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James Caan: The reformed character actor

He was the fieriest star in Seventies Hollywood. Then the roles dried up as the drugs took hold. Now James Caan is back. But whatever happened to the cinema he loved? Features Update, 19/10/00, 11:56

He was the fieriest star in Seventies Hollywood. Then the roles dried up as the drugs took hold. Now James Caan is back. But whatever happened to the cinema he loved?

"Caan in drug clinic." "Caan accused of beating model." "Caan quizzed over death plunge." "Caan stands bail in Mafia case." "Caan struggles for cash." Trawl through James Caan's cuttings from the last 10 years and these are the headlines that leap out alongside the assorted stories about cocaine addiction and his friendship with Hollywood madam, Heidi Fleiss.

The 60-year-old Bronx-born actor always seems to be caught in the eye of some storm or other. The turbulence extends to his best-known movie characters. Either he's being pounded by mastodon-like lunks on roller skates ( Rollerball), in thrall to loan sharks ( The Gambler), being shot to pieces at a toll booth ( The Godfather), or having Kathy Bates attend to his leg with a saw ( Misery).

Given the battering that he has received on and off camera, Caan is remarkably well-preserved. "You look great," a photographer tells him with a hint of surprise in her voice. "Oh, it's all make-up," He speaks in a wise-cracking New York drawl. "You know the old saying, absence makes the heart grow fonder. Bullshit! It makes them think you're dead," he roars when invited to contemplate the long lull in his career in the mid-Eighties while he recovered from drug addiction. "I've been working a lot lately, but it took a while."

He reacts with cheerful stoicism to the inevitable questions about Sonny Corleone. It's not just journalists who are obsessed by a part he played almost 30 years ago. Hollywood casting agents are just as bad. "If it was up to them, I'd be playing Sonny Corleone my entire life," he sighs. "Usually, if there weren't eight people dead by page 11, they wouldn't send me the script. People say, 'Gee, you do a lot of mafia movies.' I think I've done two, out of 60."

For Caan, The Godfather represents a lost golden age. Back in the halcyon Seventies, before effects-driven movies and sci-fi spectaculars clouded the scene, actors were allowed to be actors. Studio bosses cared about making movies. It's a familiar thesis, rehearsed at great length in Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, but Caan is talking from first-hand experience. He sounds a little Rip Van Winkle. The way he describes it, he went to sleep – or took a sabbatical – for a few years ("I quit, coached kids baseball, basketball and soccer," he mumbles) and by the time he woke up, Hollywood had changed for the worse.

"Most of the guys who are heads of studios now don't know nothing about making movies. All they know is that if you get Adam Sandler or Jim Carrey to make the film, you're guaranteed to make $150m." There is one executive he respects, however, and that is Miramax's Harvey Weinstein. "The guy makes films. That's his business. He doesn't go to board meetings and talk about how many asses were on seats and what to tell the shareholders."

Caan concedes that he and his fellow method-meisters used to take themselves ridiculously seriously. They despised anybody who hadn't trained at either the Actor's Studio or the Neighborhood Playhouse. "The truth is... myself, De Niro, Pacino, Hoffman – we were arrogant, pompous asses," he exclaims. The intensity with which which he approached roles puts even De Niro to shame. When he was researching his part as the master-robber in Michael Mann's Thief, he hung out with real-life crooks and took lessons from them in blowing safes. In the run-up to Rollerball, he got himself in shape by roping steers at rodeos, sustaining numerous injuries in the process.

It's a measure of the young Caan's confidence that when he was on set on Howard Hawks' El Dorado (1967), he once lost his temper with his co-star John Wayne (who had been cheating at chess) and tried to hit him. Robert Mitchum intervened. "He [Wayne] was like a 12-year-old kid," Caan told Hawks's biographer, Todd McCarthy. "He took a liking to me but I lost it one day and almost took a whack at him."

Caan does a wicked impression of Wayne at his most monotone. "Who'd listen to that now?" he asks. "I love Gary Cooper and John Wayne, but that was the star system. You made [those actors] stars and people went to see them... they were selling personalities."

He speaks nostalgically but with mild bewilderment about the working method of old-timers such as Hawks. "They'd show the audience and then they'd tell the audience, and then they'd show the audience. You'd almost hear the next line coming before it came. You just can't do that today. I guess our tastes have evolved and the things we expect from movies."

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His real contempt is reserved for directors who hire "perfect mediocrities" to star in their movies so that the acting doesn't distract from the visuals or the lighting. Antonioni's Zabriskie Point is a particular bugbear. "It was the worst fucking – and I have to curse because there is no other way that I can express myself – picture that I ever saw," he rants. "I got so angry about it. I was in love with a girl. We went to the movie and it ended the whole affair. He [Antonioni] hired cardboard, the worst actors, and it was a conscious effort – that's what pissed me off."

Ask him about Stanley Kubrick and he is more circumspect. " The Killing, that was a great movie, a great actors' movie. And Paths of Glory..." his voice tails off. "But what was his last film? I didn't want to see that. I didn't want to have a bad memory – because he was great."

He mutters darkly about other, more recent big-budget Hollywood pictures in which the actors "absolutely stink", and which end up looking like glossy travelogues. "All those pictures, those big extravaganzas – you can't remember any characters. Either they had an animal head on them or walked funny..." He won't mention the directors' names, "because, if they want me to work, I'll go 'sure'. Basically, I'm a whore."

From being one of the most fiery leading men of the Seventies ("the toughest man in films", as he was characterised), Caan has reinvented himself as a character actor. He is still often cast as mobsters going-to-seed. His roles in films such as Honeymoon In Vegas and Mickey Blue Eyes skirt close to self-parody. At least his two most recent movies hark back to the actor-driven style of film-making that he remembers so fondly from the Seventies.

In The Way of the Gun, directed by Chris McQuarrie (writer of The Usual Suspects), he again plays a tough guy/mob enforcer. "I'm actually the hero in a weird way. I'm the least of the bad guys. I'm the only guy that came out unscathed."

In James Gray's The Yards, shot in New York's Sunnyside Yards (across the street from where he grew up), he is the dapper but sinister and emotionally repressed Uncle Frank, a would-be godfather figure who runs a corrupt subway company. "He's not equipped to be the godfather. He's not even equipped to be a father. I think this guy is morally crippled," Caan sums up the character in a nutshell. Caan likens the director James Gray to a young Coppola. This spurs him on to a short aside about the man who directed him in The Godfather and Gardens of Stone. He regards Coppola as the once and future king. "I had great faith in Francis, he knew actors and he was a great writer... Francis has it – hopefully he will wake up, he's a brilliant man, hopefully he'll get it back."

Toward the end of the interview, as if to establish his credentials as a family man, Caan plucks out photographs of his two young babies. He's on to his fourth marriage. He has had one child with each of his three previous wives. "But I'm maturing, because I had two with my wife right now," he adds.

Which of his movies does he look back on with the most fondness? "It was a little porno I shot in my house," he jokes. "But, no, I have a few that I like." He ticks them off one by one: Cinderella Liberty, The Gambler, The Godfather. Perhaps surprisingly, his collaboration with Barbra Streisand gets a mention too. "I loved Funny Lady for whatever reason. People say they didn't know I could sing and dance. Well, nobody ever asks me – it's always punch this guy."

'The Yards' (15) is out on 10 Nov and 'The Way of the Gun' (18) is out on 17 Nov in the UK.

By GEOFFREY MACNAB London Independent

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