The 84th General Meeting Opening Remarks
A Conversation with Actor James Caan
The following presentation was delivered at the 84th General Meeting Monday morning session, April 27, by legendary actor James Caan. It has been edited for content and phrasing.
With a career spanning over 50 years and more than 90 movie and television appearances, James Caan has distinguished himself as one of the world's most dynamic and respected actors. Mr. Caan's early years on television included such programs as The Untouchables, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Get Smart, Route 66, and Naked City. His movie career has allowed him to co-star alongside such renowned actors as Marlon Brando, John Wayne, Al Pacino, Barbara Streisand, Warren Beatty, Robert Duvall, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Mitchum, Anthony Hopkins, Kathy Bates, Michael Caine, and Sean Connery. He has been widely recognized for his outstanding acting work on numerous movies such as The Godfather I and II, Funny Lady, Cinderella Liberty, Freebie the Bean, Brian's Song, Thief, and Misery.
MR. CAAN: Hello. I'm really happy to be here. I don't know much about boilers or pressure vessels. That's because hard labor and me just never got along -- that's why I became an actor. I had a job once where I used to skim the solder pots when we made beer cans. That was so hot I paid a guy five dollars to do that part of my job for me. Paul Brennan is going to ask me some questions and I will try to be as good as I can. Paul, would you mind?
MR. BRENNAN: Those of you who have been coming to the General Meeting for lo these many years have understood that we have a regular formula, which involves our guest speaker standing up, delivering some remarks, and then if we have time at the end, we have a brief question-and-answer session. This year we are doing it all differently. The next 45 minutes are going to be devoted to a conversation with James Caan. You as the audience will have an opportunity to ask whatever questions that you so desire. Mr. Caan has said that there are no boundaries, but let's keep it within good taste, shall we? I’m going to start off the conversation. This is actually not Mr. Caan's first trip to this beautiful part of the world, and as I understand, you have a rodeo experience in this area?
MR. CAAN: Yes, I did. I was in Canyon City. I did a picture with Jane Fonda called Comes a Horseman in a place called the Wet Valley, which is the last place any rancher would possibly want go to, but our cameraman liked the snow-capped mountains. And land there would feed about, oh, 40 to 50 acres per cow. My friends, the Yates, owned it. I worked here, and then I rodeoed for nine years -- which is why I got two and a half inches shorter. It's just one of my non-Jewish activities; rodeo, karate, motorcycles. My mother kept reminding me that I was a Jew and I said, No, I'm Italian. So that's the interesting part of my trip here to Colorado. I didn't win anything at that rodeo.
MR. BRENNAN: In terms of a long and distinguished career, what would you consider to be the one major highlight?
MR. CAAN: Oh, my gosh. One major highlight? Working with actors like Marlon Brando. Anybody who says they weren't impressed to be with him, especially guys my age, are liars. He was great to be with.
As far as pictures, The Godfather was a lot of fun. I've also found that when you have fun it comes off on the screen. No matter if it's a horror story, no matter what it is. I've been fortunate in that area. I found that the most talented people I've worked with were also the nicest people. They don't talk about their dressing rooms and their trailers and their make-up. That's called deflectionary action. In other words, they really have nothing else to offer, so they complain about their trailers or make-up or their clothes. Nonsense. That's because they can't do anything else.
I think as an actor, Thief was probably my favorite character to play.
MR. BRENNAN: Tell us a little bit about the making of The Godfather. That certainly is the movie closely associated with your fame. What was it like to be part of such a wonderful, memorable project?
MR. CAAN: Here’s the deal: if I knew every time I made a picture that one was going to be a huge success and another one wasn't, I would be a gillionaire. They would hire me and say, Which one is going to be a hit? I was wrong every single time. I would say, No, I'm not going to do that, that stinks, and, of course, it's a big hit. So I was terrible at it. But, again, we knew it was going to be big when we made The Godfather. We had a good time.
I attribute the success of The Godfather to the fact that Francis Coppola is not a Brooklyn Italian, he's a Mediterranean Italian. By that, I mean his dad was lead flautist for Toscanini. His kids knew all about art, wine, and music. So if you analyze the picture, it comes in very heavy; everything was done for the sake of family, so people kind of forgave all the rotten stuff.
