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CineVegas 2008

I, Caan

Vegas icon winner James Caan looks back on a long and varied career

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James Caan, CineVegas icon.
Tony Macklin

“What is an icon?”

James Caan doesn’t know, and he’s about to become one. Caan is receiving the Vegas Icon Award from CineVegas, and he’s perplexed.

“Maybe I’ll meet me an icon when I’m there,” he laughs.

After 45 years in the business, Caan is still frank, feisty and gregarious. He’s best known for his role as violent, reckless Sonny Corleone in the iconic The Godfather (1972).

He’s not sanguine about his recent television series Las Vegas. Then why did he do it? “Hard times will make a monkey eat red peppers,” he says. It’s a line he likes, because he repeats it later. “You know I had to feed my extended family. I had four wives and five kids.”

Caan’s complete career is a treasure trove which few people know. “Whether I did that thing with Bette Midler [For the Boys, 1991] or Funny Lady [1975] or Kiss Me Goodbye [1982], people would say, ‘Jimmy, we didn’t know you sang and danced.’ I said, ‘Well, nobody ever asked me.’” Caan snorts, “If there weren’t 12 people dead by Page 20, they thought it wasn’t for me.”

Caan excelled at comedy. Slither (1973) and Freebie and the Bean (1974) revealed his elastic funny bone.

Two major literary characters also were in Caan’s repertoire. He portrayed John Updike’s Harry Rabbit Angstrom (Rabbit, Run, 1970) and Raymond Chandler’s private eye Philip Marlowe (TV’s Poodle Springs, 1998). “I did Rabbit, Run instead of M*A*S*H. I made a couple of great career choices in my career,” he laughs ruefully.

There are a group of wonderful Caan movies that have a loyal, almost cultish following. Thief (1981) is the foremost. “[Writer-director] Michael [Mann]—that little Napoleonic workaholic. But I liked it—that film and character. It’s one of my fondest memories.”

Another major offbeat achievement is The Gambler (1974), one of the best gambling movies ever made. “I put this odd smile on at the end, because I knew the real guy.”

Caan was a romantic hero in Cinderella Liberty (1973). “I rather liked him. To me he was like Billy Budd. Just all pure and good.”

In Rollerball (1975), Cann played an action hero. “I did most of the stunts in that. We broke a lot of bones.”

Caan was a cowboy in Howard Hawks’ El Dorado (1966). “Here I am with lifts on between John Wayne and Robert Mitchum,” he chuckles.

Caan played a Vegas hotshot in Honeymoon in Vegas (1992). “It was a lot of fun. Nic [Nicolas Cage] is good at that quirky stuff. I thought he was funny as hell.”

And then there’s Elf (2003). “What’s a little depressing is all these kids going, ‘You’re the guy from Elf!’ That’s what I’m known for after my whole career,” Caan sighs.

What is stunning about Caan’s kaleidoscopic career is the number of major actresses with whom he has made movies—the divine Barbra Streisand, Lauren Bacall twice, Bette Midler, Jane Fonda, Sarah Jessica Parker, Marsha Mason, Kathy Bates, et al. But Caan won’t rate which actress he had the most chemistry with onscreen. That’s iconic wisdom.

Caan has an enduring connection with Las Vegas. “As a matter of fact I started out there in Vegas. I came out here, and of course got a horse—that’s what guys from New York do. When I was in my 20s in the 1960s and started riding, a friend of mine was one of the bosses—a small boss, obviously—at Caesars. I started hanging out at his ranch. I’m a Walter Mitty kind of guy, I guess. He had a big roping arena around the end of Sunset and Pecos. I used to practice—I’d just mimic what I saw. I had no idea what I was doing.

“Steve Wynn used to come around on his little paint horse at the roping area. To this day he still introduces me as ‘the best Jewish cowboy’ he’s ever met.

“I rodeoed professionally for nine years.”

In 1980 Caan directed his only movie, Hide in Plain Sight, which received some very favorable reviews. “My mother just sent a rave notice from Newsweek that she found in her house. She is going to be 94 at the end of June.

“It took a year out of my life,” he says of directing. “I just couldn’t afford to do it again. Those red peppers.”

Caan makes an assessment of his career: “The thing I cherish most as far as my whole career was the respect I felt I got from a lot of these young kids—really good actors. If Brad Pitt says nice things about me, or Johnny Depp, or DiCaprio. And all the kids who hang around my son Scott. It means a lot.”

James Caan is one hell of a fire-breathing actor. He’s eaten his share of red peppers and prevailed.

That’s an icon.

James Caan receives the Vegas Icon Award June 20 at 8 p.m. at the Planet Hollywood pool.

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