LOS ANGELES — Since he vividly and viscerally brought to life the hot-tempered Sonny Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 Oscar-winning classic “The Godfather,” James Caan has always been thought of as being an authentic tough guy. In real life, he often came across as a toughie with his no-nonsense New York swagger and streetwise attitude.
But appearances can be deceiving. Though one can’t describe the 71-year-old Caan as a teddy bear, he’s clearly mellowed over the years. Caan has been stressing over his tough-guy image of late — he’s amazed that Hollywood is still “pushing this tough-guy stuff.”
Even his actor son Scott Caan, currently starring in CBS’ “Hawaii Five-0,” can’t escape his father’s image. “They go, ‘Scott Caan, son of famous Hollywood tough guy, legendary tough guy, the great tough guy.’”
James Caan notes that he sang and danced in 1982’s “Kiss Me Goodbye,” as well as in 1975’s “Funny Lady,” in which he played Billy Rose to Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice.
“I just lost a couple of movies,” he lamented in a recent interview. “They said we don’t want a tough guy. I said excuse me, I am an actor. That is what I do for a living. You know it’s frustrating. I said to my agent, if I am the last guy on the list they could possibly think for a particular role, those are the ones I want to go after. That’s the fun.”
On this afternoon, Caan is holding court in the family room in the home he shares with his fourth wife, Linda, and their two sons. Though his hair is white, he’s Sonny Corleone muscular. He is wearing a boot on his right foot, having undergone surgery to have pins put in his foot due to problems with some joints in his toes. He jokes that he had to have the surgery because “I put my foot in my mouth and they couldn’t get it out and they broke it.”
He says that jobs are not that forthcoming for him these days. But Malcolm Venville, the director of his newest film, “Henry’s Crime,” opening Friday, wanted him “badly, hugely” for the role of Max, a con man who always torpedoes his own parole hearings because he likes his life on the inside. But all that changes in the caper comedy when a tollbooth operator (Keanu Reeves), who is wrongly accused of robbing a bank in Buffalo, becomes his cellmate. After Reeves’ Henry gets out of jail, he decides to rob the bank for real and persuades Max to get a parole so he can help him.
Venville says that underneath Caan’s “wise guy” exterior, “he’s a very schooled actor. He has an incredible sense of comedy, which I appreciated. He elevated the scenes and the script and that’s what you look for in an actor. What I am really grateful to Jimmy for is that he never gives you the same take twice.”
Caan’s versatility as an actor is on display this week at the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre in Los Angeles, which is presenting a retrospective of his work from the 1970s and early 1980s.
The festival Wednesday screened his acclaimed, Golden Globe-nominated performance in 1974’s “The Gambler,” as a college professor with a severe gambling problem.
“Gambler” director Karel Reisz, Caan says, “was the most easygoing guy. I turned him into a gambler. He was diseased when I got through with him.”
The ending of the dark film finds Caan looking in the mirror after his face is sliced up and offering a tiny smile. “I played the character extremely narcissistic. The ultimate gamble was his life but all along the truth of the matter is he is hiding behind his wealthy Jewish family. He hides his ugliness from the world but at the end this scar just meant he didn’t have to hide his ugliness for me. That is what the smile was about.”
On Thursday, he stars in two films directed by his good friend Mark Rydell, 1973’s “Cinderella Liberty,” in which he played a sweet, naive sailor who gets mixed up with a hooker, and the 1976 caper comedy “Harry and Walter Go to New York.”
“I wanted to use the human side of him in ‘Cinderella Liberty,’” says Rydell, who also directed him in 1991’s “For the Boys.” “I knew he created a career from ‘The Godfather’ of a tough, absolutely unfeeling brute. I knew him to be otherwise. I took great pleasure in revealing that touching side of him in ‘Cinderella Liberty’ and he was deeply grateful for my acknowledgement of that.”
Caan will be appearing in person with Friday’s double bill: 1981’s “Thief,” which marked Michael Mann’s acclaimed feature debut, and Caan’s own directing debut, 1980’s “Hide in Plain Sight.” Though the reviews were strong for the drama about a man who discovers that that his ex-wife’s new husband has been put in the witness protection program and she and his children have joined him, the film was barely promoted and languished. He was so disappointed with the outcome, Caan never directed another film.
He laments the type of films being made today. “I have nothing against these big CGI movies, but there are not enough of the other ones — the ones with stories about character that have a beginning, a middle and an end. I said that to a couple of studio heads and they said, ‘That’s novel.’”