James Caan Interview
I am developing a film story-event project that’s piecing together what happened when a confluence of remarkable talents came together to make a low budget road movie in the late 1960s and their production journey brought them to western Nebraska. The road pic was Francis Ford Coppola’s art house special, The Rain People, starring Shirley Knight. That production cemented a relationship between Coppola and a young protege, George Lucas, who was along as a production associate and to document the making of the film. The project also connected Coppola with two actors who would go on to play prominent roles in his future pics: James Caan and Robert Duvall. That’s not all. The Rain People additionally led to Duvall starring in Lucas’ first feature, THX-1138, and to the actor directing his first film, the documentary We’re Not the Jet Set, which profiles an Ogallala, Neb. area ranch-rodeo family, the Petersons, whom Duvall became very close to. As I make progress on the story I will be posting interviews I’ve conducted with many of the principles involved in the films. What follows is an interview I did with James Caan. Look for upcoming interviews I did with Robert Duvall, Francis Ford Coppola, cinematographers Bill Butler (Rain People) and Joseph Friedman (Jet Set) and editor Stephen Mack.
James Caan Interview: From My Film Connections Project (An In-Progress Film Story-Event Project)
©by Leo Adam Biga
JC: “Bobby’s older than me. We first met in ’68 when we did a picture called The Rain People for Francis (Ford Coppola). That’s when we met the Petersons. That was first, I believe.”
LB: Except that IMDB shows Countdown was released in ’68, the same year The Rain People, a ’69 release, was in production, and so I’m thinking you two made Countdown first.
JC: “Oh yeah, you can’t argue with those fuckers. We had a lot of fun on Countdown. That was one of Bob Altman’s first features.
LAB: I thought perhaps you and Duvall might have met before that, like through New York acting circles.
JC: “No, no, because I came out here (L.A.) when I was like 21. I studied in New York. We didn’t study together. I did like an off-Broadway play there for eight months and then I did whatever television was available then. There was one called Playhouse 90. It was a three-camera show. It was like a play they put on live television. And then there was Naked City, which was a series. And then there was that Route 66, which I did in Philadelphia. But then that was pretty much it in New York.
“And then I got called out to California. But I had to know Bobby before that (Countdown-Rain People) because we were already goofing on each other. That’s weird though – I thought I knew Bobby before that, for what reason I don’t know. Is it age, what is it, Jesus Christ?!
LAB: So what is it that accounts for your enduring friendship?
JC: “Just kind of a blatant honesty I think. I mean, it’s not like I don’t like actors or something, but I don’t just much travel in those circles, and Bobby’s not one of those either. I mean, I know made him laugh a little bit and I like that because I like making people laugh and I guess he likes laughing or something. And Bobby’s obviously a terrific actor and really easy to work with. From day one till today I dont think there’s anyone more giving than him working on camera. Some actors are terribly selfish and they think the worse you are the better they look, so they don’t give a shit when you’re on camera, which is a horrible principle because there’s no such thing as bad acting in a good scene.
“And then I think horses. I don’t know if I was into horses. I think it was a kind of freedom and not so involved in being all withdrawn and letting the job overtake your entire life. It didn’t mean we didn’t work but we had a lot of fun. And he was a terrible practical joker. He couldn’t hold a goddamned secret for nothing. I mean, if you had something you really didn’t want out there and you whispered it to your best friend, he’d wait till there were 500 people in the room and blurt it out. That’s Bobby.”
LAB: If I’m not mistaken you were attached to The Rain People project from the beginning whereas Duvall joined the company some time later, and, that in fact he may have replaced another actor.
JC: “I think Rip Torn or somebody.”
LAB: What did you make of the young Francis Ford Coppola?
JC: “Francis at that time was very aesthetic. And he wrote the thing as a play I think, and we did it somewhere up in Columbia or somewhere. We did it as a play. It was sort of like a rehearsal thing that Francis did.”
LAB: How did the two of you meet?
