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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

He also keeps working the room. The next break, he schmoozes the visiting family of former soap opera heartthrob Josh Duhamel, who plays his protege at the casino. Their characters have a father-son relationship, and Caan is trying to educate him off camera as well, though the neophyte has a ways to go. He actually tried to stick an egg in Caan's shoe. "It took me 11 seconds to figure out who did it," says Caan, who is making rumblings about using his appearance later that night on TV's "Jimmy Kimmel Live" to tell the world, "He's gay!" which Duhamel ain't, but he's nervous, as if Caan might do it. "Oh, please," Caan says. "You're getting married."

Another actor interjects, "You've had a couple of wives."

"Yeah, four," Caan deadpans. "There's nothing funny about that," but that's their cue to laugh.

Caan says he's had this compulsion "to do a take" for people as long as he can remember, both to ease the pressure of the moment and seize the stage for himself -- he may have been the class clown, as much as the tough kid, at P.S. 150.

Now it's part of elder statesmanship, Jimmy Caan style, along with the Hollywood war stories he passes down to eager ears.

This afternoon, it's a Brando yarn inspired by a scene in which Duhamel swipes his 6-iron. As if to show how a practical joke should be done, Caan stuffs heavy weights inside the golf bag to ding actor James Lesure who, as the casino's head valet, has to cart off the clubs. "Why can't you pick up that bag?" Caan taunts him.

Cast members then gather around as Caan recalls how he and Robert Duvall had to carry Brando up the stairs when Don Corleone was brought home to recover from gunshot wounds. "They go, 'Rolling! Action!' and I go, 'Oooooo.' There's like 500 pounds," Caan says. "Halfway up the stairs, Bobby and I are dying. 'Oooooo.' "

The show's creator, Gary Scott Thompson, prefers the John Wayne stories of the man he calls "sort of the godfather to the cast here."

Thompson saw Caan from the start as his "tough guy with the heart of gold," but never dreamed NBC could get him. Caan tested him when they met, after Thompson said his favorite movie was "El Dorado," the Howard Hawks western in which Caan played a knife-throwing cowboy in a goofy top hat who teams with Wayne and Robert Mitchum. "He goes, 'OK, what's my name?' " and Thompson knew it, "Alan Bourdillion Traherne, but they called you 'Mississippi.' "

Caan rewarded him with his tale of how that "cheatin' " Wayne kept moving chess pieces when they played. "He'd say, 'Jimmy, there's a phone call for you,' and I'd come back and I'd go, 'Wait a minute, hey, Duke, that rook wasn't over there.' 'Whaddaya mean, kid?' "Thompson also risked a lot by doing TV, having come from film himself as writer of the street-racing hit "The Fast and the Furious." It's one thing to be a TV star and fail -- as many have -- at film. To go the other way, to "come from features and you fail in TV...."

Thompson doesn't need to finish the thought.

There's been good news, however, since I'd seen Caan in November: Ratings are strong, especially among 18- to 49-year-olds, establishing "Las Vegas" as the top new drama in that "key demographic." The series has been renewed for 2004-05, a first step toward the run required to open TV's treasure chest -- syndication.

Caan has gotten a promotion on the show also, to head of the casino. "The reality is, Jimmy's 60-whatever years old and he can't be running down the Strip chasing bad guys all day," Thompson says. "Why would you do it when you're that age when you could be sending somebody else?"

Caan himself says of the move to TV: "I suffered over the decision for a while."

He still had movie offers, but too many called for him to spend 10 weeks somewhere like Nova Scotia, and that's hard on his two young sons from his current marriage, which has lasted eight years. "Are you kidding? This is my record," he says, as is having two kids with one wife. "I'm learning," he quips on. But if he's true to what he says -- "I'm a romantic, I really am" -- it's time to make the family thing work, and maybe even patch up relations with his 38-year-old only daughter, from his first marriage, who just had a baby boy -- his first grandchild -- down in Phoenix.

All those mouths is another problem with some film jobs. He played Nicole Kidman's dad in the artsy "Dogville," by Danish auteur Lars Von Trier, but like her didn't sign up for the sequel. "I'm competitive. I want to be known as the greatest actor," Caan says. "[But] it doesn't pay the bills. I've had the honor. Now's the time to have a little money. Film school is over, do you know what I mean?"

So the plan is: He busts his butt to make the TV show work four or five more years, into syndication -- what better retirement plan is there? -- then "I guess my kids could wheel me on my next vacation, you know?"

THE LEARNING CURVE

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