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Caan Hopes Latest Gamble Will Pay Off

April 26, 1987|STEVE SPRINGER | Times Staff Writer

They are both returning from exile, one self-imposed, the other state imposed.

One man gave up a world-famous career to devote the past 4 1/2 years to raising his son. The other was forced to give up six years of freedom after being sentenced to prison for burglary.

They have decided to return together, this unlikely team of actor James Caan and heavyweight boxer Mike Hunter, ex-con.

They will take their first step in that direction Tuesday when Hunter (6-0-2, one knockout) meets Mike Gans (10-3, seven knockouts) in the eight-round main event at the Country Club in Reseda. Caan will be seated in a chair at ringside, or at least on the edge of that chair, during Hunter's fight in his new capacity as the boxer's manager.

Thirteen years later, the scene remains vivid.

It is from the movie "The Gambler." James Caan, playing a character who is impulsive, obsessive and self-destructive, has just lost more than $44,000 gambling.

With nothing left but $20 in his pocket, he is driving home through an urban area when he sees a young kid shooting baskets on a playground.

The Caan character can't resist.

He parks his car, saunters onto the playground and challenges the kid to a game--for $20.

Caan loses.

There was a lot of James Caan in that character.

Not the obsessive gambler. But certainly the impulsiveness, the disillusionment, the playing out of sports fantasies.

And, some have said, the self-destructiveness.

It was impulsiveness that led Caan, disgusted with a lack of quality scripts and a string of commercially unsuccessful pictures, to walk away from his profession at the age of 42, despite an Academy Award nomination for his role in "The Godfather" and an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo in the television classic, "Brian's Song."

The disillusionment also was caused by an inability to work with a string of directors.

In early 1983, "Kiss Me Goodbye," starring Caan, Sally Field and Jeff Bridges, was released.

Caan took the title literally. He hasn't been back on film since.

In addition to his dissatisfaction with the products he was turning out, there have been other downers in Caan's life during this period. His sister, Barbara, with whom he was very close, died of leukemia five years ago. His father, Arthur, died a year ago of Alzheimer's disease.

For Caan, that left one love in his life--his son Scott, who has just turned 10. Having been divorced from Scott's mother, Sheila, when the child was still an infant, Caan always has stayed extremely close to Scott. Sports was their common denominator.

"I was a full-time coach for Scott's teams," Caan said. "Everything from AYSO to basketball to Little League. I wanted to grow up with the kid. I have to have passion in my life. There's passion in growing up with a kid. It's not like a film. The creativity is there immediately. You don't have to wait six months for them to put music to it."

Sports was a natural path to lead his son down. It always has played a big part in his own life.

That is where the fantasies came in.

Example: Caan's football career consisted of a year on the freshman team at Michigan State. Yet when he accepted the role of Piccolo in 1971, he largely was motivated by a fantasy.

"I thought I'd get a two-year contract out of the Bears," he said. "I really did. I thought once they saw me as a running back, I'd make the team. I'm always having fantasies like that."

Example: With no prior experience, one day Caan decided to join the rodeo circuit more than a decade ago. He became a weekend calf roper and a pretty good one, sometimes beating people who had been riding horses almost before they could walk. At one point, Caan actually fantasized about doing it full time.

Caan also has plunged into swimming, diving, baseball, softball, handball, tennis and even bullfighting and off-shore power boat racing.

And when he's not doing something athletic, he's watching somebody else do it.

"This guy could spend his whole life watching ESPN," said Paul Bloch, his publicist.

Caan has had a lot of time to do that over the past 4 1/2 years. But now, with his money running a little thin, Caan is coming back, re-emerging on two fronts, in a soon-to-be-released movie, director Francis Ford Coppola's "Garden of Stone," and as Hunter's manager.

"I still have to feel passion before I do something," Caan said. "Unfortunately, there was not a lot of great material out there over the past few years.

"But I also turned down some great material. I won't tell you what, but let's just say it was Oscar level material. I'm a genius, aren't I? I turned down pictures like that and I'm making a $1.48 at the time. But I just wasn't loving it then."

He's loving it now. Some critics who have seen sneak previews of "Garden of Stone" already are whispering that Caan's performance could put him back on the list of Oscar contenders.

Caan's primary goal now is to make Hunter a contender.

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