JC: “I met Francis when he came out here. I guess he had seen one or two things I had done. I obviously hadn’t done too many. I think by that time he had written Patton. I think he stayed at my house. I had a little guest house, so he stayed there for awhile. We got to be friendly. Having come from the Neighborhood Playhouse with (Lee) Strasburg and all those people, he was a young guy – I think Francis is like a year older than me. He was from New York (by way of Detroit). As a matter of fact his grandmother lived around the corner from me in Sunnyside.”
LAB: What about The Rain People got you interested in doing the part of Killer Killgannon?
JC: “It was a great opportunity, a great character. Just from talking to him (Coppola) I knew he knew actors and he had already received some notoriety with You’re a Big Boy Now and obviously having written Patton at the age of 23 (24 actually) or whatever the hell he was. But obviously when I started working with him I knew he was something special. The guy pretty much knew about everything. When you look from there to The Godfather and all the guys Francis hired…if you look at every department head, the biggest today in their departments, whether Walter Murch in sound, Gordy Willis, Dean Tavalouris, they were all pretty much found by Francis.
“There was one Francis at that time. He was the best. I don’t know how many films I’ve done but Francis is still the best.”
LAB: Duvall told me a funny anecdote about Coppola, who apparently confided he was scared of the Petersons. That struck Duvall as funny too since Coppola went on to make films about mafia killers.
JC: “Francis wasn’t a Brooklyn Italian, he was Mediterranean Italian. All art. And, well they’re (the mafia) from New York. He understood them. He never understood what my love for rodeo was by the way.”
LAB: What kind of experience was The Rain People shoot for you?
JC: “I was like depressed through that whole picture, mostly because of this character I played. I was playing this guy with this brain damage, and I’m traveling and my community was not out there with a bunch of aesthetic, ethereal actors and actresses and cameramen. We were on the road, God, for that whole picture. We started out in Long Island and ended up in Ogallala out there. I had really no idea where we were going from day to day. From there (Long Island) we went to Virginia, we went down to Chattanooga and then across the country and wound up, as I’m sure he had scouted and everything, over in Ogallala.
“There was like 18 of us, the crew and the actors. It was just me and Shirley Knight, so every night I’d go to a different Holiday Inn and play with the light switches. I didn’t know what to do, I was a New Yorker. It was tough but it was a good picture I think. It’s really a nice picture. It was critically acclaimed. It won the San Sebastian Film Festival.”
LAB: Were you satisfied with how the script’s story was realized on screen?
JC: “That got a little mixed up,…the whole story kind of took a turn. That’s some personal stuff. People were supposed to be concerned about Shirley’s problem (her character’s problem). In other words here’s a woman who had all this responsibility, not only was she married but she had a baby, it all got too much and so she decided to take this ride and then she picks up some young guy who played college football. The whole idea of the picture is he in a sense becomes the embryo she’s carrying because she had to care for him and so forth. So it was all set up. Shirley played her a little mean and tough. I think what happened with the audience and Francis is they became more concerned with me than they did with her. She was the one you were supposed to worry about.
“Some of the choices were on the mean side, so they (the audience) became more involved with what happened to me.”
LAB: How was it working with Shirley Knight?
JC: “Shirley was a little tough. I like her but she was a little tough. And then by the way when Bobby showed up we started having fun. He’s the funniest son of a bitch. He was playing this motorcycle cop and he told me, “I’ve got two kids and everything, I don’t ride no goddamned motorcycle.’ ‘Fuck it, Bobby, goddamnit you’ve gotta ride the motorcycle, you’re a motorcycle cop on the highway. It ain’t nothin’, I’ll teach you in three minutes.’ So I had to get my brother to come out and double him. Oh, man, we laughed our asses off.
“He had that one scene at night with Shirley on the bike, going literally two miles an hour before I have that fight with him. ‘OK, action,’ and the thing would sputter out. (After multiple takes) finally he made it around the corner and came to a stop. Shirley got off and he threw the kick stand down and got off and he took three steps and the son of a bitch fell over, and he just yelled out, ‘Fuck you!’ Oh, my God…(laughing). Bobby was amazing. When he’d blow up, there was nothing like it.”
