By Laurence Lerman / New York City
The evening I heard the news of James Caan’s passing last week, I put on the television to watch one of his films. I settled on streaming the 1999 mob comedy Mickey Blue Eyes with Hugh Grant and Jeanne Tripplehorn, one that I had never seen. Caan co-stars as Tripplehorn’s dad, a mid-level NYC gangster who has serious reservations about his daughter’s upcoming nuptials to Grant, a dapper art auctioneer.
Though not unpleasant, the movie overall was silly and forgettable. But not so the always reliable James Caan, who over the course of a six-decade career was anything but.
Caan died on Wednesday, July 6. His death was announced by his family on Twitter. He was 82.
Ten years into his acting career, James Caan became an “overnight” star with his role as the gangster scion Santino “Sonny” Corleone in 1972’s The Godfather, directed by Francis Ford Coppola from Mario Puzo’s 1969 bestseller by the same name. The critics praised his energetic immersion into the character—the heir apparent to a Mafia family whose hot-headed, violence-prone manner proves to be his undoing. And audiences loved Sonny, right up until–need I put a spoiler alert here?–he’s brutally rubbed out by a rival faction at the Long Beach Causeway toll plaza in one of the film’s most famous scenes.
Playing a prominent role in the landmark Mafia epic elevated Caan’s career to Hollywood’s highest echelon, but it also resulted in his being cast in villainous roles for the next 50 years, often in crime comedies. The results were often fun, as in 1990s Dick Tracy and 1992’s Honeymoon in Vegas. Other times, audiences were left with unexceptional efforts like Mickey Blue Eyes and quickies like Wisegal, a 2008 Lifetime flick starring Alyssa Milano as a mob princess.
But in those decades after The Godfather, Caan came off as a guy’s kind of guy, bringing energy, bravado, accessibility and a naturalistic presence to his work, which included some 70 feature films and a handful of TV series, including the glittery 2003 hit Las Vegas.
A nice Jewish boy born in the Bronx and raised in Queens, James Caan dropped out of a couple of colleges before giving acting a shot in the late 1950s, studying for five years under the respected acting teacher Sanford Meisner at Manhattan’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater. He hustled for work and quickly began getting roles on TV in “guy shows” like Naked City, Route 66, Combat!and The Untouchables, as well as such films as the thrillers Lady in a Cage (1964) and Games (1967) and the John Wayne western El Dorado (1967). In 1969, Caan starred in the in the critically lauded drama The Rain People, written and directed by Francis Coppola, which led to his casting in you-know-what a couple of years later.
But Caan wasn’t through with television. In 1971, he starred in the made-for-TV football movie Brian’s Song as ill-fated Chicago Bears halfback Brian Piccolo, opposite Billy Dee Williams as the Bears’ great Gale Sayers. Caan’s lively, likeable performance in the beloved tearjerker really put him on the map, warming up audiences for his ferocious big screen triumph in The Godfather the following year.
The 1970s through the early 1980s were Caan’s most fertile period, with his swaggering presence on display as a Navy sailor who falls for a prostitute in Cinderella Liberty (1973), a college classics professor with a dangerous addiction in The Gambler (1974), a rebellious superstar in a brutal sport of the future in Rollerball (1975) and a master safecracker looking to retire in Thief (1981). Also quite fine was the 1980 drama Hide in Plain Sight, which also marked Caan’s only directorial effort, about a divorced father searching for his children after they and their mother have been put into the witness-protection program.
Even when his movies struck out critically or commercially, as was the case with such efforts as the comedies Freebie and the Bean (1974) and Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976), and the musical Funny Lady (1975), Caan generally received positive notices.
A number of fine performances in a mix of genres followed after a down period in the 1980s where Caan’s hard-living, bad-boy lifestyle (divorces, cocaine, financial problems, joining the rodeo circuit, earning a black belt in karate, living for a time at the Playboy Mansion—the usual drill for many a superstar of that era). He was always working, yes, though he never attained the heights of his post-Godfather decade. Still, his work in the Stephen King thriller Misery (1990), the neo-noir Flesh and Bone (1993) and the holiday comedy Elf (2003), among others, are all outstanding and memorable. The 2015 Canadian horror offering Sicilian Vampire and his portrayal of mobster Sonny Trafficante? Not so much. Caan himself expressed embarrassment over that one.
But the man liked to work and he did so until nearly the very end, co-starring opposite Ellen Burstyn in last year’s Queen Bees.
Caan looks like he’s enjoying himself in the very sweet retiree rom-com. And much to Ms. Burstyn’s delight—and ours—he was still swaggering
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.