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It's scary casting for an elf service.

It's a bit like finding Julie Andrews in Death Wish V or Woody Allen as The Terminator.

James Caan, who has built a reputation on tough guy roles (he was Oscar nominated for his performance as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather), is one of the stars of the movie world's primary seasonal offering.

For a man with rugged features, a playboy past and a reputation for shooting from the lip, it is a bit of a surprise to see James hamming it up in ELF, as the natural father of ... well, an elf.

"I guess it's not the normal kind of film with which you would associate me," admits James, a still-slim 64.

"I remember having this conversation with my agent who only needed to mention the name of the picture to make me think: I didn't want to do it.

"He just said: 'Elf' and I said: 'Elf?! Don't even bother sending me the script'!"

So how did he get such a leading role in the film?

"Well, my agent is a canny guy who is also very persistent. So he sent me the script, despite what I'd told him to do with it, and I read it and I thought it was really very funny."

And so did lots of other people, as the buzz around Holywood quickly confirmed that Elf could be one of the hits of the year - and a surprise one at that.

Hollywood hasn't always got it right when it comes to Christmas. Miracle On 34th Street, with Lord Attenborough, was less successful than had been predicted ... The Grinch (with Jim Carrey) played a whole lot better in America, where the character was familiar, than it ever did in the UK.

Elf, though, has already taken a sackload of cash in advance bookings in America and is expected to do the same over here.

Not that any of that makes James Caan feel entirely happy with his involvement in a movie which plays it primarily for laughs.

"It's one of the seventy-some movies I've done and it's the first one I've ever done with Santa Claus. Ninety-five percent of the scripts I get it's always, you know, I'm beating the hell out of somebody, or I'm firing a gun at them, so forgive me if I felt a little awkward taking part in a light comedy.

"But, hey, the whole process was exciting. My kids were saying: 'Wow, Dad's doing a picture where he doesn't kill eight people by page eleven' and that did make me feel pretty warm inside."

James has two young boys from his fourth marriage and lives on a ranch in Utah and, yes, the little ones were in his mind when he agreed to take on the role of Walter in Elf.

"I guess it's the kind of picture that they will enjoy and maybe if I didn't have young children I wouldn't have taken on the part. But I'm glad I did."

Elf starts on Christmas Eve, a long time ago, with a small baby at an orphanage in America crawling into Santa's bag of toys and then remaining undetected as he is accidentally carried back to Santa's workshop at the North Pole.

There, he is taken under the wing of a surrogate father and raised to be an elf although, because of his human parenting, he grows to be three sizes larger than everyone else.

It's clear that Buddy (Will Ferrell) will never truly fit into the elf world so he sets out to find his real family in New York City.

Enter Walter, as the workaholic publisher of children's books - and Buddy's real dad.

Buddy also discovers a new mum (Mary Steenburgen), and learns he has a ten-year-old half-brother (Daniel Tay) who doesn't believe in Christmas or elves or Santa.

Filming of the movie took place last December (there was a rumour that the movie was, perversely, going to be released in mid-summer) around the Rockefeller Center in New York.

Christmas, big shopping centre, lots of cameras and lots of actors ... that must have been fun.

"Logistically, if you picked the worst place in the world to shoot a film at Christmas time, it would be the Rockefeller Center," says James. "It was a pretty brave undertaking.

"As was filming in Central Park at Christmas. We had to be patient to do that. To find enough time to film, away from the shoppers, the buses, the rubber neckers ... it was tough.

"But at least New Yorkers are used to people filming around them. Only in New York can a production get away with shooting a giant elf on the street without causing much of a stir.

"There was this 6ft 3in elf walking by and it was, like, 'Well, so what? There are weirder things than that in New York City'!"
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Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Ents Film
Publication:Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough, England)
Date:Nov 28, 2003
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