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Actor James Caan rides life's rollercoaster

Published Jun. 14, 1996|Updated Sep. 16, 2005

(ran GB edition)

"You don't care if I smoke?" James Caan asks _ although it's clear he's going to smoke no matter what you think. "And don't say, "I don't care if you burn,'

" Caan adds, cracking himself up.

At 57, he's still the tough-guy jokester. Someone offers him coffee, but he waves it away. "Nah _ gets me too jacked up," he says, rattling around his hotel suite in search of an ashtray. "Unless you can snort it." A none-too-oblique reference to the actor's problems with cocaine in the past, perhaps? Caan has never been less than candid. Finally, Caan settles down, ready to chat.

Today, however, one gets the feeling that Caan's energy is coming from within _ a natural high. His topsy-turvy career is in good shape and, with a new wife and 7-month-old baby, it's not too naive to think that the legendary carouser is settling down. Caan, who rose to fame in the '70s as a macho leading man in big-event dramas like The Godfather and Brian's Song, saw his career and personal life implode in the '80s. But the '90s have seen a comeback for the tough New York actor. Critical and commercial success in the films Misery, Flesh and Bone and Honeymoon in Vegas have proven that Caan, while older and a bit grayer, is just as forceful a screen presence as he was in his glory days.

Now Caan is only days away from the release of his first-ever big summer action film, the thunderous Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Eraser, in which he plays an explosively frightening bad guy. What was the actor's first reaction to the idea of playing the villain in a Schwarzenegger epic? "My first reaction was, I don't do 'em," Caan says. Despite a sometimes-careening career, integrity has always been a mainstay of Caan's personal acting credo. "But then I read the script _ it was great. And Arnold was great. Plus, I thought it wouldn't be stupid to be in a big commercial movie."

Eraser is everything we've come to expect from the pumped-up Schwarzenegger action formula: lethal villains, big guns, bigger Arnold, and plenty of one-liners delivered in the minimalist deadpan Arnold style. Industry pundits expect this to be yet another summer smash. This time, Schwarzenegger plays a marshal working in the federal Witness Protection Program. Caan's his boss, the guy who taught him everything he knows and, it turns out, the man behind the plan to sabotage Arnold's efforts to protect a key government witness, played by singer and former Miss America Vanessa Williams. James Coburn's also on hand as the head of the Witness Protection Program. Three generations worth of macho movie men must have meant plenty of testosterone on the set. "Yeah, well, Jimmy's great," Caan says of Coburn, "and Arnold and I had a lot of fun. We did a lot of that macho stuff, but we were always poking fun at it too."

There's always been an element of unfulfilled promise in Caan's career. That he had charisma and acting chops was undeniable. That he always made the right moves in his career and his life was debatable. Beginning in the '60s, Caan's early work in In the '80s, Caan lost the drive to reshape his career. Despite good reviews for Thief and Hide In Plain Sight, which he also directed, the actor generally acted with bitterness toward the film business. A new generation of leading men was coming along while Caan, it was rumored, was sinking into drug abuse. He talks about those days now with the openness of someone who's gotten past the dark times: "I went through my period of drugs and all that stuff. There was a time when I was runnin' bad. Where I come from _ Queens _ I'm supposed to be a tough guy, an athlete all my life."

Caan's mistakes weren't overlooked by Hollywood, and he admits his career suffered directly because of them. Even in the early '90s, the following headlines showed up in Los Angeles papers: "Caan accused in beating," "James Caan may face misdemeanor charges," "Caan testifies he lent cash to suspected Mafia figure." Truly, this was a guy who knew how to find trouble.

"I frightened a lot of people off, understandably," he acknowledges. "Whether half that (stuff) was true or not, the point is I was in the wrong places." The point is also that Caan eventually figured that out for himself and cleaned up his act. "I had some good friends and after a couple of years I went to this place and, you know, so far it's been good," he says gruffly of his rehab efforts. "I don't miss it."

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