The Best Jewish Cowboy: An Interview with James Caan

Interview conducted by Tony Macklin. Originally published on October 1, 2008 @ Bright Lights Film Journal.

"Hard times will make a monkey eat red peppers."

In June 2008, the CineVegas Film Festival in Las Vegas gave their Vegas Icon Award to James Caan. Tony Macklin interviewed Caan prior to that.

TONY MACKLIN: How are you?

JAMES CAAN: Hey, man, I don't know. I've been talking so much I forgot.

I had to wait 45 minutes for you, but it's nothing like the time I waited in a parking lot for four hours for Sam Peckinpah.

[hearty laugh] You should consider yourself lucky. I remember waiting a day — and I was doing a movie [The Killer Elite, 1975] with him.

And I go in and sit down with Sam, and he says, "What are you asking those fucking questions for? That's a fucking dumb question."

That's Sam.

But then we hit it off, and it was fine. How was it working with him? Tough?

No. You know what? He was like a great intimidator, but he found out really quick — I told him I would kick his fucking ass. And he kind of liked that.

I think he was playing people — to see what reactions he could get.

One day they set off an explosion, real close to my face.

So that's what happened to your face?

[laughs] I said to Sam, "I'll beat you like a redheaded stepchild." He was great, though, just insane. As a matter of fact, when someone wrote a book about him, I was asked to give a quote for the cover. They had four quotes on the back. He called and said mine was the best. I had written, "Two more signatures and I'll have him committed."

Are you sure you needed two more?

Only two. [laughs]

Thank you for taking me back over Memory Lane. I pulled out my reviews from the past. I didn't remember how versatile you are, and the diversity of your roles.

You know, that's funny. I just talked with this guy, and he's talking about gangster shows. And I said, "What are you talking about? I probably did two gangster shows out of 80."

I was going to ask you that. Are you defined by one character, Sonny Corleone? Or maybe Ed Deline [in Las Vegas, right]?

You had to mention Deline in the same breath.


Hard times will make a monkey eat red peppers. I had to do that TV series; it was the last thing on my mind, but I had been robbed by my business people. I had no money.

Eighty-eight episodes?

I did. They made more after I left; they snuck in another 20. But then they went into the toilet.

Have you made peace with it?

Then I felt there was this stigma to doing a TV series. You can bullshit your way around it, but it is there, you know? My son Scott said, "Don't be stupid, Dad, you've done everything. Why do you give a shit?"

Well, I do. If Brad Pitt says nice things about me, or Johnny Depp, or DiCaprio, and all these kids who hang around my son, Scott, it means a lot to me. It means a lot when they look up to me.

The thing I most cherish, as far as my whole career — my son straightened me out about this — was the respect I felt from these young kids, really good actors. When all is said and done, that's the most important thing.

I felt like I was losing that. And I won't ever do that again. I had to feed my extended family — I realize how important that is to me. But a lot of times we treat our lives like commodities. And you wind up selling yourself short.

Because you want to do more. If you're sensitive and aware, you have to sell yourself short.

No, you don't. You never go into it knowing you're selling yourself short. I mean, you're right. But I never started out to make a bad film. Except, I can remember one or two where . . . like again, the old red peppers — I needed the money.

I really want to focus on your versatility. I went back and read my review of the comedy Freebie and the Bean [1974], and I don't usually use terms like "belly laugh," but I said I had belly laughs at that. Of course, I loved Alan Arkin.

Yeah, he's funny.

That's not one you remember?

Oh, I do. We weren't fond of Richard Rush [director]. None of us.

I hated his Getting Straight [1970].

He was a pompous ass. You know he was on speed all the time? He was a maniac.

How about the comedy, Slither [1973]?

[laughs] That's another one. As far as versatility, whether I did that thing with Bette Midler [For the Boys, 1991], or Funny Lady [1975, right], or Kiss Me Goodbye [1982], people would say, "Jimmy, we didn't know you sang and danced." I said, "Well, nobody ever asked me."

If there weren't 12 people dead by page 20, they thought it wasn't for me.

Let's revisit some others. You played maybe the second most significant character in American literature in the last fifty years, second only to Holden Caulfield. I had forgotten you were Rabbit Angstrom in Rabbit, Run [1970].

