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Straight talk from James Caan

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James Caan says he doesn’t like to curse. He swears it’s true! 

Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz asked the actor, “So, let me ask you a question …”

“You’ve been f****** asking me questions all day long!”

The only four-letter word he really objects to is fame. What James Caan wants is respect.

“What does that do?” asked Mankiewicz.  

“Pumps you up, man! I want a little respect. I play ball, I want a respect, you know? That’s all.”

Actor James Caan with Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz. 

CBS News

Over a 60-year career, Caan has definitely earned it, playing one memorable role after another, and managing not to be typecast – Sonny, Don Corleone’s hothead son in “The Godfather”; a dying football player in “Brian’s Song”; a novelist held captive in “Misery”; and Will Ferrell’s absentee father in “Elf.”

“I fought always never to be the same person,” Caan said. “I mean, the fun of being an actor is being somebody else for three months, you know?”

Caan has played some memorable parts, but spend some time with him, and you get the sense the most interesting character is right in front of you – the New Yorker born in 1940 in Queens. He hails from Sunnyside, “right over the 59th Street Bridge a little ways.”

“What kind of place is this?”

“Well, lemme tell ya’ somethin’: There’s a tree over there, and we used to say, ‘I’ll meet you at the forest, okay?’ That was ‘the forest.'”

School gave Caan an education; the street taught him lessons he’s remembered all his life. “The most important thing is, you learn how to win and you learn how to lose. And you learned who to push and who not to push.”

He pushed a lot of people, including himself, as a 16-year-old freshman football player at Michigan State University. Homesick, and too little for the Big 10, he transferred to Hofstra, less than 40 miles from Queens, where the acting bug struck.

“I went to the Neighborhood Playhouse, and I got accepted there,” he said. “They took me right away; I was supposed to have three interviews, and I only had one.”

At 20, he was landing guest roles on TV dramas – shows like “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.” Then, a big break at 26, playing a cocky sidekick to a couple of men he looked up to, literally – John Wayne and Robert Mitchum – in the 1966 western, “El Dorado.”

“First of all, I had lifts in my goddamn shoes,” Caan said. “I mean, Mitchum is 6’2″, Wayne’s 6’4″, so I have the lifts in my shoes.”

Five years later came “Brian’s Song,” a TV movie with Caan as Brian Piccolo, a terminally-ill football player. Billy Dee Wiliams played Gale Sayers, Piccolo’s best friend. Thirty-six million people tuned in:

Mankiewicz asked, “My guess is that you have been approached by 175 men between the ages of, let’s say 55 and 75, who come up to you and say, ‘I’ve only cried at one movie in my life …'”

“‘Brian’s Song’! Yeah, I cried too!”

“And not a lot of movies in the early ’70s where you got the White character and Black character in a totally equal friendship.”

“It was good, it was very rewarding,” said Caan. “Because hopefully a lotta, you know, kids picked that up, you know?”

In 1972, director Francis Ford Coppola called and made Caan an offer he couldn’t refuse: Playing Sonny, the quick-tempered oldest Corleone son in “The Godfather.”

Caan’s inspiration came from an unlikely source: “I was thinking of my friend, Don Rickles,” he said. “I told everybody, you know, and I started laughin’ like Don Rickles. It wasn’t, like, imitating Don Rickles … It was having that, that drive, that thing, you know? It was like, yeah, I just was locked into that.”

He also did a lot of improvising … like the way Sonny deals with an FBI photographer on the day of his sister’s wedding:

“I grabbed that camera, smashed the camera. And I looked, and in my neighborhood, I realized I did wrong. And I took out 20 and I threw it on the street. I paid for it!”

After “The Godfather,” Caan was in demand, and he earned high praise for “Cinderella Liberty,” “The Gambler,” “Rollerball,” and his favorite, “Thief”:

But by the early 1980s, a decade of stardom had taken its toll. Caan’s behavior was erratic … he was addicted to drugs … and fell into depression after the death of his sister from leukemia.

“I had a bad bout with cocaine for a little while,” he said. “I lost my sister when it happened. And she was like, I don’t know, when I lost her, I couldn’t, I couldn’t handle it, I didn’t know what to do.”

Caan didn’t care much for Hollywood after “Thief.” Over the next six years he made one movie (“Kiss Me Goodbye”), and coached his son Scott’s Little League team. 

When he wanted back in, his friend Rob Reiner threw him a lifeline late in 1989. Reiner was set to direct “Misery” from a Stephen King story, starring Kathy Bates:

“I had some wonderful people, like Rob Reiner and those guys, God bless them. That was big-time winners for me.”

“That movie, that let everybody know, ‘Oh, yeah, wait, James Caan!'” said Mankiewicz.

“I don’t know.”

“You were great!”

“Yeah, with Kathy.”

“Misery” was a big hit for Caan. An underrated comedy, “Honeymoon in Vegas,” came two years later. It proved Caan had a lighter side, which led to “Elf” a decade later with Will Ferrell.

“So, I told Will, he says, ‘You wanna do “Elf”?’ I said, ‘Can’t do it. I’ll do a picture called “Elk,” but I won’t …”

“You said, ‘No,’ just on the title?

“Yeah.”

Thankfully, Ferrell eventually talked him into it.

His son, Scott Caan, talked his dad into a guest role on his hit TV show, “Hawaii Five-0.”

Caan, who’s been married and divorced four times, loves to work – but not as much as he loves his five children.

Mankiewicz asked, “Would you want your other kids to go into the business, too?”

“To do whatever the hell they want, yeah!”  

It’s a creed that’s paid off for Caan … and this tough guy with a tender heart is not ready to say goodbye to Hollywood: “I want to do a good piece of work. I’m frustrated, I’d love to do a real character.”

“So, why do you want to keep working?” asked Mankiewicz. “Like, take it easy? You’re James Caan!”

“I can’t ‘take it easy,'” he replied. “I enjoy working, I love to work with good people. I have more fun when I’m working, and I have a lotta laughs – and I get respect, too, sometimes!”

      
Story produced by Gabriel Falcon. Editor: Joseph Frandino.


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