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Turning Points: Do It For Love

5 minute read
James Caan/As Told To Heather Won Tesoriero

Once I became an actor, there were two things that changed my life dramatically. The first was the death of my sister Barbara. This was in 1981; she was 38 years old. Prior to that, I had taken everything for granted. It was the late ’70s, and everything was coming my way. I was riding high. When I lost my sister to leukemia, I was completely devastated and traumatized. Barbara was my best friend and basically the only person I was afraid of. She was a bit of a dictator with me. But she had her door open to everyone; she was always trying to help people. She would say to me, “What are you doing on Saturday night? You know the blue suit with the three buttons? And the blue shirt with the red tie? I want you to be at the Beverly Hills Hotel at 8 o’clock.” The next thing I knew I was at some charity. My god, Barbara cursed me if I did anything wrong. But if anybody else cursed me, she’d go after them with all the Sunnyside, Queens, in her. She was just a great, great girl.

After my sister died, for some reason I decided that if I wasn’t going to be passionate about something, I wasn’t going to do it. So I quit acting at the height of my career, which was in many ways very self-destructive. When I left the business, I spent all my time with my son Scott, who at the time was a young kid. We were attached at the hip. Scott’s everything to me. I coached his Little League and soccer teams full time for six years.

I really loved coaching kids. I could change a kid’s life in five minutes, some poor kid who didn’t think he could do something. And in 10 minutes, all of a sudden he’s doing it, and he’s walking around like a bantam rooster. Unlike in film, I didn’t have to wait for music or editing for the payoff. It happens right there, on the spot. I really enjoyed that, and I wouldn’t have traded it.

But unfortunately, financially I took a huge bath. And then I got into a lot of bad habits from not working. I got into the drug thing, something I’d never done because I had been an athlete my whole life. I was into the cocaine scene, that self-destructive crap, which could’ve easily put me into the grave. I did a lot of things, and I hurt a lot of people because of the disease, the addiction.

The thing that really turned me around was my son Scott. One night when he was a teenager, he went with a baseball bat to some drug dealer’s house and was going to just beat him to death. I was crying out of one eye and smiling out of the other. Crying because I had thought my son didn’t have any notion of my drug problem. (We all think we’re so sharp.) And smiling because he cared that much. And that just straightened me out, realizing the responsibility I had, knowing I had to become a good example instead of a bad one.

I put myself into a good rehab called Impact. In terms of the cocaine, the truth is I hated the stuff to start with. I really did. It wasn’t hard getting off it since I didn’t even enjoy it. Once I realized that as a person, I was O.K., not a bad guy, and that I deserved something better than what I was giving myself, things started to change. It gave me a chance to make amends with some of the people I hurt.

Getting back into acting was not that easy. But I found that most of the people who counted, they root for you if they know you’re trying to right your wrongs and live a different life. Consequently, I enjoy working now more than I ever did.

And Scott’s doing great. He’s 25 and writing and directing his first feature film. He’s a very independent guy. He says, “Dad, if you call up someone, or try to recommend me, I’m not even going to go on the appointment.” Scott did a lot the hard way. But what pleases me most and makes me two inches taller is to see the kind of man he is, what a wonderful human being he’s become. I watch him handle people, and he’s gentle and nice. He loves what he does. Hopefully, I had some influence in teaching him that you should do what you love.

He threw me a bone and gave me a day’s work in his picture Dallas and Rusty. He gave me four lines at the end of the movie. I couldn’t be prouder.

–As told to Heather Won Tesoriero

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