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James Caan's next act

The 'guy you don't mess with' finds life after Sonny: golf, friends, a hit TV show. And don't forget Mom.

May 16, 2004|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

James Caan tells of two recent dinners, both tales having the same theme: that however much he might want to be a civilized elder statesman, just a regular guy having a meal with the wife, someone seems to provoke him back to the schoolyard culture that formed him. The first dinner was with other parents from his 7-year-old son's school in L.A. The second was a favor to a friend of a friend who wanted him to meet a pair of business associates, young fellows filthy rich from real estate and selling skateboarding gear. Caan was exhausted from a day shooting his TV show, "Las Vegas," but he borrowed a clean shirt, met up with his wife and joined them at Mr. Chow's. If Caan believes in anything, it's being there for his friends.

He also understands why folks might ask him to such gatherings -- "to show me off, the big shot, Sonny Corleone." Sure, he's funny also, and full of stories of acting with Brando and singing with Streisand and of John Wayne, that great American who cheated at chess. But he walks into a bar and, three decades after "The Godfather," some stranger will joke how they'd better "watch out," like they could wind up in cement shoes. Or they'll put on a hothead act to show they're a man's man too. "It's hysterical," Caan says. "Just from Sonny."

So there he was at the school dinner, and a banker warns that another dad "can be a little vulgar," and sure enough the man starts cursing every third word. Though Caan has been known to use the man's favorite epithet, "he certainly doesn't know what my wife's feelings are," the actor says. He leans over and says, in his softest voice, "Do me a favor. Just watch your language." The man plays dumb, "You talking to me?" So Caan goes, "For another about three seconds, and then you're not going to hear a thing."

In the second dinner, at Mr. Chow's, the punch line is more graphic. One of the businessmen keeps using the same word in a discussion of golf, a game Caan has taken up now that he's 64 and a grandpa and a little past prime rodeo and karate days. When someone mentions Riviera Country Club, the fellow rants how it's a great freakin' track, except you gotta fade the freakin' ball, you know? "Now the smoke starts coming out of my ear," Caan says. "Luckily the guy got up to go the bathroom." Their host sees Caan fuming and says, "Oh, he doesn't mean it," so Caan picks up a piece of silverware and lapses again into a whisper. "It's because of my relationship with you," he says, "that I don't take this fork and stick it in his eye."

"I wasn't being the tough guy," Caan insists a couple of weeks later as he tells the tale of those dinners in tame L.A. "If this was New York...."

ROLLING THE DICE

We were speaking in that very city last November, the day before the premiere of "Elf." It was an upbeat time for him, but a tense one, not so much because of that holiday film as the TV series, his first ever, which was barely a month on the air. "Las Vegas" was a gamble, even if the role was not exactly a stretch -- he played a casino security chief who knows how to set cheats straight with, say, a well-placed fork. Caan had gone through a "yes-no, yes-no" debate with himself over whether to do TV and he had no doubt what the story line would be if the NBC series tanked: "that Jimmy couldn't carry this show. Movie actor fell on his ass." But initial ratings were promising and it seemed a good bet the show would survive, as Caan has himself, somehow.

I had last encountered him a decade before, during what he now calls his "self-destructive period." Caan brings up the highlights on his own: the years partying on coke and Quaaludes; the pattern of his four marriages and five children, "pregnant-married, pregnant-married, pregnant-married ...," the years, after the death of his sister from leukemia, when he quit making films to become this "mad coach," teaching baseball and other sports to boys, including his oldest son, Scott, sometimes by throwing fastball after fastball at the kid; then too often finding himself at the wrong place at the wrong time, whether it was the Wilshire Boulevard apartment where a wannabe actor fell from the balcony to his death or the drug neighborhood where Caan pulled a gun on a rapper. "Just destructive, stupid stuff," he says.

I ran into him during that time in Los Angeles at the trial of restaurateur Ronnie Lorenzo, whom law enforcement officials described as a rarity in L.A., a bona fide "made member" of the mob. Caan, in turn, described Lorenzo as "my best friend ... I love 'im," and used his Bel-Air home as security for Lorenzo's bail after an FBI informant got the restaurateur to help out in a cocaine deal. Caan said they'd met when he was filming "Chapter Two" back East, "through a couple of friends. You know, I'm from New York. Some homeboys."

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