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Passions run deep for James Caan

`Hey, these are new carrots," James Caan said, grabbing one and chewing on it. "Not the old carrots we had before. You stick them in that stuff, though, you undo all of the good." He looked sternly at a bowl of sour cream dip. He had a bandage around the arm he was using to eat the carrots, and I asked him what had happened, and he said nothing, stupid football thing, not worth talking about. So I made a note of that. There is hardly anything that James Caan thinks is not worth talking about.

This is the most wound-up guy in the movies. It is impossible for him to sit in a chair and put both of his feet on the floor. He's around 50 years old, and he's still like a high school jock, unfamiliar with the conventional uses of a chair. He uses the armrests for his legs. He's grabbing for more carrots. This is the man who played Sonny Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather." Now he's playing a cop in a formula Creature Feature named "Alien Nation."

He says the last guy who interviewed him, he could just tell the guy was gunning for him, collecting ammunition to shoot him down. "It's gonna be a hatchet job," he says. "I don't care." He cares.

He didn't make any movies from 1982 to 1986. There was a long stretch where he put his career on the shelf because he wanted to coach Little League baseball. His comeback after that long abyss was "Gardens of Stone" (1987), a chance to work again with Coppola. Then Coppola's son was killed in a tragic accident, and the film turned to ashes in the hands of everyone working on it.

When the film was released, Caan got good personal notices - it was some of the finest acting he'd ever done - but what was the story about? Where was the focus? Now here is "Alien Nation" (opening Friday at Chicago area theaters), a standard story about two cops who are partners, and the gimmick is that Caan's partner is a member of a race of aliens who have settled on Earth. This is not the high point of his career.

Where did you go? I asked him. You made "Thief" in 1981 and then you disappeared. You were a big star in the middle of your career. What happened?

"Sometimes," he said, "it takes tragedies in your life to make you realize certain things. I lost my sister to leukemia. She was my best friend. I had a health problem at one time. My dad was real sick. It was awful. I got into drugs a little bit, but for me, a little bit is too much. For someone else, it's nothing, but for me, a beer is too much. I hear stories about myself, and I think, if I had done half of these things they say I did, I would have had a ball. When all of that bad stuff happened, I realized the most important word is passion. I don't care if it's eating, playing tennis, making love. You have to care. And how could I care about the nature of movies at that time - all those pictures with kids in them, that I couldn't force myself to do. So I said, whatever integrity I got left, I'm going out with it."

Caan was leaning forward now, remembering, his eyes squinting, his brow furrowed from the pain.

"I had enough money, I thought, and I was coaching kids full time. Soccer, Little League, football, basketball. I had one week off in five years. I won the Mother of the Year Award 10 times. Working with kids, I didn't have to wait six months for them to cut it and edit it and put music to it. As a coach, right in front of my eyes, this creative thing was happening. I was enjoying it, and I figured if a movie came along that I really felt passionate about, I would do it. And then, quite honestly, I woke up one morning and found I had lost all my money, and I was busted, just like that - overnight."

One of those business manager deals? I asked.

"Something like that. And so I was looking for work. And you know how they say absence makes the heart grow fonder? Baloney. It makes them think you've passed on. I'll never forget what Gene Washington said, the receiver for San Francisco. He said, Jimmy, they can s- - - on your head, but you don't gotta lick your lips. And that's what they were doing on my head, I'll tell you that, man."

I was nodding in sympathy, and thinking to myself, this is pain here. This man hurts. He has always been an outgoing, physical, high-energy actor; he started in Hollywood playing the kid in some of the last movies Howard Hawks made; he grew up; he got good roles; he was described as one of the best actors of his generation, and something happened. Something bad. And now he's trying to say he is mending.

"The greatest luxury about success in this business is that you can pick and choose," he was saying. "They can make the worst picture you ever saw, with a young kid and an older actor who's a star, and if the movie grosses $5 million in the first week, then these great geniuses never think about the older actor, but they think that any picture this kid does will make $5 million in the first week. It's nuts. They're nuts. They're absolutely crazy. They think this kid has an audience. What are they talking about? The people out there aren't stupid. They go to a movie because they like it. Not for the star. They used to go see a `John Wayne movie.' Now they don't go to see anybody anymore. But the studios get a hit, they think it's the kid: Give him the phone book. If he agrees to read it, we've got a big hit."

