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James Caan on The Godfather, John Wayne, and all the roles he’s done as favors

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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: James Caan started his career in the ’60s, and it was a slow build to success, beginning with guest spots on TV dramas like Naked City and Route 66 before easing onto the big screen in film, pulling parts alongside high-profile co-stars like John Wayne and Robert Mitchum (El Dorado). After his role as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, Caan became a full-fledged movie star, a status he has maintained ever since, but he continues to return to his small-screen roots on occasion and can currently be seen as part of the ensemble of Starz’s Magic City, now in its second season.


Magic City (2013-present)—“Sy Berman”
The A.V. Club: How did you find your way into the cast of the show?

James Caan: I didn’t. They found me. I’m not saying that in any kind of pompous way. Mitch [Glazer] and I are old friends, and I’m friendly with Chris [Albrecht] as well. We had taken a trip to Cuba, Chris and I and a couple of others. We had this picture we were trying to develop… well, Chris was not part of that picture, but he was with us on the trip, so we became friendly there. And that picture that we were trying to put together, it was in the same era [as Magic City], by the way, except that ours took place in Cuba. But, Mitch talked to me, they were doing this show, and because it was set in about the same time as our movie… I don’t know, he just called me one night and said, “Jimmy, you know, I wrote this character, I just dreamt of this character, and I could only hear you doing it…” All this bullshit that means that he wants you to work for nothing. [Laughs.] But, you know, I had a really good relationship with him; I thought the show was really good looking and well done and well acted, and… I thought it’d be fun. It was really that simple. And it was a lot of fun. It was better than a lot of the other garbage I was reading, that’s for sure.


AVC: Can you offer kind of a nutshell summary of Sy Berman as a character?

JC: [Snorts.] Sy Berman in a nutshell. Um… well, I would say that if you’re a boss of bosses or if you’re the king of anything, there’s all different ways to be. Most of those guys who rise to that level are very bright, very good businessmen, and not necessarily butchers. So it was my choice to be a very dangerous guy, but the danger isn’t necessarily because he screams and yells or threatens. You can’t say “fuck you” nicely. It’s impossible to do that. But if he’s the boss, then you know that he can be dangerous. That was kind of the basic idea: to just be the boss. You don’t have to be anything else.

AVC: He must at least have somewhat of an intimidating manner about him if he’s able to keep Ben Diamond in line.

JC: Well, it’s how it’s written, right? I mean, if it’s written that I tell him, “Take your clothes off and stand on that pole,” and he does it, then he’s a pretty powerful guy. But people just don’t understand that. They go, “Well, why would he do that? You’re not tough!” And I’m like, “Well, the guy just did exactly what I told him to do. How much tougher can you be?” [Laughs.]

Naked City (1961)—“Marty Feketi”
Play Of The Week (1961)—Actor
Route 66 (1961)—“Johnny”
AVC: If IMDB is correct, your first TV appearance was actually another City series: Naked City.


JC: Yeah, that’s right! I think Naked City was my first TV show.

AVC: Do you remember anything about the experience?

JC: I remember it was directed by Buzz Kulik, who I later worked with on Brian’s Song. There were only two shows filming in New York at that time: there was that, and there was a Play Of The Week thing which I did with [Robert] Redford. It was a whole big cast, this two-and-a-half- or three-hour, three-camera show. It was pretty great. And then Route 66 was traveling around, so I went and did one of those. And then I started flying out to California. But, yeah, Naked City, that was the first TV show. I can’t remember too much else about it, though.


[It’s worth noting that the “whole big cast” of the aforementioned Play Of The Week—which was a production entitled “Black Monday”—included not only Caan and Redford but also Ed Asner, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Charles Grodin, Pat Hingle, Andrew Prine, and Glynn Turman.]

AVC: What led you into acting in the first place?

JC: My fear of going into the meat market. [Laughs.] That was my family’s business, and I didn’t want to go there. I couldn’t see myself lugging meat around for a living. I tried a lot of things. Well, not really a lot of things. I mean, I played ball at Michigan State for a while, and then I transferred to Hofstra, having no idea what I was going to do. But I guess I enjoyed being a clown. And I was big enough that I could be silly and not worry about fighting every day, so… I don’t know! It was kind of a last-ditch thing, and yet it was probably always there in the back of my mind. But, anyway, I went to the Neighborhood Playhouse and they took me in, and then I got a scholarship with [acting coach] Wynn Handman, who I studied with.

Red Line 7000 (1965)—“Mike”
El Dorado (1966)—“Mississippi”
AVC: Ed Asner described El Dorado as his introduction to the big leagues, getting to work with John Wayne.


JC: Oh, did he? Well, you can imagine how big it was for me, then. [Laughs.] Here I am, I’m like, 23, and I’m with him all day long. Between him and Robert Mitchum, I immediately went and got three-inch lifts in my cowboy boots so I could stand next to those guys. Yeah, that was quite the experience. But I was always kind of a punk, you know? A real New York guy. John Wayne was always calling me “kid,” and he was a guy who, if he could intimidate you, he would. But I just kept laughing at him. And, thankfully, he respected that.

