Like a lot of people — especially actor people — James Caan never looked comfortable surrounded by critics.
Caan, who died Wednesday, July 6 at 82, was working the Television Critics Association semi-annual network TV press tour in 2003. He was there as the lead on the NBC drama Las Vegas. The series starred Caan as a no-nonsense ex-CIA officer-turned-casino boss.
Things were a bit jumpy at that event. NBC had just announced this wild deal to have Conan O’Brien wait five years to take over the Tonight Show from Jay Leno. Folks may recall how that didn’t turn out so well.
Both O’Brien and Leno were keeping their distance from each other at the press tour party. Caan also seemed to be desperately looking for an exit when I approached. This was his first time as a network TV lead, and after climbing some peaks and valleys between movies such as “The Godfather” and “Misery,” he maybe didn’t have time for a lot of “what’s it like being back on TV?” questions.
Today I’d be asking him about his TV roots. He showed up on Route 66 back in the early ‘60s and probably, along with Robert Redford, had a shot at playing one of the leads on that series.
A decade later, he broke through in one of the most popular TV-movies ever, “Brian’s Song.” The bro-mance, which featured Caan and Billy Dee Williams as star-crossed Chicago Bears running backs, has been making grown men weep for half a century.
The next year, “The Godfather” made him a superstar. An uneven set of films followed, including “Funny Lady” opposite Barbara Streisand and the Norman Jewison mis-fire “Rollerball.”
Caan would take years off, camping out at the Playboy mansion between rebounds with “Thief” (1981), “Misery” (1990) and, even later, “Elf” (2003).
Las Vegas cost a lot of money (at five million, the pilot was apparently NBC’s richest ever at the time). It was kind of Love Boat with slot machines.
Caan didn’t have to carry the whole series as he was surrounded by a deep drama ensemble. Josh Duhamel, Nikki Cox, James Lesure, Vanessa Marcil, Molly Sims, Cheryl Ladd and eventually Tom Selleck (who replaced Caan in Season Five) were all regulars. Other stars cycled in and out over the years, including Dean Cain, Lara Flynn Boyle, Rachael Leigh Cook and Jerry O’Connell.
Caan tired of series work and quit Las Vegas after the fourth season. By 2013, he was back for more money in the short-lives “Bad News Bears”-like comedy series Back in the Game.
He seemed in a friendlier mood when he returned to the TCA press tour that same year to promote Magic City. The Starz series was stylistic but came and went and Caan only appeared in five episodes as a mob boss.
Caan joked through the TCA session that he just did the series as a favour to his friend Chris Albrecht, Starz top exec who was in charge through the Soprano years at HBO.
“I read a lot of scripts this year just to make believe that I was busy,” Caan told critics. “I was promised also that I would have three or four love scenes, and, of course, they lied.”
The self-effacing comments continued. “It was between this and the left-hand corner of the Hollywood Squares,” he joked. (He also poked fun at himself on both The Simpsons and Family Guy). Then he backtracked a little.
“The truth of the matter is, I’m at the point where I care very much about what I do. I still try to maintain a little bit of integrity.”
The other truth was that Caan went through four marriages and that money sometimes was an issue. Two years after Magic City, he walked through a few vanity projects for Canadian sauce and juice manufacturer Frank D’Angelo, including “Sicilian Vampire” (2015) and “The Red Maple Leaf” (2016).
On news of his passing, many friends and fellow filmmakers remembered him fondly and with respect, including Streisand, “Misery” director Rob Reiner and co-star Kathy Bates, “Thief” director Michael Mann and “Godfather” peers Francis Coppola and Al Pacino.
Another who tweeted condolences was Adam Sandler, who acted with Caan in “Bulletproof” and “That’s My Boy.” “Loved him very much,” Sandler wrote. “Always wanted to be like him. So happy I got to know him. Never ever stopped laughing when I was around that man. His movies were best of the best.”