And I was thinking, Caan used to be the kid. In Howard Hawks' "El Dorado" (1967), he took shooting lessons from John Wayne. He was in Coppola's underrated "The Rain People" (1969), still as a kid, a little crazy, and then in 1971, he starred in "Brian's Song," the first really successful made-for-TV movie, and in 1972 came "The Godfather." Those are still the two roles he's best remembered for, although he was as good, or better, in "The Gambler" (1974), and he was brilliant in "Thief," Michael Mann's first film as a director, where he played a professional housebreaker who was "raised by the state" and was still looking for his father.

I asked him about making "El Dorado," with Mitchum and Wayne and Hawks, and he grinned. "If Hawks was indicative of what the old guys were like, the John Fords and those guys, it must have been something, because he did what he wanted. Here's old John Wayne and Mitchum calling him `Coach.' He was 72, he'd go into his trailer, me and Wayne would be playing chess, Wayne would be cheating, you'd never see Howard all day long, maybe he'd be writing an eighth of a page of dialogue, and then he'd come out and we'd shoot. And then it was dinner time. We ate. I don't mean the stars or the co-stars, I mean everybody ate. We had this tent erected, and every table had white linen on it, every table had a fruit bowl, nuts, crystal - I'm not kidding. Shrimp, lobster, steak."

That, Caan said, was the era of the Angry Young New York Actors. Caan was young, from New York, and an actor. "If there's any one thing I could attribute my success to, it's that I said `no.' You'd go to an audition and they were always very cordial and nice and `How do you do, sir?' And if I didn't like the job, I'd turn it down," he said. "And then when you walked out, they'd say, `Who the hell does that punk think he is? He'll work for me! I'll - - - damn show him! He can't say no to me!' "

You were angry in those days?

"I was just New York, is all."

And then the 1970s unfolded, and Caan became one of the top actors in Hollywood, a star, working steadily, until the day came when he simply disappeared. I asked him again about that gulf, and again he was vague: "I retired. I quit, or whatever. And then when the pictures started looking like they were getting better, I felt I needed to start working again. I needed the money. I wanted to do something that, hopefully, would be commercial. 'Alien Nation' seemed to be a good vehicle."

And so you picked it as your next film.

"I'm not picking that much." He laughed. "I'm praying. Picking and praying are two different things."

But you got great some reviews for your work in "Gardens of Stone," I said.

"Well, you know," he said, and sighed, and was silent for a moment. "I'll bet Francis doesn't know what the hell he made, or why."

That's probably true. Coppola was distraught with grief after the death of his son, and he was in the midst of making a movie in which Caan plays a father figure to another young man who dies. Some of the key scenes were shot in a cemetery, art cruelly imitating life.

"The movie just became disjointed, disconnected," Caan said. "There's really no plot if you analyze that movie. You could make a plot. You could follow the Washington Post, the kid, me. You could go in a lot of directions. Coppola kept working and working, and one day I said to these executives, `You guys gotta stop him.' They said, no, Francis wants to work. His mental drive is there, working is the only way to deal with his grief. I said, what happens when his physical drive doesn't match his mental drive? He's gonna go. And sure enough, one day, boom, he collapses. He still didn't want to go home. The more he stayed on the job, the less he had to go into his bedroom and think."

So then "Gardens of Stone" was released, and got some good reviews, and disappeared, and Caan went looking for work again and landed "Alien Nation." The film was produced by Gale Anne Hurd, who produced the brilliant "Aliens," but if you take away some of the production values, "Alien Nation" could be a potboiler from some 1950s Grade B production line.

