by Joan Tarshis
"Is this the right place?"
The voice is instantly recognizable. It belongs to one of the Brothers Corleone. The most dangerous one, in fact, Sonny - the defender of the Corleone code, who you saw turn his brother-in-law into plum pudding on a Little Italy sidewalk in The Godfather. You look up out of fear more than respect, expecting to see several members of the Corleone family, their weapons of choice nuzzling towards you, impatient for the answer. The man who stands before you, however, looks like Sonny might have looked today had he not been whacked beside a toll booth decades ago. He appears less imposing than one might think. Gone is the oversexed predator, gold chains, $10,000 suits, and fine Italian leather footwear; in their place, soft, faded jeans, a gray polo shirt, oversized white Nikes, and the larger than life presence of James Caan.
After learning this indeed is the right place, he says, "I need to eat something," and makes a dash for the lunch table. "I'm here instead of having shoulder surgery. But I'm not sure which is more painful." It's the first of the afternoon's many self-deprecating jokes, a Caan trademark well-known to his associates and friends. He winces as he raises a forkful of grilled chicken to his lips, which indicates he's only half-joking. "I can't get this shoulder to stay in one piece," he says, pulling open his shirt to reveal a series of piggy-backed scars.
He's been put together so many times after decades of engaging in what he calls "non-Jewish activities" (boxing, karate, etc.), that legendary L.A. Times sports columnist, the late Jim Murray, once wrote, "Jimmy Caan was not born, he was embroidered." It seems most of Jimmy (no one calls him James) Caan's physical ailments began when he was working the pro-rodeo circuit for nine years, during his early career days. "I never rode a bull - I'm not that stupid," he says. Instead, he roped steers and occasionally calves - once holding onto the rope until he tore his flesh to the bone for the glory of an $86, third-place prize.
Back in the dressing room, suits and jackets for the photo shoot are okayed or discarded, hats are tried on, though most are too small. ("Maybe my head's swelled. Though I don't know why - I haven't gotten any good reviews lately") Make-up is begun. ("It doesn't matter what you do to me unless you've got a magic wand.") His cell phone rings. ("Hi, Jimmy Caan the lesbian? Oh, you want Jimmy Caan the thespian!") The smart and sassy siege of street humor is relentless, as is the litany of films he has starred in.
After three hours of rapid-fire, the photographer is satisfied with his shoot. Despite Caan's lower back aching, his shoulder feeling no better, and almost losing his voice, he agrees to spend another hour in an adjacent studio to finish one of the cigars from the photo session. He will also rant a bit - it is the Caan way - about the many things that bug him, and discuss two of his latest projects. About the first, next year's Mickey Blue Lyes, a mob-comedy in which he stars with Hugh Grant (produced by Grant's long-time girlfriend, Elizabeth Hurley), Caan jokes, "It's a very charming movie about the mob - a real stretch for me." He got along well with the "high strung" Grant, who he affectionately called "Whippy" after the Whippet, a breed of dog that shakes a lot when cold. His second project is The Yards (also due out next year), an emotional, character-driven story about a crime that blows the whistle on corruption in the New York commuter rail business and threatens to tear a friendship and family apart. "I play a guy who believes he's a king," he explains. "He's the most common man in the world; in fact his family, like his suits, are just make-up. It's about dysfunctional people and dysfunctional relationships."