AVC: El Dorado was actually your second time working with Howard Hawks, right?

JC: Yeah, I was in Red Line 7000. I think I was the only guy who survived that picture. It was terrible. [Laughs.] But he liked me. And, I mean, it was nobody’s fault but his that Red Line 7000 was so silly. Three love stories wrapped around race cars? C’mon.


Get Smart (1969)—“Rupert Of Rathskeller”
Get Smart (2008)—“The President”
AVC: You have the relatively rare distinction of having been in an episode of Get Smart and also appearing in the 2008 film adaptation.

JC: Yeah! Well, Don Adams was… When I was a kid, I used to hang around some of these comedians, and after I came back from doing some movie or other, Don said [Does a Don Adams impression.] “You have to do my show!” I said, “What are you, nuts? What am I going to do on Get Smart?” But he says, “C’mon!” Because he’d had [Don] Rickles and all those guys in there. So he wrote this character called Rotten Rupert Of Rathskeller. [Snorts.] Where it was, like, this Douglas Fairbanks character who always had his shirt open, the wind was always blowing through his hair, and he was always ready for a swordfight. And everywhere I went, I jumped. Like, from couch to couch. So he goes, “C’mon! I wrote it for you!” So I said, “Okay, I’ll do it, but on one condition.” He said, “Okay, what is it?” I said, “The last credit on the show, even after executive producer and creator and all that, has to read, ‘Rotten Rupert Of Rathskeller played by himself.’” So they did that.


AVC: When they called you to play the president in the Get Smart movie, did they realize you’d actually been on the show?

JC: Oh, yeah. I mean, doing the show wasn’t exactly what you’d call a career builder for me. [Laughs.] But Don was a friend of mine, and they knew that.

Brian’s Song (1971)—“Brian”
AVC: You mentioned Brian’s Song a moment ago. You’d obviously had plenty of work prior to that, but was that a career-changing project for you?


JC: Nah. Because I’d already done The Godfather by that point. I did Brian’s Song right after The Godfather. Although… [Hesitates.] Actually, I don’t know if The Godfather was out yet when Brian’s Song was on the air. Maybe it wasn’t. But I know I got nominated for an Emmy and an Oscar that same year. I know I’d finished The Godfather, though. And then there was such a stigma about television that I turned down Brian’s Song four times. For the wrong reasons. I thought it was great, but people looked at it like if you did television it was because you were out of work. But the Walter Mitty in me thought I was the best halfback the Chicago Bears had at the time, so that’s why I went.

Bottle Rocket (1996)—“Mr. Henry”
JC: Jim Brooks called me one day and said, “Jimmy, you gotta do me a favor.” I said, “What?” He said, “These kids down in Texas, they’re doing this film. Would you go down there and do two, three days for me?” I said, “Ah, okay.” So that’s the way that went. I did a favor.


AVC: Do you take on a lot of roles like that, just because someone calls and asks you?

JC: Not really. I mean, I’ll do it if it’s for a friend and it’s not completely ridiculous. [Laughs.] But these were young kids, they needed somebody, and at the time… I mean, I don’t know, I guess I was kind of important in the business, so it was a chance to boost them up a little bit. But, I mean, it was Jim’s idea. And he’s a good guy, so… [Trails off.] Of course, he never calls me for any of his big frigging movies…


Alien Nation (1988)—“Det. Sgt. Matthew Sykes”
JC: Why the fuck… Why would you bring up that?


AVC: A lot of people actually like the film. I do, for one.

JC: Yeah, well, I don’t know. I don’t have too many… [Hesitates.] I mean, I loved Mandy Patinkin. Mandy was a riot. But… I don’t know. It was a lot of silly stuff, creatively. And we had this English director who I wasn’t really that fond of. I mean, nice guy, but… it was just one of those things where, you know, you don’t quit, you get through it. It certainly wasn’t one of… I wouldn’t write it down as one of my favorite movies. But it was pretty popular.

Thief (1981)—“Frank”
AVC: Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?


JC: Well, kind of. I liked the picture Thief a lot. But it did pretty well. There’s always a couple that came out at the wrong time or were up against something. There’s a lot of nice little movies out there, like Cinderella Liberty, that for one reason or another didn’t take off. Like, Thief came out with The Omen or something stupid like that.

AVC: Thief was Michael Mann’s first film.

JC: Yeah, I found Michael Mann. Literally. I was doing Chapter Two, and this guy was sitting outside my trailer in a wooden chair, and he said, “Can I talk to you?” I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “I wanted to show you a script I’ve written.” And at the time, I was very fortunate that I was able to do whatever the hell I wanted to do, so I put it together right away. I got Jerry Bruckheimer to produce it… along with my brother, Ronnie, which was hysterical. And Michael, he’s a workaholic, you know. I still think that’s his best picture. He brought in the forensic stuff and everything. It was a real tough picture to work on, though, because he’d work 16, 17 hours a day. I liked it, though. It was a good movie.

