James Caan (1940-2022): The Man Who Walked With Giants

James Caan, who died this week at 82, was part of a new wave of young actors who helped define Hollywood in the early and mid-1970s. If Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Dustin Hoffman signaled Hollywood’s move away from the classical looking male stars of previous decades to more ethnic and quirky types, Caan was a sort of link between the past and present. He certainly had the curly hair and broad shoulders of a 1940s romantic idol. He could even sing and dance a bit. Yet he often seemed slightly off the rails, just edgy enough for the post Viet Nam filmmakers who would make him into a star.

In a career that began in 1962, he appeared in more than 130 movies and television shows, but was best-known as the raging Sonny Corleone in The Godfather (1972). Unfortunately, his real life temper seemed to get more headlines than his movie roles. Being edgy cost him. For a while, Caan, a Queens boy raised by German Jewish parents, was typecast as hair-trigger types. One can divide his career into “Before and After Sonny.” Before Sonny he was a brash young gambler in El Dorado (1966), a brain damaged ex-football player in The Rain People (1969), the doomed Brian Piccolo in Brian’s Song (1971). After playing Sonny, for which he earned an Oscar nomination, there was no escaping Caan at your local cinema.

An incomplete list of his films would include: Slither (1973), Cinderella Liberty (1973), The Gambler (1974), Freebie and the Bean (1974). Funny Lady (1975) Rollerball (1975) The Killer Elite (1975), Another Man, Another Chance (1977) A Bridge Too Far (1977), Comes a Horseman (1978), Chapter Two (1979), and the last great one of his heyday, Michael Mann’s Thief (1981), which is arguably the best “Jimmy Caan movie” of the bunch, a neo-noir masterpiece where he plays a safecracker wanting to go straight.

Of course, there were more good performances after 1981. Gardens of Stone (1987), Misery (1990), and Honeymoon in Vegas (1993) kept his name hot, while good turns in The Program and Flesh and Bone (both 1993) assured his fans that he could still liven up the movie screen. Even a middling film could come to life as soon as Caan arrived in the plot.

Yet his personal life often overshadowed his film work. In interviews he was coarse, vulgar. He turned down good parts. He accepted bad ones. He portrayed himself as a devil-may-care type, but his glibness hid a self-destructive streak. There was cocaine and depression and guns. There were broken marriages and financial problems. There were boating and car accidents; he spent more time in hospital emergency rooms than on movie sets. Sometimes he’d disappear for a few years. You’d hear that he was coaching Little League baseball, or playing golf, or raising his son, Scott, who later became an actor. Then you’d hear Caan was broke, struggling to find work in an industry that no longer wanted or trusted him. You’d hear he was making a big comeback. Then he’d do something like Alien Nation (1988), and you had to wonder what he was thinking. “I’m basically a whore,” he said.

He was born March 26, 1940 in the Bronx. He attended Michigan State University for two years and later studied acting at Hofstra University, where he met his longtime friend and collaborator, Francis Ford Coppola. By his own accounts, Caan was a restless student. He loved physical pursuits: rodeo riding, martial arts, motorcycles. Yet it was acting that moved him most of all. After studying at New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater, he appeared in several off-Broadway shows and worked steadily in TV programs. Much of what drove him to acting was his dread of following his father’s footsteps into the meat packing industry.

“The reason I started was to stay away from the meat market,” he once said. “ That’s where I was headed — to be with the guys who lug beef all day long.”

Although he often disparaged the movie business, and even many of his co-stars, he enjoyed being recognized and he didn’t mind when people on the street would call him “Sonny,” or make a joke about his ankles being broken in Misery.

“First of all, it means that they remember the picture. There’s nothing not to like about it . . . No, I hope they never stop,” he said.

He considered himself a conservative Republican, yet he lived for a while at the Playboy mansion and partied like a madman. 

He had no patience with pretentious actors or directors, yet he missed out on a few roles because his asking price was too high. He turned down the role of Superman in 1978 because he didn’t want to wear the costume, and rejected the role Dustin Hoffman played in Kramer Vs Kramer (1979) because he thought it was “middle-class, bourgeois horseshit.” He even turned down the lead in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) because he thought the story was too bleak.

He spent his 60s and 70s working nonstop. He needed the money. He was frank about it. He provided his voice to Godfather video games, The Simpsons, and Family Guy. He  appeared in various movies and shows, some good, some forgettable. Who didn’t love him in Elf (2003)? Now and then we’d see a picture of him somewhere. The weather was always beautiful. He always looked satisfied, poking fun at his image. He was Jimmy Caan, the bad boy, the Las Vegas guy. It was always Jimmy, mind you, never James. In that regard, he was like Jimmy Cagney, or Jimmy Stewart, a guy we thought we knew well enough to call him “Jimmy.”

In what turned out to be the last few years of his life, Caan enjoyed Twitter. He posted pictures from his movies, or shots of himself with old Hollywood friends, or his beloved sister, who passed away many years ago. He embellished his tweets with what became his trademark sign off: “end of tweet.”

There’s one picture he posted more than once, three or four times, in fact, as if he wanted to be sure we all saw it. It was him as a young man, standing on the El Dorado set between John Wayne and Robert Mitchum. It’s as if he wanted us to know that, despite what we may have heard about him, despite the highs and lows, Jimmy Caan had walked with the giants.

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