'For the Boys' breathes life into Caan's comeback after a decade of inactivity

November 26, 1991|By Bernard Weinraub | Bernard Weinraub,New York Times News Service

Los Angeles - James Caan glances around the dimly lit living room of the big rustic home in Bel Air that he has just sold. The actor built the house years ago at the peak of his career; it is a movie star's home, richly paneled and filled with leather furniture and cluttered with western-style paintings and reproductions of Remington statues.

Giving up the house and trying again to accommodate his new family is, for Mr. Caan, a metaphor for renewing himself. At 51, he is at an age when most movie actors find it virtually impossible to revive their careers. But Mr. Caan, whose personal and professional life crumbled in the 1980s, who virtually disappeared from the screen, has suddenly returned to the Hollywood mainstream, held in the same regard as his actor friends Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall.

Advance word on his performance opposite Bette Midler in "For the Boys" -- opening nationwide tomorrow -- has given a boost to a moribund career that was jump-started last year by "Misery." Mr. Caan is enjoying it all: He has been mentioned as an Academy Award nominee, "friends" he hasn't heard from in years are calling ("Typical," he says with a laugh), and new scripts are arriving. "They're from 20th Century Fox and Universal," he says. "It used to be Podunk Productions.

"Thank God," he adds quietly. "The No. 1 luxury of success is being able to choose the director you want to work with. There was a pretty scary period there for me. A pretty dead period. I missed a decade."

In "For the Boys," Mr. Caan portrays a song-and-dance man named Eddie Sparks, a United Service Organizations performer who teams up with a character named Dixie Leonard (Ms. Midler) in the early days of World War II. The film covers half a century; they entertain troops through the advent of television and the McCarthy era, through Korea and Vietnam.

"Somehow Jimmy's acting never shows," says Ms. Midler. "Believe me, his acting school is so much better than mine. Mine is a school of mugging. He has a more languid way of working. And everything he does is very small -- he's a master of the small gesture, the flickering eyelash; everything was exquisitely right."

Ms. Midler, whose company, All Girl Productions, produced the film, acknowledges that she was reluctant to cast Mr. Caan in the movie and did so only at the insistence of director Mark Rydell. "I had cast the role in my mind 100 times," she says. "Mark insisted. I was skeptical. I remembered him from 'The Godfather' and 'Gardens of Stone' and 'Misery.' Real tough. Then I looked at 'Funny Lady' and 'Harry and Walter Go to New York.' He was hilarious. Mark told me that Jimmy was the most underrated actor in America. I said OK."

Ms. Midler's reluctance was prompted by Mr. Caan's reputation as difficult and temperamental and his well-known bout with what he calls "craziness" in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The bitter breakup of two marriages, poor career moves, emotional depression, highly publicized bouts with cocaine, money problems and a family tragedy left him devastated.

Today, the actor is married to his third wife, Ingrid Caan, a Queens-born pastry chef with whom he has a 6-month-old son, Alexander. Another son, Scott, 15, lives with him; he also has a daughter, Tara, 17, who lives in Phoenix.

Back then, he acknowledges, his days were spent coaching Scott's soccer and basketball teams, and too many nights were spent dating Playboy bunnies. Finally, he turned reclusive, until Francis Coppola, Rob Reiner and Mr. Rydell, directors who are old friends, stepped in to help salvage his career. "My real friends never quit on me," Mr. Caan says.

Mr. Rydell has known Mr. Caan since the 1960s, when both were actors in New York. "He's one of the four or five best actors in America," says Mr. Rydell. "There are very few actors who could have played this part -- a megalomaniacal, entertaining, charming and complicated character. I needed someone to carry their weight against as giant a talent as Bette Midler."

Few actors in the 1970s emerged as quickly as a major star as Mr. Caan did after his portrayal of Sonny Corleone, the swaggering, violent, doomed son in Mr. Coppola's "Godfather."

Before "The Godfather," he had appeared on and Off Broadway and in television series ranging from "Wagon Train" and "Ben Casey" to "The Untouchables" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." After more than 20 years of living in California Mr. Caan still speaks in the accents of New York: he was born in the Bronx and raised in Queens, where his family owned a kosher meat market. To escape the family business -- "the meat market was looming closer and closer" -- he aimed for a pro football career but was too small to make the team when he went to Michigan State.

He transferred to Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., but left to take acting lessons at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City, where he met Mr. Rydell. "I was a class clown," he said. "The appeal that acting had for me was: there I was, center stage."

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