Yeah, I had forgotten, too. It's funny, I was at odds — not screaming or fighting — with this guy, writer Howard Kreitsek.

He brought it up to the 1960s, didn't he?

Well, this guy is like a car salesman or something. Some of the dialogue was horrendous. And I said, "I can't say this!" And they would say, "Well, John Updike wrote it!" So I said, "Well then get fuckin' Updike to play it!" It was just not good. The director [Jack Smight] was not good.

And of course I did that instead of Altman's film — the war thing.

M*A*S*H? Oops.

Yeah, M*A*S*H. I made a couple of great choices . . . [laughs]

Hey, Rabbit Angstrom is a great, great character. I was surprised in rereading my review. I said the movie faltered at the end. But my review is more positive than my memory of the film.


I kind of liked it. I liked you.

I don't remember. I just remember the process.

It's a bad movie, but you're good in it. I think there's something about you — that you don't let bullshit in. There's a truth.

Well, you try — that would be the idea. Talking about "bullshit," that was the biggest problem with that stupid TV series. It was just ridiculous.

Now we'll be positive. What about Thief [1981]?

My favorite movie of mine is probably Thief.

I like Michael Mann [director].

I liked him then. I don't like him after that. His work — he got too important to himself. When I met Michael, he had done one thing. I think I was doing Chapter Two [1979] or something. I see this guy sitting outside my trailer on a little wooden chair. He asked if he could speak to me; he hands me a script — I thought it was great after I read it. I find out the guy did one thing, which I also saw, which is pretty good: The Jericho Mile [TV movie, 1979]. So, at the time I was a big shot, and whatever I wanted to do, they did. I said I wanted to do this.

Jerry Bruckheimer and my brother produced — and if you knew my brother, that's hysterical. Those two guys producing it. And Michael — this little Napoleonic workaholic. This guy was nuts. But I liked it, that film, and that character. It's one of my fondest memories.

I remember I had a bunch of friends going to Stanford at the time, and I knew a lot of the football players. They used to come and stay with me, and they used to watch that movie once or twice a week. They knew all the dialogue.

Let's go down some more films. What about your romantic lead in Cinderella Liberty [1973, right, with Marsha Mason]?

I rather liked him. To me he was like Billy Budd, all pure and good. For that movie, we found Marsha Mason.

It's astounding — the women with whom you've acted. Lauren Bacall twice, the divine Barbra, Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker.

Two of the girls, it was their first time. We literally found Marsha Mason in San Francisco. That was her first major movie. I later did Chapter Two with her, but Neil [Simon] got in the way. And also Kathy Bates in her first film [Misery, 1990]. She won the Academy Award.

With which of the women, do you think you had the most chemistry on-screen? Kathy Bates?

No. [laughs] I've been really fortunate. I've worked with some great girls. I think it's wrong to say because it's pretty dependent on the material. You know what I mean?

By avoiding the question, you're showing iconic wisdom.

[laughs] I got along with Barbra, when everybody told me she was going to be murder.

Chemistry is something that sometimes almost transcends the material.

To me, films are all about behavior — that's why it's a film. The words — unfortunately I'm talking to a writer — are pretty secondary. Because if I have a stomachache, and we're talking on film, what's really going on is that I have a stomachache. And I think that inner life is what makes it interesting.

Yeah, but I have to be an apologist for my guys. You don't find many great films without a very good script.

No, no. I didn't say that. I look for a great script. But those great scripts include behavior. Most of it is behavior. So the point I was making is that on the surface you can write "oranges," but "apples" is what is really going on. That's a good writer. You know my son writes now.

Did he write the script for Dallas 360?

Yeah. So if the script dictates that I want to kill this girl, no matter how charming the dialogue is, that's the behavior.

I've been very lucky with actresses. Jane Fonda was great.

What film?

Comes a Horseman [1978] Another phony — Alan Pakula [director]. I didn't find out until later that everything he did was Gordie Willis [cinematographer].

I'm leaving girls out. Marsha was great — Marsha's a terrific girl. Bette was fun.

You're like, the vengeful women are going to come after Jimmy Caan. I'll get you off the spot. You even played a cowboy in El Dorado [1967]. When's the last time you rode?