The biggest question I ever got asked was, Was that a real horse's head? People got strangled and not one question about that guy or this one. Was that a real horse's head? Yeah, it was a real horse's head. Anyway, when Coppola got the picture, he called immediately -- I had done a picture with him -- me, Robert Duvall, Marlon, and this kid named Al Pacino, who nobody knew at that time. And the first thing they said to him was If you mention Marlon Brando's name -- I swear, if you mention Marlon Brando's name again, you are fired. Because Marlon was trouble or something, I don't know. Forget that he was great, but he was trouble. Anyway, the four of us flew up to San Francisco and Coppola did a little screen test with a little sixty-millimeter camera. Eleanor, his wife, literally gave us haircuts with a bowl. We had four corned beef sandwiches. We shot some nonsense, just kidding around. Apparently it's been around; I haven't seen it. And I'm making fun of Bobby. I'm not paying any attention, and he'd laugh at me. It was a big joke.
Basically that was Francis’ cast – the four of us. So I go home. Francis goes back to New York and scouts. And I get a call one night maybe two months later. And in the meantime they pushed me into a picture. They had me by the screws, and they said, We want you to do this picture called T. R. Baskin. I said, I really don't want to do it. They said, Yeah, but, you go from that right into The Godfather. Which is a way of saying you better do it.
Anyway, Francis called me, and it had to be two, three in the morning in New York, and he said, Jimmy? I said, What? And he says, They want you to come in and test. I said, Test what? You've got a Porsche you want me to drive around the block? What, what do you want me to test? So he says, No, they want you to play Michael. And I could tell he was really overjoyed about it, because for whatever reason they just didn't like Al. Al was in a self-destructive stage at the time.
I said, no. Francis says, Please, Jimmy. I know it's a pain. Please come in. So I go in to New York. Everybody in the world was sitting there in this huge room. I mean, big stars. And Francis tested one person after the other, all day long. As a matter of fact, there was a book written by Mario Puzo called The Making of the Godfather, and he said, If Caan had breasts, he would have played Kay. I did everything.
So I was there, and I knew for a fact -- because I knew Francis, I had spent a lot of time with him -- that he had very definite ideas, which is very rare in our business. But he knew that he wanted Michael to look the Sicilian and he wanted Sonny to be more the Americanized version.
Francis had this picture physically in his head of what he wanted. I tested for Michael, and not very well. I knew Francis was in pain. But at the end of the day, he would always sneak Al back in. And for whatever reason, Al was worse every time he brought him back in. And he kept fighting for Al. I felt really bad for Francis. I finished the day and went to the hotel. And then two of the big shots came knocking on my door and said, Jimmy, I hate to bother you, but would you come back? Please do another round of testing.
I said, Do me a favor and get out of here. Leave me alone.
I got so mad, I packed my bags, and I was in such a hurry to go to Chicago to do that picture they wanted me to do before, I went to the train station. I got on the train and went to Chicago. I got called that night, Please, Jimmy, we're sorry, come back.
Francis finally convinced them that he had to have Al. The cost at that time for Francis to run all of those tests in 1971 was probably $450,000. And in the end, Francis wound up with the exact cast he got for four corned beef sandwiches.
They gave him a $2,500,000 budget. Back then, to dress just one block of New York to look like 1945 cost two and a half million dollars. So that was the budget. And as they started seeing it, they started adding and adding and adding and adding stuff. Francis is completely responsible. Because what's amazing about him, and it ruined his career basically in a sense, is that he wanted to do his own stuff all the time. But after that movie, the industry realized Francis’ talent.
I could compare him to you—inspectors, who I imagine, would have to know pretty much about everything to do your jobs. You have to start and learn about the smallest piece of equipment and so on and so forth. I could never be an inspector because I can't really judge what's good and what's bad. Proof of that is I've been married four times, and I have picked wrong four times. I'm not a good inspector. I'm the Clouseau of the marriage world.
Francis, on the other hand, knew all aspects of his job. He hired a guy named Gordy Willis who nobody knew, who became the best cinematographer in the country. Hired a guy name Walter Murch, who became the best sound man. It's pretty amazing. A guy named Smith, who is by far the best make-up, special-effects guy. But every single guy Francis chose – even Dean Tavoularis became the best designer. And they were nobody. So Francis had to be genius in his choices.