The Godfather (1972)—“Santino ‘Sonny’ Corleone”
AVC: At the time, everybody and their brother wanted to be involved in The Godfather. How did you find your way into the film?


JC: Find my way? [Snorts.] There wasn’t any finding my way. I had already done a picture with Francis [Ford Coppola]—The Rain People—so he came to me.

AVC: Had you read the book?

JC: No. I usually don’t do that. You know, like, with Misery or something… I don’t like to read the book, because… it’s the book. If you get swayed by something you read in the book and then that’s not in the movie… it’s pointless. I treat the script like that’s the book.


AVC: Can you even speak to how huge its legacy is at this point?

JC: Well, I mean, it’s just great, you know? And I get it. Francis is a genius. It was all him.

Freebie And The Bean (1974)—“Freebie”
JC: [Laughs.] I think of that, I think of Alan [Arkin]. He was just so funny. We had a lot of fun. [Richard Rush] was another director that I was not… that neither of us were all that crazy about. But we had a lot of fun. We improvised a lot.

The Please Watch The Jon Lovitz Special (1992)—Himself
AVC: So does Magic City mark the third time that you and Alex Rocco have found yourselves in the same project together? Obviously, he was in The Godfather, but he was in Freebie And The Bean, too.


JC: Actually, there was another one! And it’s a pretty funny story. Jon Lovitz did a live show, and Rocco was in it. He played Moe Greene in it, and it was a really funny bit. Alex Rocco’s lying on the table, duplicating the scene from The Godfather where Moe Greene gets shot in the eye, and Lovitz is playing the guy who’s going to shoot him. Well, at the last minute, they called me and asked if I’d come by. But then Bobby Duvall happened to be in town at the time, so I called him up and I said, “Hey, Bobby, why don’t you come down and we’ll do this for Jon?” So we put on our tuxedos, and we sat in the fourth or fifth row of the studio audience… and then when Rocco got shot, we both stood up and started a slow clap. [Laughs.]

Funny Lady (1975)—“Billy Rose”
Kiss Me Goodbye (1982) —“Jolly”
Mickey Blue Eyes (1999)—“Frank Vitale”
Elf (2003)—“Walter”
AVC: Do you have a favorite comedy among the films you’ve done?


JC: Well, I love doing comedy. I mean, there’s different kinds of comedy, but, like, I loved the character that I played with Streisand [in Funny Lady]. I’m trying to think of some of the others.

AVC: Mickey Blue Eyes?

JC: [Uncertainly.] Yeah, but that was not… that turned out a little different than was the intention originally. That wasn’t… It changed scope in the middle of the picture. All of a sudden, it became a love story, I think because the producer wanted it, and that’s not what it was supposed to be. So, nah, that wouldn’t be up there for me. But Kiss Me Goodbye, that was a good one. And Elf, I guess. Will Ferrell’s a funny guy. Really serious, but really funny.

Irma La Douce (1963)—“Soldier With Radio” (uncredited)
AVC: It’s listed on your IMDB page as an uncredited role, but are you indeed in Billy Wilder’s Irma La Douce?


JC: Yeah! It was funny. They called me and said, “Hey, Billy Wilder’s doing this picture. Just walk across the stage.” “What?” “Just walk across the stage listening to the radio.” I think that’s what I did, anyway. I can’t remember what the hell I was doing.

AVC: Yeah, you’re described as “Soldier With Radio.”

JC: Okay, that’s what I thought.

AVC: Did you learn anything from Wilder during the brief time you worked for him?


JC: Just from walking across the stage? What, are you kidding? [Laughs.]

AVC: What director did you learn the most from?

JC: Oh, Francis, probably. In fact, not probably. For sure. Just because of his knowledge of… everything, really. But just look at the people he hired for The Godfather. They went on to be the top of their division!


The Dark Backward (1991)—“Doctor Scurvy”
AVC: Okay, last one.

JC: Good! [Laughs.]

AVC: What do you remember about playing Doctor Scurvy in The Dark Backward?

JC: [Several seconds of stunned silence.] What?!? Where the hell did you come up with that one? You know, that’s another one of them stupid favors. Another one of my “good friends.” [Laughs.] “Jimmy, go down and do just one day for me!” I’m always whining I’m doing shit like that… and then they put my name on it! It’s nuts. Yeah, that was… God almighty, where the hell did that come from? Scurvy? That was my name…?


AVC: Yep. Doctor Scurvy.

JC: That was awfully silly, wasn’t it? [Laughs.] But, you know, sometimes you do favors, and… it was okay. I mean, I’ve done worse. But it was really just kind of silly.