I rodeoed professionally for nine years. As a matter of fact, I started in Las Vegas. All the cowboys used to come there. Steve Wynn [entrepreneur] used to come around on his little paint horse at the roping arena. To this day he still introduces me as "The Best Jewish Cowboy" he's ever met.

[laughs] So you went into El Dorado, unlike Monty Clift in Red River, knowing what you were doing?

Listen, I was 23, and I hadn't become proficient. I came out here, and of course, got a horse — that's what guys from New York do. I rode a bit. I was kind of a stunt man. I did a lot of stunts.

A friend of mine was one of the bosses — a small boss obviously — at Caesar's. The old guys were there. It was personal; it wasn't corporate then. So I started hanging out at his ranch. I'm a Walter Mitty kind of guy, I guess. All of these cowboys used to train there. I used to practice — I'd just mimic what I saw. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was crazy enough to try it. It just kind of got me started.

How about playing an action figure in Rollerball [1975]? Which I liked a lot.

That was great. I did most of that.

Any broken bones in that film?

We broke a lot of bones. We were skating 40-45 miles an hour. I wound up doing almost all my stuff. It was great fun! The walking and talking were a little overdone. The burning of the trees — that was bullshit.

I've been lucky, really lucky, with the critics in my life. They've been exceptionally nice to me my whole life. But there was one critique of Rollerball in Women's Wear Daily, oddly enough, which said, "We saw James Caan the athlete, but where was the actor?"

The whole point of the picture was that these guys were state-raised, with no emotion. It wasn't a picture for crying and screaming.

The Gambler [1974, right] — that's one of the ten best gambling films, isn't it?

Well, I never tried to rate it. It wasn't so much like California Split or those other ones, as it was about Dostoyevsky. The idea that two and two could be four. The guy says that it wasn't the winning or losing that counts, but it's the time between — during the bet — where you felt alive.

And the mark of Cain on him at the end?

I put this odd smile at the end, because I knew the real guy James Toback — this real person, who came from a very wealthy Jewish family, and he was a teacher. He was full of crap; he was so crazy. You know how the character conned his way through. The ultimate gamble — fighting with that pimp, walking out in Harlem.

When he got his face cut, to me, what that meant, and what that little smile was — he didn't have to hide anymore. His ugliness was now apparent.

You came up with that?

Yeah, pretty much. To me that cut represented a sort of freedom.

Well, that's his name. Axel Freed.

Actually I've never even thought of that. That's pretty good.

How about the famous Shamus? You played Philip Marlowe in Poodle Springs [1998] for TV.

That was not great.

I like Rafelson [director].

Oh, yeah, Bob's a good guy.

I used to edit a film magazine, and I wrote a long piece on Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces [1970] that I sent to him. He sent it back with notations: "You're right," "you're wrong." It was really neat. It's a wonderful thing to have this much later.

That's pretty good. I love Bob.

You played both Rabbit Angstrom and Philip Marlowe. That's a terrific character-exacta.

I just hope I get to play some more. This Vegas thing. I'm still trying to figure it out. Is it honoring my career?

I'm not privy to their thinking. But, why not?


Does your son have a new film that you can show them?

No. As a matter of fact, I just finished working for him. He made me grow a beard, the little bastard. He gave me a bone — two, three days work for this one. It's called Mercy. He should be finished next week.

How's he developing? How's he evolving?

I think he's great. He writes beautiful stuff. This is a love story; it's really nice. He also wrote a picture for us a year or so ago called Jacks. We'll be spending time in Vegas. We go through Vegas. It's about a father and son, so I'm looking forward to that.

Speaking of Las Vegas, how about Honeymoon in Vegas [1992]?

It was a lot of fun. Sarah Jessica Parker was 21 or 22. She came out of that water, and — oh, god! — it was amazing. And Nic [Nicolas Cage]. Nic's good at that quirky stuff. I'm sorry to see him do this other crap; I'm a huge fan of his.

National Treasure?

All that superhero shit. He's he quirkiest guy I ever met [laughs]. I thought he was funny as hell in Honeymoon in Vegas.

Tell me about the Elf [2003] experience. That was a pleasure for a lot of people.

Yeah. [laughs] 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.

