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Caan tries his luck on TV in `Las Vegas'

CULVER CITY, Calif. -- James Caan is not good at sitting still.

The star of the NBC series "Las Vegas" is talking, gesturing, and fidgeting in a makeup chair while his face and hair are smoothed and a fake tattoo is wiped off his forearm.

He's also flirting with female cast members, conferring with a stuntman, and worrying about when he'll find time to play host to friend Alec Baldwin, who has a guest appearance in the episode being filmed.

Starring in a weekly series (9 p.m. Mondays, locally on Channel 7) is something new for Caan, 63, who plays Big Ed Deline, security boss of the fictional Montecito Resort and Casino.

He's more accustomed to films. His long career is probably still most remembered for the 1972 role that won him an Oscar nomination: Sonny Corleone in "The Godfather." But back then he was also an Emmy winner for playing the terminally ill football player Brian Piccolo in the 1971 made-for-TV movie "Brian's Song."

These days, he can be seen on the big screen as Will Ferrell's father in the hit comedy "Elf," and early next year he'll appear in Lars von Trier's "Dogville," starring Nicole Kidman.

So how's he finding weekly television?

"Different!" he says with a chuckle. "How's that for political correctness?"

At first, the actor had his doubts about doing a series. For one thing, he says, he wanted to make sure his role would demand some effort: "It's really easy to become lazy and say, `Just give me my check.' "

Caan also wanted each episode to be rooted in a certain reality. "Vegas in itself is a circus; you don't need to add clowns," he says.

Molly Sims, who plays Deline's rebellious daughter, Delinda, says Caan is a professional who just wants things done right. "If the writing's not good or he doesn't like it, he's very picky, but that's what makes it good. He adds clout to our show," Sims says.

"I always say my least favorite words are `I don't care,' " Caan says, explaining that if someone says that to him about anything, his response is -- well, unprintable. When he tells people " `Acting is not my life,' they sometimes take that to mean I don't care. But that's not what I mean. I care. I want to be the best in the world."

Caan says he thought his character in "Las Vegas," as first written, was stiff and limited. He insisted Deline be "more elastic, so there could be some humor." He also wanted him fully integrated in story lines. "He was just going to be sitting in this room with cameras! I don't feel the best thing I do is talk to machines."

So Deline's job was changed from head of surveillance to head of security, allowing him to mingle in the casino.

"I wanted to be more than partially responsible for the [series's] success or failure," says Caan. "Not solely responsible, because we have a great cast. But I wanted to be like the elder statesman -- which unfortunately I am, whether I like it or not!"

"Las Vegas" is the top-rated new drama in the 18-to-49 demographic that advertisers cherish (though it trails the new CBS detective drama "Cold Case" in total viewers). It features Josh Duhamel as Danny McCoy, Deline's protege and his daughter's sometime lover; Nikki Cox as Mary Connell, Montecito's director of special events; and Marsha Thomason as pit boss Nessa Holt.

Soundstages in a cul-de-sac in Culver City contain a huge casino set, stuffed with all the flash of Las Vegas: glitzy red and gold decor, rows of one-armed bandits, and gaming tables.

The scene this day calls for 79 background players -- bartenders, dealers, security guards, waitresses, and a posse of conventioneers dressed in Western outfits.

Baldwin -- who plays Jack Keller, a pal of Deline's since they were CIA agents -- is clustered with Caan and the sexily clad Sims and Cox beside the casino bar. A comic onstage thanks Montecito for giving him a second chance. There's a sense that something unexpected is about to happen.

Caan's career includes some 70 movies, many of them failures, and he's been beset by personal problems over the years, including a well-chronicled bout with cocaine addiction. But a few years ago he moved his family -- wife Linda Stokes, whom he married in 1995, and their two sons -- to Park City, Utah.

Caan, a black belt in karate who spent nine years on the pro rodeo circuit, says: "I looked at my birth certificate and started playing golf -- no more rodeo, no more karate."

There also were no more job offers from Hollywood, so he and his family moved back to Los Angeles.

"Absence doesn't make the heart grow fonder," he says. "It makes them think you are dead."

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