LAB: What about the very young George Lucas?
JC: “George was there all the time filming. He did a documentary The Making of The Rain People. He wore a big harness and had a 16 mm camera strapped to his chest. I thought he was born with it or something because I never saw him without it.
LAB: Part of the fun that came with Duvall’s arrival on location in Ogallala was the two of you meeting up with the Petersons.
JC: “B.A. (the late patriarch of the Peterson clan and the ostensible star of We’re Not the Jet Set) “Yeah, they were a wild group. They would fight in the middle of the living room, and oh boy I mean fist fight, and he’s (B.A.) sitting back in a chair saying, ‘Now, no hitting in the face, no hitting in the face.’ Those were the rules. With Denny Peterson I got my nose into (branding and roping).”
LAB: You were already into horses by the time you met the Petersons.
JC: “When I came from New York I got a horse right away because I think that was the thing to do. (Growing up) I always played make believe in the streets – it was Roy Rogers or wharever the hell it was. After hanging around with Denny and those guys he took me to my first branding which was at the Haythorn ranch in Bruell (Neb.). They have a huge ranch out there. I think I had a week off for a little stretch and rather than go home I went to this branding, and then from there it got in my blood.
“Denny picked me up at four in the morning, threw me in a trailer and we drove out there. I didn’t know any of these guys and I tried to look as western as I could, you know. I even had chew in my mouth. I didn’t want to stick out like some idiot from Hollywood on this big branding. Denny and I got amongst some guys, we saddled up and rode out, they were pushing some huge herd and I just fell behind ‘em yelling ‘Ha, ha, ha…’ The first few days I just wrestled these calves. One of the Haythorns said, ‘You guys keep a pushing on this herd’ – toward this water hole. They were going to top these other hills. So a bunch of them ran off and Denny left with them and left me alone with these other guys.
“I was dressed in my jeans and the oldest ranch hat. I never said a word, which for me is really difficult. I just kept spittin’ and yellin’ and pushin’ the herd, and we finally got ‘em to this water hole, and all of a sudden these two or three calves just bolted and ran up this steep old hill, so I whirled around with these old boys looking and I just took off up the hill. A herd or one is not bad but two is near impossible. So I got myself in a sweat chasing one. I’d get ‘em together and one would break to the left. Finally I got the two of ‘em and I started driving ‘em down the hill and I saw those old boys still sitting down at the water hole and one of ‘em looked up and said, ‘Hey, Hollywood (laughs),’ and I swallowed my chew and I went, ‘Yeah?’ He said, ‘You can leave them go.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘They’ve already been branded (laughs). So that’s the way I gave myself up I guess.
“But boy that was some experience. Goddamned, the work. It’s a great tradition actually. These guys come from all over, the neighboring ranchers, like the Petersons. And then all the wives, boy what a feast they put out. A spread for all the hands. They’d have all these homemade pies. You name it. By four o’clock, you talk about sleep and sore. I was done, I was hurtin’ boy. It was great.
“These range calves weigh 300 or some pounds, so I got shit on and kicked and pissed on. It was the hardest work. But it was really a big honor. Like on the fourth day they build these big catch pens in different sections and run these cattle from the different sections. And on the last day old Waldo Haythorn, who was the grandpa, gave me the honor of roping. I remember there were guys coming up from Texas, some great ropers. Everett Shaw, who was a big time roper from Texas, came up and roped for old Waldo. They do that, they invite ‘em up to be some of the ropers.
“You’d be tied onto your saddle and just rope these big old calves out of the herd and drag ‘em by the pit. I was flanking ‘em and spread eagling for two or three days. They doctor them and do whatever they do. And they (the Haythorns) bought me a hat as a thank you gift, a nice black stetson.”
LAB: You were a ‘made man’ after that.
JC: ‘Oh, yeah, that was it. I was done right then and there. Yeah, that was pretty good.”