I think that's what a great boss is. A good leader has the ability to pick good people to surround him. That's what makes him a good leader. You can't possibly know everything about everything. But Francis apparently did. My point is that that picture's success is really 95 percent due to Francis.
I do remember too that, because we are pretty selfish (that's why we are actors; we are kind of children), there was a real long scene I had between me and Bobby, it was like about eight pages. When I saw the first cut, Francis cut it into a third. And I got so mad; I refused to go to the opening night party. Just a little selfish.
We had a lot of fun. Marlon was the greatest. We played jokes. Bobby is very famous for mooning. For those who don't know what mooning is, you just drop your pants in front of someone and show them your rear-end. I don't know what is so hysterical about it unless you have a real funny rear-end. So we got him to do it. And then Brando, to get even, mooned 500 extras. So we had a belt made, Mighty Moon Champion, and Brandon owned that. And anything I said to Brando, for whatever reason, he just laughed. In the middle of a scene, he’d laugh.
Here is another story about Marlon. He played a trick on us. In the scene when we brought him home from the hospital, I remember he was on a stretcher. So Bobby and I had to carry him up the stairs. Marlon came in and was lying on the thing, and me and Bobby got on either end of the stretcher and grabbed the two handles. When we picked it up, my gonads hit my ankles. He had put camera weights on it that added hundreds of pounds. And we were determined. We got about four steps and then just collapsed. He's one of my all-time favorites.
MR. BRENNAN: Somebody over here wanted to ask a question.
MR. BURNS: I looked at your biography before the meeting and I see that you attended Hofstra University.
MR. CAAN: Yeah. No, I went to Michigan State, I played ball there for a year, and they sent me home in a box, and then I went to Hofstra.
MR. BURNS: I was just curious what your experience was at Hofstra and growing up in the Bronx.
MR. CAAN: I'm from Sunnyside, Queens, so I'm right over the 59th Street Bridge. (Applause.)
MR. CAAN: Are you kidding me? Who applauded? I want you to stand up. We could have been neighbors. So Hofstra, I transferred there from Michigan State. I was 16 when I went to Michigan State, not because I was bright. Don't even think about that for one second. This school wanted me out so bad. And I went to Michigan State at 16. And the guys were coming out of Korea, so they were all 22 and 23. And I tried to play. I had my little freshman varsity ring. And, as a matter of fact, I saw my coach, Duff Daugherty, 16 years later. And he goes, There is one of my dummies. And he was sitting with Johnny Majors and Bud Christensen. And he said I ought to get 10 percent of your career. I said, Why is that, Coach?
Because I told you to quit playing football.
Anyway, I transferred there, I was homesick, and I went to Hofstra. Still didn't have a major. My major at Michigan State was football. And Hofstra had a pretty good team, but there was a transfer law, so I couldn't play for a year. I kept switching my majors.
The way I became an actor was that my neighborhood is not conducive to the arts. We don't have too many dancers and singers and stuff like that. And so I rearranged my schedule so I had Monday, Wednesday, and Friday -- Tuesday I was supposed to go to ROTC, but I got kicked out for fighting or something silly like that.
And my dad took me to work with him -- they were in the meat business. My dad delivered meat to different restaurants, and my godfather had a big freezer. I unloaded hindquarters of beef from 4:35 in the morning that came in from Texas right off the river. It was twelve degrees outside and we’re hauling 325-pound hindquarters. We’d put them on a hook, roll them out, and roll them into the freezer, which was a pleasure because the freezer was 32 degrees. You got warm in the freezer. And I thought This is something I don't think I really want to do for the rest of my life, and I kind of ran out of choices.
And being an actor was something I hadn't tried, and I always enjoyed kind of kidding around. So I was desperate, because it was the meat market, and what else? So I walked into this place called the Neighborhood Playhouse and I applied. And they said, Is it for next year? Because it was 10 days before school started. And I said, no. Well, you had to take three interviews over the course of a year, and they only take 30 guys and 30 girls. Somehow I conned my way in -- that's my name. I got into the Neighborhood Playhouse because they thought I was crazy enough to be an actor. It was a full day of school from nine to three. And then I went to work with my dad. He was this big 240-pound five-foot-nine German beast, and we were driving, and I said, Hey, dad, I got into school. And God bless him, he went for it. The idea that I would say to this tough guy that I am going to acting school -- I thought the next thing to hit me in the head was a bat.
