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Hey, He's Glad to Be Here, OK?

James Caan is now a Utah family man working in indie films. But he's still as, ahem, forthright as ever.

September 10, 2000|SEAN MITCHELL | Sean Mitchell is a regular contributor to Calendar

PARK CITY, Utah — James Caan still has the curls on his head, just not as many. His shoulders still look like they could have played in the NFL but are in need of spare parts. His eyes can still blaze with outrage, and his tongue is tart as ever, but he seems a gentler man, as if winded from the wars and ready to live in peace.

He still talks football and baseball with a passion but has recently--one gathers, reluctantly--taken up golf. And, oh, yes, he is still making movies, but not for directors with names like Coppola, Pakula and Mann but for Christopher McQuarrie and James Gray. Sonny has gone indie.

Alan J. Pakula is dead, Francis Ford Coppola is tending his vineyard, and Michael Mann only calls with roles Caan doesn't want. "Yeah, he talks a lot," Caan says about Mann. "I'd love to work with him again. We did 'Thief,' and then he forgot me. Then he calls and wanted me to play Mike Wallace in 'The Insider.' I said, 'I'm not [expletive] Rich Little, let somebody else play that.' "

Here in the den of his new log-cabin modern home in the high-country suburbs of Utah, each time Caan lets slip what might be considered a rueful comment about Hollywood and its decline, he is quick to correct himself in the light of the big picture. "The state of the business is not really all that wonderful for guys my age or guys who really care," he says. "But I don't want to sound negative. I've been really fortunate and critics have been good to me."

Twenty years ago, when he directed his first and only film, the low-budget "Hide in Plain Sight," about the witness protection program, some major critics gave him a surprising thumbs up. "And I had two strikes against me because I was Sonny Corleone, the [expletive] moron, doin' a picture," he says. MGM, though, fumbled the release, according to Caan. The memory still hurts enough that he says he would never direct again.

But he doesn't want to sound negative. He turned 60 in March and is grateful for what he has, two young sons with his fourth wife, a new life in the smogless mountain air of Park City and a resuscitated career on view this fall in two movies, "The Yards" from Miramax and "The Way of the Gun" from Artisan. In both films, he has solid roles that reconnect him in earnest to the shadow world of crime in which he was so convincing as a young actor, beginning with Sonny Corleone in "The Godfather" and continuing through "Thief" into the '80s before he burned out. He returned to caricature those same gangsters more recently in films like "Honeymoon in Vegas" and "Mickey Blue Eyes." His 24-year-old son, Scott, who was a top high school baseball player at Beverly Hills High, is now an actor ("Varsity Blues," "Gone in 60 Seconds") and even as we speak is in Texas playing Cole Younger in a film about Jesse James.

Yet life for James Caan is not as easy as it should have been by now. There is the problem of money. He has none. Or not enough. "In truth, I think I enjoy working more now than I have in a long time, but these independent films, you can't get paid. I mean, I have a huge nut. I've got ex-wives, my mom, my kids. I'm just basically hangin' on. I borrowed money from a good friend, which I have never done before, to buy this place."

It's a good house but modest by the standards of movie kingdom Bel-Air from whence he came. In the driveway are a late-model Volvo station wagon, an SUV and a purple 1940 Ford pickup truck. In a hallway, a framed poster for the 1975 film "Rollerball," in which he starred as the champ of an ultra-violent sport set in the future, leans against the wall, waiting to be hung. In the room where we are seated, the wall holds a plaque announcing his Oscar nomination for "The Godfather"--his first and only nomination. On a table are three original Mickey Mantle baseball cards, mounted and laminated, from different years in the 1950s, when Caan was growing up in Queens, N.Y.

Caan points through the window to a yellow barn that marks the end of his property. "I have 4.2 acres, so eventually if I get hired again I'll put some stables out there. It would be a nice riding place for the kids in the neighborhood." As Caan speaks on this afternoon, he is open and offhanded, sometimes wistful, but he is also in pain, from a variety of sports injuries that include the shoulder he ripped apart while trying to move a 300-pound lineman during some special coaching he provided in the use of martial arts techniques at Stanford eight years ago.

"Feel this, they cut my deltoid four times," he says, pulling back his shirt to reveal the surgical damage." Suddenly he is aware of his body. "I've lost a lot of weight up here. . . . For some reason I'm not eating--stress. My arms have shrunk."

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