The story stars Caan as a Los Angeles cop in 1991, a few years after a shipwrecked alien space vessel has landed with 100,000 genetically engineered slaves on board. They're smart, they're strong, they learn fast and they get full protection under the Civil Rights Act. Before long, they're California's most successful minority group, but Caan doesn't like it when he gets one as a partner. His new sidekick is played by Mandy Patinkin, in makeup that turns his head into a large bald dome with scattered tufts of hair. Terence Stamp co-stars as an evil alien who wants to get rich by selling his fellow space travelers a drug they quickly become addicted to, and the plot tells how Caan and Patinkin chase the bad guy while learning to trust and respect each other. You have seen this picture before.

"I looked at the script," Caan said. "I didn't know all of the ingredients. I liked Mandy. The director I didn't know. To say the word alien took me about two weeks. I couldn't say that word out loud to anybody. They'd ask me what the picture was about, and I'd say, it's about two hours. It's not 'Star Wars.' There was a great "'The French Connection' kind of story there, but I think they messed it up, because it was too easy to figure out. You see Terence Stamp there, you know he's the bad guy, because why else is he in the picture? He's not hamburger. They didn't bring this guy over for laughs. So why else is he there, except he's the bad guy, and then we find it out?

"Meanwhile, I read the script, and it says my character is a racist. He hates blacks, Jews, Italians, even whatever he was, he hated. So I work myself up into playing a racist, and the first day on the set, they tell me my first partner - the one who gets shot in the opening scene - is a black guy. So what's this? We didn't talk about this. I'm a racist who hates the potato heads from outer space, but I'm not a racist before that, because I love the black guy. So at that point, I gave up trying to figure things out, and became an actor trying to get through a movie. When it came right down to it, it could have been a good buddy picture. I felt that way with Mandy. We did some nice work together."

And was it distracting, playing scenes with potato heads?

"You just forget the makeup and play the scene. It's the same with any makeup, Shakespeare, potato heads. You accept it and forget it. I could never understand why people make such a big thing out of pictures. It's not with humility that I say that I do less for the populace than the guy who collects the garbage.

"What Mandy did, putting on that makeup four hours a day, he's a saint as far as I'm concerned. I'd have eight homicides on my record by the second day already. But, wearing the makeup, at least he's talking to people., He's talking to me. But me, I'm talking to a potato head. Mandy, he's a wonderful guy, but he's so serious. He's hyperventilating. He has six versions of every scene, and all six are covered with his notes to himself. I'd say, `Mandy, what's the matter?' He'd say, `This is so important to me. I gotta get it just right.' I'd say, `You don't understand. It's not important to another living human being in the whole world. He has an abundance of talent, but whatever that perfectionist thing is inside of him, it's just not allowing it to come out."

What makes a great actor?

Caan thought about that one. He shifted around in his chair, and sighed, and looked at the ceiling, and said something about how the words are secondary and the actor's behavior is what really counts.

"How do actors study answers to questions they haven't heard anybody ask?" he said, at last. "What am I gonna do? Figure out nine ways to answer the question, in case you got nine ways to ask it? I study the script 10 minutes before the take. I try to be available to what's gonna happen in the moment. I don't care what they say about Brando, he was the king of availability. In 'The Godfather,' they put that cat in his lap 10 minutes before the scene was set to be shot. Francis just suddenly got this idea to have a cat. They laid it on Brando's lap, and all of a sudden he had a prop to play with, and he got lost in it. He acted like the cat was there for 100 years. He never even made a reference to it, until he got up, and had to brush the hairs off. That's great acting."

Caan was silent for a moment. Then he reached for another carrot stick. The bandage on his arm stuck out again. Football injury.

"My college coach (at Michigan State) was Duffy Daugherty," he said. "After I was a movie star, I saw him at the track one day. `There's one of my dummies,' he says. I say, `Hi, Coach, how ya doin'?' He says, `Ya know something? I been thinkin' I oughta get 10 percent of your career.' I ask why that is. He says, `Because I'm the one who told ya to stop playing football.' "

Caan laughed, and swung around and slammed his palm on the table, and it looked as if perhaps the five years, the bad time, the whatever it was, had been forgotten for a moment, and maybe the gloom was lifting.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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