When James Caan’s family announced his death on Thursday, it sent shockwaves through cinematic circles — not because his death was particularly premature (he was 82), but because he seemed such a vibrant and outrageous personality, you thought he might be up for it. would always live.
He hadn’t retired, or even slowed down much, in old age. He co-starred (with Ellen Burstyn, Jane Curtin and Ann-Margret) in “Queen Bees” last year and has yet to get a movie. More than that, he had been actively present on Twitteroften shared images from his movies and memories of his associates, and always ended his posts with the phrase “End of tweet.”
Yet Caan was a series of contradictions: a Jewish actor best known for his Italian role, a lead who never quite became a movie star, an actor equally adept at playing strength and weakness, anger and vulnerability. His assault on his abusive brother-in-law in “The Godfather” is one of the most visceral scenes of violence in movie history. But just the year before, he starred in a movie that is still known for its ability to make men cry. We begin our look at his long, diverse career there.
Caan had several years of television work and a handful of juicy film roles to his credit (including memorable appearances in Howard Hawks’ “El Dorado” and Howard Hawks’ “Red Line 7000” and Robert Altman’s “Countdown”) when he starred in this ” ABC Movie of the Week.” Caan and Billy Dee Williams starred as real-life Chicago Bears teammates Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers, the first interracial roommates in NFL history and best friends until Piccolo’s untimely death from cancer in 1970. Caan and Williams’ easy rapport sells the relationship , and Caan is truly heartbreaking in the closing scenes, which prove too rare a showcase for his tenderness and warmth.
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Caan’s breakthrough role came the following year in Francis Ford Coppola’s sensational adaptation of the bestseller by Mario Puzo. The director — who had used Caan to great effect, in a much softer role, in “The Rain People” (1969) — cast the actor as Sonny, the irascible eldest brother in the Corleone clan. The studio wanted Caan to play Michael (executives didn’t care at all about this Pacino boy Coppola was hooked on), but the filmmaker knew Caan had the mix of the ladies’ charisma and raw power that was so essential to Sonny . It was a scene-stealing role, and Caan took advantage of it by taking the character’s many memorable moments to the extreme: his memorable in flagrant crime entrance, his mocking “bada bing!” moment with Michael, that humiliation during his brother-in-law’s street fight and especially his shocking, bullet-proof final hitches on the Jones Beach Causeway.
As with most actors associated with “The Godfather”, Caan was quickly elevated to lead roles in the wake of his astonishing success. Perhaps the best of the bunch was this spiky tale of a privileged English professor who discovers that his high-society pedigree and formidable intellect are no match for a spiraling gambling addiction. Caan’s duality – his ability to move between worlds, ethnicities and classes – has rarely been more effective than here, as his Axel Freed should feel at home both in the classroom, where he lectures on Dostoevsky’s works, and in the backrooms of New York’s seedy gambling games, trying to win more time from his bookmaker.
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In our current movie landscape, an actor who achieves critical successes like “The Godfather” and “The Gambler” is usually ripe for plucking by the Superhero Industrial Complex, handed a nice payday and an easy shoot in exchange for borrowing class and gravitas. to a popcorn movie. Caan’s lead role in Norman Jewison’s great sports film could have looked the same, reducing his considerable on-screen intelligence to something more brutal. But “Rollerball” is not your typical sports movie. Set in the then-distant future of 2018, it is a prescient warning of the dangers of corporate oversight, overt violence and class struggle in sports entertainment — and society at large — and Caan brings out both the character’s fierce physicality and his intellect. convenience about.
Caan had arguably his best performance—and certainly his most soulful—in this astonishing combination of middle-aged crime film and melodrama from writer-director Michael Mann (“Heat”). Mann specializes in labor criminals, guys who see their job as a job and nothing more, a way to earn a living without knocking on a clock. Few actors understood that character like Caan, who plays the safe-cracker, jewel thief, and ex-con ex-con Frank as a man who breaks the law but not his moral code, and so longs for the fruits of his labors that he carries a collage with him. of his imagined perfect suburban life as a mobile vision board. Caan wears the character’s heaviness like a winter coat; he does what he has to do to make ends meet, forever grabbing the last big score that always seems just out of reach.
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Caan spent much of the 1980s in self-imposed exile, burnt out from his busy 1970s, battling addictions, and caring for his children. He stepped back into the industry with this Rob Reiner adaptation of Stephen King’s bestseller, but did so with a generosity of spirit: Rather than choose a solo vehicle that would show off his gifts, he took on the decidedly secondary role of bedridden novelist Paul Sheldon in his own right. and ceded the spotlight to relative newcomer Kathy Bates, who had the much more showy role of his obsessed superfan Annie Wilkes. She won an Oscar and thanked him profusely in her acceptance speech: “I really am your No. 1 fan, Jimmy.”
Caan spent the 1990s easing his newfound position as a respected actor, with copious supporting roles in both film and television. Sonny Corleone’s remains made him a good idea for villainy roles, and he played them well, but some of his most memorable work turned and clouded those expectations. One of the best examples was this romantic comedy from writer-director Andrew Bergman, starring Nicolas Cage as the newlywed who spends a weekend betting on Caan’s high roller with his wife (Sarah Jessica Parker). On paper, the character is reprehensible, but Caan bestows a heartbreak on him that gives the image, and the central conflict, some unexpected ripples.
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Caan may have had visions of John Travolta’s “Pulp Fiction” comeback when he accepted a supporting role in the upcoming Wes Anderson’s debut film, a snooty film about a group of incompetent criminals. It didn’t have the same result – the film didn’t find its audience until years later, after Anderson settled in – but Caan’s unsung comedic side shines in the role of Mr. Henry, an imposing criminal mastermind (and the owner of a successful landscaping business). It was one of his best late-career performances, deploying his still-powerful, tough demeanor and undermining it with unexpected, self-assured humor.
When you live and work as long as Caan, you are loved by each generation for a different role, and if boomers loved him for “The Godfather” and Gen Xers for “Bottle Rocket”, this great family comedy endeared him to Generation Z A lesser actor, cast in the role of the father of the Arctic elf Buddy (Will Ferrell), may have winked or robbed and ruined the whole thing; Caan wisely played this tormented father close to the bone, acutely aware that the straighter his face, the funnier his scenes. Drama, comedy, suspense, action, children’s movies – there really wasn’t anything James Caan couldn’t do.