So I said, Dad, I’ve got to stop here on 8th Avenue on the way home. He asks why. I said, Well, I’ve got to pick something up from school. I told him to just wait in the truck. I run up to the school and have no idea what I'm getting, and they hand me -- mind you, I just got out of football pads -- they hand me a dance belt and tights, and ballet slippers. Swear to you. They put it in one of those clear plastic bags with a button on it. I said, Do you happen to have a brown bag? They said, No, that's the bag. I was persistent; because it was either a brown bag or I would start to swing. They looked all over the school, and they finally found me a brown bag. I jumped in the truck, and I said, Okay, let's go, Pop.
What do you got in the bag? He asked me.
Nothing, Pops. Some junk for school.
What do you got in the frigging bag? He repeated.
Dad, it's stuff for school.
I am going to ask you one more time, what have you got in the frigging bag? I opened it up, and no exaggeration whatsoever, he looked at it, and he looked straight ahead, and he whistled all the way home. I swear, never said another word, and just whistled home. And then when I'd come home for dinner or something and they had company in our one-room flat, he'd say, Hey, show them one of them tour jetes there. Go ahead, do one of those. So I took a lot of abuse.
And then I went to a guy named Wynn Handman, he gave me a scholarship. He was my guru. I studied and had jobs, worked as a waiter, Continental Can Company, a lifeguard, did all of that, and I studied for three or four years with Wynn Handman. And I got very lucky. I just got lucky. And luck has a lot to do with it, as does being humble. There are so many great actors out there and there are a lot of bad ones who work that shouldn't, but there are a lot of great ones who don't. So it's just a question of luck and being in the right place at the right time. Some people get a break in three months, some people wait 10 years. But I believe that the break eventually comes, and then you have to be prepared. I had in my mind to be prepared, so I studied for four years while I did all these jobs. I got the first four jobs that I interviewed for. That's because I wore brass knuckles. And that's how I became an actor.
MR. BRENNAN: Let’s talk about your movie Misery. You spent a heck of a lot of time in bed in that movie, didn't you?
MR. CAAN: Yeah. That was Rob Reiner's idea of humor. No, seriously. He got who he thought was -- and he's probably right -- the most neurotic guy in Hollywood and put him in bed for 15 weeks. Every day I'd walk in and he'd say, Jimmy, today, today you get in bed. I'm playing this guy in bed, and Kathy Bates and Rob wanted to rehearse. And I'd go, Rob, I really don't want to rehearse. I don't like to rehearse.
Kathy was completely opposite. She wanted to rehearse every inflection. So she and Rob would go on and rehearse. And she said, Jimmy, why don't you want to rehearse?
Because I'm lying here.
I don't know if she's going to kiss me or break my face, so why do I want to rehearse? I mean, what's to rehearse?
We went through that for a while, and finally it turned out that Rob and she rehearsed and I just laid in bed and ate a sandwich. And then we had a great cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who went on to direct The Addams Family and some others. Completely nuts. And I can prove it just by the fact that his favorite thing on earth was Depends. He said, It's my favorite thing. I'm standing here in front of James Caan and I'm peeing my pants, and he doesn't know it. It's the greatest thing on earth.
But when Rob would leave, then he would be setting up the camera and I would be lying in bed, and when I fell out of bed and I had to crawl, this bub would walk around and spit in places where he knew I had to crawl. He just thought that was so funny.
MEETING ATTENDEE: Now that we know that you are from Queens, may I ask, are you a Yankees fan?
MR. CAAN: Yes. Well, let me tell you. Now I'm less of a Yankee fan than I was. When I was young, fist-fights Yankee fan, because we had the Dodgers and we had the Giants in New York too.
MEETING ATTENDEE: Could you comment on the making of Brian's Song? Was it as moving for you making it as it was for the audience watching it?
MR. CAAN: It was. When they offered me Brian's Song, by the way, it was right after I did The Godfather, it was that same year. And unfortunately there was a stigma involved in television. I think it was baloney, but there was. If you were a movie actor and you did television, soon after that, you are out of work, which is really stupid. So I literally turned it down four times. I mean, I really liked the script, and Brian wasn't dead I think more than six or seven months when this was written.
