belong. When you are a star, you are alone. I don’t feel alone out there. I pay my money, we argue, we spit, we compete. The steers aren’t going to pick up their legs a little higher for me.”

Like a lot of things in Caan’s life these days, the appeal and romance of the rodeo have begun to wane. He says it’s because he’s begun to stick out.

“We all played cowboys and In­dians when we were little,” Caan says. “To be a cowboy was a dream, especially if you were an Eastern kid. I think that’s why I became an actor. I just lived out my fantasies a bit further than the guy next door.”

We leave Bronco Buster, and Caan settles back in his chair in the living room. “Look,” he says, “all I know is that there is a void. I have this need. I know that I hope some­day, when everything is right. … The last years have been hard. I just don’t know. I have so much to be happy about. I enjoy making people laugh, and I used to feel I was fun to be around, but now, well, it’s just not right. I feel like I’m almost being self-destructive. I don’t sleep. I find some excuse to be up until three just bullshitting. I hate myself. And I don’t think it’s the work, really. I don’t look to my work for happiness. I look to it for respect and satisfaction, but this business is such a whorish one. This week I’m on top, next week I’m on the left-hand corner of The Hollywood Squares. But I will never put a bullet in my head over this. I can guarantee you that.”

Suddenly, Caan falls back into the Frank character in Thief. “Hey,” he says, his vowels wide, his consonants hard at the end, “I don’t need Hollywood. Man, I can break into any safe in the country.” And James Caan breaks into a wide grin. And you believe.

In This Article: James Caan, The Godfather


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