Barbara Wilkins
March 10, 1975 12:00 PM

After the stunning triumph of Godfather II, all Hollywood awaited, with baited tongue, for the other Two to drop—”Godmother II,” also known as Funny Lady, Barbra Streisand’s follow-up of Funny Girl. The premiere on March 9 is being celebrated not so much as a sequel but as a Second Coming. It is a black-tie benefit, with the preliminaries to be televised live nationwide over ABC. The hall that was hired is not your tacky old Grauman’s bijou but Washington’s Kennedy Center, no less. And the cause is the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation’s Special Olympics for Retarded Children, of which the honorary chairwoman is Mrs. Gerald Ford. But calling the shots, needless to say, is that other First Lady, and in no way is anyone else going to reign over Barbra’s parade. She hopes. For example, ABC’s commentator for the occasion will be Frank Gifford rather than the more threatening Howard Cosell. So if the evening is stolen from Streisand, the only likely perpetrator would be her Funny Lady co-star, another hell-for-leather New York Jewish cowhand, James Caan. “She’s scared to death of me being spontaneous,” muses Caan, “and maybe she’s just a little afraid of me.”

Streisand’s showbiz intuition, as usual, is right on. Jimmy Caan has suddenly, at 35, put together the insouciance of a Burt Reynolds with a seriousness about acting that establishes him as Hollywood’s newest superstar. In Funny Lady ads, he is not only billed above the title with Barbra but there is an “AND” between their names—a coup of agentry and clout not negotiated by such potent co-stars as Ryan O’Neal, Walter Matthau, Omar Sharif and George Segal.

As for their Funny Lady collaboration, only Barbra’s hairdresser (boyfriend Jon Peters) knows for sure how much solo reshooting and reediting she did after the filming was officially “wrapped” to cut down Caan’s part to subservient size. (It is known that Streisand’s producer nervously asked triple Oscar winner Marvin Hamlisch to doctor the Funny Lady score at the last minute.) Nonetheless, Jimmy Caan, who plays impresario husband Billy Rose to Barbra’s Fanny Brice, refuses to put the knock on his New York soul-mate. “Instinctually, she’s brilliant,” he says. “I like her, and she respected me.” And if in the final version Caan doesn’t look too good in what is his first musical, well, he says he only took it in the first place for the challenge and “the luxury of falling on my tush.” Not that Jimmy is exactly worrying. He even sings quickie choruses of It’s Only a Paper Moon and Me and My Shadow, which he cracks “has Sinatra upset.”

Hollywood’s New Blue Eyes has arrived in a rush since 1972, after 10 nowhere years and a dozen movies, four of which never even got released. His breakout began when he played the dying halfback in the Emmy-winning Brian’s Song, ABC’s locker-room Love Story. Then followed a range of remarkably dimensional and demanding portrayals: the mercurial Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, the simple-minded sailor in Cinderella Liberty and the high-rolling English professor in The Gambler. “Overnight I was a genius,” says Jimmy. “But it was out-and-out luck.”

Not that Caan hasn’t spent his life scrapping for his luck. “I was the toughest guy at P.S. 106,” he recalls of his Queens youth. His father was a kosher meat dealer, and “the picture I have of my mother is of her waiting outside the doctor’s office while they sewed me up from a fight.” At 16, Jimmy won an athletic scholarship to Michigan State where, after a week of freshman football, “they sent me home in a box.” He continues, describing his next vocation, “The neighborhood we came from wasn’t exactly conducive to the arts. But if anybody said, ‘There goes that faggy actor,’ I’d just whack, whack, and that took care of it.” He apprenticed off-Broadway, earning $37.50 a week, and then landed TV guest shots on shows like Naked City and The Nurses. He claims he turned down 20 different offers to do a permanent series. “Stretching is what acting is all about,” he says. “If you play one tune on an instrument, you’re not playing the instrument.” The first role that stretched him beyond his typecast tough-guy image was The Rain People in 1969 in which he played a mentally retarded hitchhiker. “Until then,” he says, “I was always climbing off my horse and beating up people.” The strains of the long location shooting in Pennsylvania (“There was nothing to do but go into motel rooms and play with the light switches”) cost Caan six months unkinking with a shrink but won him the respect of director Francis Ford Coppola, who later cast him in The Godfather.

Not long after he settled on the Coast, Caan emerged from a four-year marriage to a dancer with a daughter, Tara, now 10. She and her mother live in Tarzana, and Jimmy visits her weekly, admitting, though, that “I’m more like Santa Claus to her than a father.” Caan’s closest crony has always been his brother Ronnie, whom he brought out to Hollywood 11 years ago and still supports. “Ronnie and I would be with some whore or something,” he reports, “and call my father up at 5 a.m. The girl would say, ‘Your sons aren’t bad,’ and my father would answer, ‘You ain’t been in bed till you been in bed with the old man.’ ”

For the past three years, Jimmy has nested down with Connie Kreski, an ex-Playmate of the Year who shoots film bits and commercials for products like Mountain Dew and Pro-Max hair dryer. By way of commitment five months ago, after Jimmy moved his ménage (including Ronnie and his girl and a houseman) into a four-bedroom estate on Sunset Boulevard, Connie finally gave up her own apartment.

For all his new situation, Jimmy has not exactly gone Beverly Hills. His heart and most of his buddies are on the rodeo circuit, where he has cooled out between pictures the past five years. “It clears your head of all this movie bull,” he explains. It could also break your head, but Caan thinks nothing of risking, say, the $700,000 plus 10 percent of the gross that Sam Peckinpah is ponying up for his next picture, Killer Elite, to win the $186 top purse in steer-roping, his hazardous specialty. While Connie winces (she considers the sport “filthy” and sits out the competitions getting manicures and massages back at the hotel), Caan peels off his manure-spattered rig, and mutters, “I’ve known guys who’ve pulled off their gloves, and their thumbs were right there in the glove.”

For all his Marlboro (his actual brand) macho—he is also a killer competitor in tennis and handball—Caan cares, too, about his profession. “I don’t like sitting around talking about all that acting crap,” he says, “but I’ve always wanted to be respected by the people I respect. My goal is to do good work and not quit trying. And I never refuse an autograph. These stars who say, ‘It’s awful. I can’t go anywhere,’ they’re full of crap. They get in the business in the first place for recognition and then they complain.”

Right now, Jimmy Caan has no complaints. Sure, his hair is graying and beginning to thin, and he is at the unsettling stage where aging Alfies begin to ask themselves what it’s all about or get hung up making self-indulgent film statements like Warren Beatty’s Shampoo. The years have brought Jimmy a sort of self-appreciation and a saving self-amusement. “The most important thing,” he philosophizes, “is being able to laugh.” There are no existential questions raised on the sports page (which is all he reads), and so far he has been able to thumb his nose at the intruding world. The main thing, it would seem, if he wants to keep things tied down is not to lose those thumbs.

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