James Caan has passed away at 82. He was the epitome of the New York tough guy. He left his indelible mark on The Godfather as Sonny Corleone, the charismatic womanizer with a dangerous temper. Even with all his tough-guy roles to follow, he would eventually demonstrate his remarkable versatility as a man with heart, soul and a nice comedic touch that not everybody will remember. He’s been nominated for many awards including the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in The Godfather and an Emmy for Outstanding Single Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role as Brian Piccolo, the cancer-stricken football player in Brian’s Song. That performance had even most men in tears.
Who would ever guess that the man who captured the role of Sonny Corleone was born in the Bronx and raised by his parents who were Jewish immigrants from Germany. He grew up in Sunnyside, Queens, was educated in New York City and later attended MSU. His first love was football. But sadly, he never made the cut. He transferred to Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York but did not graduate. He did, however, meet his classmates Francis Ford Coppola and Lainie Kazan. It is at Hofstra where Caan became interested in acting and later auditioned for (and attended for five years) New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre.
He played off-Broadway and Broadway in plays, but he found his niche in television and film. Early in his career, he guest-starred in several popular series in the early ’60s including Ben Casey, Naked City, Kraft Suspense Theater and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. It was his sidekick role to John Wayne and Robert Mitchum in Howard Hawks’ El Dorado that had audiences pay attention. Later, Coppola would approach Caan to star in a small road movie where he played a former college football star who sustains a brain injury and hooks up with a young married pregnant woman in The Rain People. That performance and film would catapult the careers of Coppola, Caan and Robert Duvall. All three would eventually work on the famed gangster epic The Godfather.
Caan had many ups and downs in his career and social life. He was married four times and has four sons and a daughter from his various marriages. Many would consider Caan a man’s man. He was a practicing martial artist for almost thirty years with various ranks. He was also a Master of Gosoku Ryu Karate and did steer roping at rodeos. Going along with the tough guy persona was Caan’s association with Andrew Russo who was the mob boss of the Colombo crime family. Caan and Russo new each other for many years and Caan even made him godfather to his son, Scott Caan.
As tough as the man could be, he was a master at the introspective roles which is very hard for many actors. He excelled in his wonderful roles like the Navy sailor who falls in love with a hooker in Cinderella Liberty, the literature professor with the gambling vice in The Gambler and as a safe cracker in Thief. He also showed a very funny side to himself as well as an inept police detective in Freebie and the Bean, a wealthy professional gambler trying to win the heart of Sarah Jessica Parker in Honeymoon in Vegas and as the natural father of Will Ferrell as one of Santa’s helpers in the hilarious Elf.
For as many bad pictures as Caan was in, he would bounce back with a brilliant performance like playing the role of Paul Sheldon the romance writer in Stephen King’s Misery where he would be in bed throughout most of the movie being tormented and tortured by Kathy Bates as a crazed fan who also happens to be a nurse. Caan was that shot of adrenaline that one could expect in a film. He could easily stand out but had no problem sharing the screen with great talent.
The man worked from the ’60s all the way up to the present with three projects ahead, one in post production due out in 2023 and the other two had just been announced. James Caan, a monumental talent and a one-of-a-kind actor whose presence will be missed in film and TV, but will never be forgotten with the library of films he has lent his talents to.
Visit Ray’s blog at themonsterinmyhead.com