JC: “I had a friend in Vegas named Dean Shendal (one-time professional steer wrestler and rodeo star and a fixture on the Vegas social scene; he opened his Green Valley ranch and practice arena to celebrities and competitors). All the rodeo champs used to train there and practice there before all the finals in Oklahoma City. I guess that’s how I got into rodeoing. Well, listen, from that point on I became an amateur and I filled my card in a year. I became a pro. It was just in my blood.
“When I started doing these bigger films, I was the first guy they had put in his contracts that I couldn’t rodeo, which is understandable. I could understand why they didn’t want me rodeoing on the weekends.”
LAB: You were heavy into your pro rodeo career when you worked on Funny Lady.
JC: “That’s a funny story. There was an incident where…there was about four weeks left on the picture and my lawyer at the time called me and said, ‘Jimmy, a week from next Wednesday I’m going to ask you to walk off the picture.’ I said, ‘What? What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘Well, they still haven’t signed the contract.’ Mind you, I’d been on it for two months already. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ Well, it turned out they agreed to the same deal I had on Cinderella Liberty and whatever and then they discovered, you’re not going to participate in the music rights, and they weren’t going to add that, which they usually do, to the gross of the picture – whatever little percentage I had. So they were arguing back and forth.
“Ray Stark (the film’s producer) was a tough guy and his lawyer was tough. I was sneaking out anyway (to rodeo). I was roping with a kid named H.P. Evens, who was a world champion at that time. And before that Wednesday I snuck out with H.P. and entered this rodeo in Palm Springs and as luck or whatever had it I roped this steer and I think as I sat back down to (?) it the horse threw me over the front of that saddle horn and that rope just ran through my hands. I wouldn’t let it go because I won like $86 or some bullshit. I could have lost a finger.
“It finally kicked up and dallied but it literally took all the hide off between my thumb and my forefinger. Just ran down to the bone. Oh my God, I remember some guy pouring some new skin in there. I had to go to work Monday. How the hell you going to keep that from the makeup people? I move my hands a lot in this picture, I’ll wrap it up, they’ll never notice it. So I do this scene with Barbra (Streisand). Nobody saw nothing. The minute I came off I headed to my trailer and I started putting some gauze on my hand and there was this guy standing there watching me. It was Ray Stark. He came over and said, ‘Goddamnit, you’ve been rodeoing again.’ I didn’t say nothing. And he said, ‘Didn’t you read your goddamned contract?’ And I said, ‘I don’t believe I’ve got one, Ray, and there’s another rodeo coming up this next week.’ Well, that afternoon the contract got signed.
“They took away my motorcycle from me and my right to enter rodeos.”
LAB: The Haythorns have quite a legacy.
JC: “I knew they were huge ranchers. I think there was some trail they blazed…”
NOTE: In 1890 Harry Haythorn, Waldo’s grandfather, and helpers drove 700 horses from eastern Oregon to the family’s ranch north of Ogallala, Neb., and then to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in south-central South Dakota, and this became the basis for the Duval-starring mini-series Broken Trail.
“So I became friendly with them (as did Duvall, who’s been to the Haythorn ranch several times).”
LAB: Of course Duvall got to know the Petersons intimately when he made his documentary about them.
JC: “I know he stayed close to them, and you know Rex (Peterson) along with Shelly (Peterson) are both out here, they both work in the industry (as horse trainers-wranglers). I haven’t heard from Denny. Shelly, I think she works in the Teamsters Union. Rex is training horses out here. He’s the most like his dad I guess of the guys I know. He’s a tough old sonofabitch. He ain’t got time for a lot of how ya’ doins and stuff.”
LAB: Duvall told me his experiences with the Petersons and the Haythorns informed his portrayals of the western characters he’s played. Is the same true of you?
JC: “My interest in ranching and all that, certainly that was a foundation for Comes a Horseman. And that was a complete fucking mess. I’ll get into that because Alan Pakula (the director), may be rest in peace, I wasn’t very fond of him, but two or three out of a hundred aint bad. But he didn’t know which end of a horse ate and he was the guy I got. I put the whole picture together and I’m not one of those guys that do all that stuff. I’m kind of lazy. I go in my trailer, say my words and go back in my trailer. When that picture was first conceived I went and got Jane Fonda. It was just a story about ranch life in 1945 in Montana. Montana was the last unfenced range in the country in ’45. And this guy (his character) comes back. It was just about the ranch life,. He joins forces with this girl.