They called me in and I found out we were going to work out at St. Joseph’s University in Rensselaer, Indiana, where the Chicago Bears trained. I said, Will I work with out with the Bears and everything? They said yes, and I said, Okay, I will do it on one condition. You get Louie Gossett to play Gayle. Now, I don't know if you guys remember Louie Gossett or not, but he was a great, great actor, but more importantly, he was a great ball player. And I played ball with him back east. We played baseball together. So they said, No problem, he's a great actor. So they asked Louie, and four days before we were supposed to go, Louie is training and working out playing basketball, and he pops his Achilles tendon. So we had one of these emergency castings, and that's how Billy came about, Billy Dee, who is wonderful, by the way, obviously, but not an athlete. He's built like an athlete. When I get there, all the guys -- I mean, you have to remember, Brian was not dead for a very long time, and they loved him. And Joy, his wife, was there, and McCaskey and all the guys, and they go, Who is this Hollywood finochio that's coming to play Brian?
The first thing I did was I went out -- I was in scrimmages all the time with them, and Bobby Joe Green was punting and they go, Do you want to go field the punt? And you could tell they were angry. And there was a kid named Ron Smith they got from the Rams to return punts. So I said, sure. I went back about 40 yards from line of scrimmage; he hit the best kick he ever hit in his life. It went fifteen, twenty yards over my head. He couldn't kick like that in a game. And God was with me. I just turned and I ran and I came down with it over my head, and I turned to the field. And so everybody kind of went, Hey, all right.
I started throwing the ball and punting the ball. And then this strange stuff started happening. I don't know where. I never knew Brian. I know he went to Florida. And I had this habit of hooking -- it wasn't my habit -- but I'd always hook my thumb into my loop over here. And then I would put my tongue in my cheek when I was talking because it was like -- he had a kind of a Floridian kind of little accent. And then Joy came up to me one day and she said, Where did you learn how to do that? And I went, Do what? I mean, it was freaky. She said, The way you put your tongue like that. I said, Joy, I don't know. It was really horrible at first to be there with the family and know what they thought of Brian, but after a while I got friendly with the guys.
And they had a guy named Jackie Concannon, who was a quarterback, who when the wind was behind him could throw it 30 yards. I came in and I'd scrimmage -- they'd always get me out into the scrimmage. And on this one scrimmage, we were running a fake draw screen right where if the linebacker was coming, I was supposed to pick him up, and if he wasn't, I was going out for a little swing pass. He didn't come, and I went out on the swing pass, and the ball is supposed to float right here and, of course, Jackie threw it up and over my back this way. So as I turned, I see Duggie Buffone, their outside linebacker, this beast. As I turn, I just see a picture of him with nothing between me and him. And I reached up, and he just caved me in. I mean, he caved me in.
I came back to the huddle and I started cursing Jackie Concannon. We call that a buddy pass in the old days. That's a buddy pass. And Don Shy said, That's the way he throws, man. That's just the way he throws. So I said, Listen, I'm an actor, I'm not a football player. Enough of this nonsense. But it was -- it got to be really joyful. I cried when I saw it. And I remember having to do that dying scene, and all I could remember was like, “you have no lungs, you have no hair,” and my friend Larry Gordon was the producer, and I said, I'm going to go lie over there and get ready to die, and I had a beer and a cigarette. And that's how I prepared.
The biggest enjoyment I got out of it is they were showing it at recess through all the public schools. During their recess they wanted the kids to see it because they were the first black and white guys that ever roomed together, and that was kind of nice.
MR. BRENNAN: James, one last question.
MEETING ATTENDEE: First I want to say that my favorite movie of yours is actually my favorite movie of all time, El Dorado. (Applause.) Did you do your own stunts in the movie? And you played Mississippi, and now I don't quite remember the –
MR. CAAN: Alan Bourdillon Traherne.
MEETING ATTENDEE: Who came up with that name?
MR. CAAN: Well, certainly not me. I think I was about 22 or something, and Howard Hawks was a big-time director back then, and I'm working with Robert Mitchum, who is the greatest guy that ever was. He was a rounder man. When we would go somewhere, he'd drink and fight. Not that it's a wonderful thing to fight, but he'd back you up if, God forbid. He was just a great guy. And he had retired. He was a nut. He was in Maryland raising horses. His waist was down to 33, 34 inches. He had a big old barrel chest. Well, he came to play this drunken sheriff.
