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 transfer 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 this episode.
Starring in a weekly series (8 p.m. Mondays on NBC/Ch. 5) is something new for Caan, who plays Big Ed Deline, security boss of the fictional Montecito Resort and Casino.
More accustomed to films, Caan was nominated for an Oscar as Sonny Corleone in 1972's "The Godfather," and for an Emmy as terminally ill football player Brian Piccolo in the 1971 TV movie "Brian's Song." He can be seen as Will Ferrell's father in the hit comedy "Elf," and early next year in Lars von Trier's "Dogville," starring Nicole Kidman.
So how's he finding weekly television?
"Different!" he chuckles. "How's that for political correctness."
At first, the actor had his doubts about doing a series. For one thing, 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 if someone says that to him, 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 thought his character, 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') 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, although it trails the new CBS detective drama, "Cold Case," in overall 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, gaming tables, even the lack of fresh air.
The scene this day calls for 79 background players — bartenders, dealers, security guards, waitresses and a whole 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 on stage thanks Montecito for giving him a second chance. There's a sense that something unexpected is about to happen.
The 63-year-old's career includes some 70 movies, many of them failures, and he's been beset by personal problems over the years, including a 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."