“There was no Jason Robards character. There was none of that Bonanza bullshit. And Richard Farnsworth, I gave him his first acting job. He was great. And that’s what it was. I wanted to do a semi-documentary small picture. I went and spoke to Terrence Malick, who I wanted to do it and Terry said, ‘I know I’m going to shoot myself but I only do my own stuff…’and da-da-da. So then my agent got Alan Pakula. I was about to go off and do some picture with Claude LeLouch and I spent three or four hours with him (Pakula) telling him,’ Look, here’s what it is.’ And, of course, I had the best ropers in the world out there, and some of that roping in there was pretty hairy and wicked, 1,200 pounders. I just wanted to see these two people doing their work, trying to round these cattle up and all the stuff that’s entailed, and in the middle of the story, to put it in its simplest form, I wanted somebody from some oil company to come and offer them some silly money for the right to drill a hole where they found some oil on their property, and they say no, at which point I wanted the audience to go, ‘This is bullshit, this is nonsense, they’re working their ass off, who wouldn’t take $2 million?’
“And then when they finish driving the cattle to the station at the end of the picture I wanted the audience to realize that the only reason to ranch in my mind is that you love it, it’s for the right to do it again the next year, like the Haythorns and the Petersons. The idea that most of the people in the audience don’t really love what they do and they realize that instead of that being baloney, they get it. That’s what I wanted to happen. And then I came back from France and I read this thing (Pakula’s revised script) and went to the studio and said, ‘I’m not doing this – people hanging and rape. What are you talking about?’ And one of our guys got killed doing some stunt that was added to the end of the picture. It was a horror. But Jane was great.”
LAB: The way you describe what you were after on Comes a Horseman reminds me of what Duvall captured in We’re Not the Jet Set. You’ve seen his film, right?
JC: “No, what’s so funny, I speak to him three times a week, I mean he’s my best friend, you know. He tells me what he ate the night before (he does a dead-on impression of Duvall intoning, ‘the best steak I ever had…’ I called and said, ‘Bobby, send me a copy, I haven’t seen it.’ I knew all about it. Well, so you’d think he’d have it. He told me to call his assistant but she couldn’t find a DVD copy.”
LAB: He said the two of you have been looking a long time to do another project together.
JC: “Well, there’s this one project I found called Old Timers. It’s owned by this one company and for some reason they won’t turn it loose. It’s been out there for four or five years.”
NOTE: The project is being made with different actors under the new title Standup Guys.
“Yeah, I’d sure like to find something for me and Bobby. Yeah, there’s nothing I’d like better, you know. I just have fun when I’m working with Bobby. He’s at the point where he doesn’t want to do pictures with too many words anymore.”
NOTE: Caan says he has a Western he’s trying to get off the ground, but he runs into resistance from young suits who don’t know his rodeo and riding background.
JC: “‘What the hell does Jimmy know about horses?’ So I fight that all the time. I’m always Sonny Corleone. These people can’t get it out of their mind. For the first 20 years after The Godfather if there weren’t 12 people dead by page 20 on a picture I never got it. Then all of a sudden I sang and danced (in Harold and Walter Go to New York and Funny Lady) and they said, ‘Well, geez, we didn’t know you sing and dance.’ Well, shit, no one ever asked me. ‘Well, we didn’t know you were a cowboy.’ Well, no one ever asked me. (To me) Talk to some of your friends who can write – time ain’t getting any shorter, you know.”
- ‘The Godfather’: An offer many helmers could refuse (variety.com)
- Francis Ford Coppola’s search for the best ending (management.fortune.cnn.com)
- ‘Twixt’ review: xxxx (sfgate.com)
- How we made … Francis Ford Coppola and Stewart Copeland on Rumble Fish (guardian.co.uk)