The first week was all me and Duke Wayne. He was some character. And every time he talked, I kind of -- I couldn't believe what I was listening to. Now, why'd ya do it, Luke? Why'd ya have to go and do it? Now, listen, Mississippi, when you see that there –
So apparently, I had that stupid hat on, and every time he talked, the only way I could make it real for me was I'd kind of smile when he talked because I couldn't take it serious. So Mitchum came about two or three weeks later and he had seen the dailies – he had seen what's going on, and he called me because I had that hat on. He called me Jiminy Cricket. He said, I notice you're doing a lot of smiling there, boy. I said, Well, what the hell would you do? Are you listening to him talk?
Howard Hawks was an old man then. I mean, he was 72, but he was a famous director, and we called him Coach. We had one scene where the three of us come running around a corner, and the bad guys are down the end of the block in a bar. And the scene was at night, and we come running around the corner, and it's Mitchum (the sheriff), and me. They were shooting down the street and had to set up the whole street. There was a stage coach, horses, and a hundred extras walking up and down the street. The whole scene consisted of us running around the corner and Duke saying to the sheriff, You go around this way and to me he said, Mississippi, you go right down the middle of that street.
The camera was maybe 55 or 60 yards away. It was a big master shot. As Coach walked back to the camera, Duke says to me, Now, look it, kid, when you say that there line, I want you to take a step and turn around and give me that look you give me.
What look? I guess he knew I was smiling all the time when I was with him. I didn't know he knew. So he said, Look, kid, when you take that there step, take a full step, turn around, and give me that look you give me, and then take off.
They get everything ready. And you’ve got to understand that they had to set up all the horses and all the extras and get everything ready for the scene.
All the horses start moving, everything is going on, and we come running around the corner. I take a step, turn around, and I give him that look I give him. And I hear, Cut. We had to stop all the horses, stop everything. And Coach comes walking up to me, he says, Jimmy, when you say the line, I want you to go!
Sorry, Coach, my fault.
They wipe down the horses if they are sweating. I mean, it's like a 45-minute set-up again. Now we are getting ready to shoot again, and Duke says to me, Now, look it, kid, when you say that there line, don't take a whole step, take a half a step, just take half of it, and then turn around and give me that look you give me.
I say the line, take half a step, turn around. Cut!
I got a bawling out, and I'm waiting for Duke to defend me. Not a word, he just stood there. He had me. And I said, Coach, it won't happen again. I'm sorry, I don't know what I was thinking.
I'm thinking, Wayne, you better say something. He don't say nothing.
So Coach goes back to the camera, they wipe down the horses again, and Coach goes back to the camera, and Duke looks at me says, Now look it, kid...
I was going to hit him right in the mouth. I had to reach up, I swear to God. And all of the sudden, this big old arm grabs me, and it was Mitchum. He said, Easy, big fellow, easy. And from that day on, we were the best of friends. From that day on, Duke and I played jokes on each other. I would be behind the camera and he would be doing something, and I would go, You stink. And he'd laugh, and Coach would say, What's the matter, Duke? He'd say, Oh, nothing, pappy, nothing. And it went on.
We had old wooden trailers on the stage. One day I go to lunch, and it was locked. And I said, Who locked my trailer? So they opened it up, and all this garbage came out. Duke was like a twelve-year-old kid. Cheatenest card player you ever saw in your life, but we became very friendly after he'd see how far he could take it.
MR. BRENNAN: You covered a lot of material, a lot of years. I just want to thank you for sharing your time with us this morning.
MR. CAAN: Oh, it was fun.
MR. BRENNAN: It's such a rarity to spend time like this with such a celebrated individual, and certainly you had a long, distinguished career, and we are just so delighted that you elected to share some of that with us today.
MR. CAAN: It was really nice. (Applause.) Thank you. If any of you feel obligated to leave a little money in a hat out there -- no -- it's always easy to just let me talk, because that's what I do, I talk.
MR. BRENNAN: It was wonderful.
MR. CAAN: Thank you very much. (Standing ovation.)