I remember when they first sent it to me, I said, "Listen, I can NOT play or do anything called Elf. So, here's what we'll do. During the shooting of the picture, on MY script, put a "k" where the "f" was. I'll do Elk, but I will not do Elf.

[laughs] And now years later, you can be . . . a little proud of it.

You know it wasn't one of my great dramatic victories, but I had a great time.

Will [Ferrell] has got more balls than anybody I ever met. He'll do anything. On the street we were stealing shots, at Christmas time. If you can imagine this 6' 4" guy in that fucking elf outfit, walking by Macy's, and we're stealing shots.

"Stealing shots"?

In other words, we weren't permitted on that street, so they just had a camera on somewhere. And what's great about New York, as we're walking through this crowd, nobody gave a shit! No one even looked at an elf. It was hysterical.

That's great.

Off camera we didn't go out. Will is kind of serious and quiet. I said to him, "One of the reasons I did this is because I thought you were a pretty funny guy. I thought we'd have a good time — like we'd go out, have a couple of drinks, and giggle a bit. But you're like travelling with cancer. I got to tell you, you're the most boring son of a bitch."

So that became the theme through making the whole picture. Then we went to Vancouver. One night there was a party for the whole cast, and Will showed up. In fact, he's really funny. But I kept joking, "This is just stupid. You're boring."

So, when it was all over, I get a package from Will, and he says, "Jimmy, thanks for all the laughs. You know we had a great time together." He was making fun of not going out and whatnot, making fun of himself.

He wrote, "I sent this gift in thanks. If you get past the first one, I think you'll enjoy it." And I opened it. [laughs] It was The Godfather Trilogy.

Most people probably don't know you directed a movie — Hide in Plain Sight [1980] — that received positive reviews.

I had a passion for it. I said "I'll do this if you get Hal Ashby or whoever to direct." Finally they said, "Would you direct it?" I thought about it, and said I would. But it took a year from my life. My mother just sent me something she had in her house. It was from Newsweek. They listed my movie in what they called their "Big Five." Newsweek said it was "American filmmaking genius."

The New York Times gave me two reviews. Francis Coppola said it was one of the best flight films he has ever seen.

But that's your friend.

Of course. It's very episodic in nature, and therefore I didn't want to shoot it conventionally. Unfortunately, when they cut it for television they panned and scanned it, and there are cuts where there should be no cuts.

There was a guy running MGM/UA, and he literally sold office furniture. But he and another guy would decide which picture they would put all their money in to advertise, of the five or six pictures made. We didn't have single sheets. We had nothing. And then these good reviews came out a week later — and that was it.

I'm still very proud of it, but I wasn't happy for the kids in it. I used everybody that nobody knew. It was one of Jill Eikenberry's first films. It wasn't as good for them as it should have been, because they were wonderful in the picture.

You didn't want to continue directing?

I just couldn't afford to do it. I had four wives and five kids. But I would direct again, if I had a passion for something.

As you know, at the time I was Sonny Corleone. Everybody was going, "Ha, ha, let's see what this moron did." So it was rewarding.

Have you made peace with Sonny? Or have you said, "Leave me alone, Sonny"?

[laughs] No, I can't. No matter how many times I say that, he won't go away. It's not a terrible thing.

It's not a terrible thing at all.

It does bother me when a certain role comes up, and I'm like the last person they'll consider. I became a good idea. Not an actor.

Please make a comment about Coppola.

He was the best, when he wanted to be. I personally think that The Godfather ruined the career he wanted. I think he wanted more of a Woody Allen career, like writing his own stuff.

What about Howard Hawks? I interviewed him at his home in Palm Springs.

Oh, my God, you got to interview Howard that long ago? Well, I mean, Jesus, he was already 72 when I worked with him.

Was he still chasing women?

Of course. He was the best. John Wayne would disappear in a trailer. There would be an eighth of a page written a day, and there would be 200 of us just playing around in a western street, waiting for him to come out. Here I was with lifts on between John Wayne and Robert Mitchum.

You said your mother is still living.

She'll be 94 at the end of June.

I appreciate this.

Don't be silly. I like the way you talk.

Me too.

Maybe I'll meet me an icon at the event. Oh. boy. What an icon I am.

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