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James Caan: More thoughts on ‘Thief” — and 3 Chicago Bears

Players who befriended the actor on ‘Brian’s Song’ continued to make an impact on the actor, and his door

Jessie (Tuesday Weld, left) meets Frank (James Caan) at the O’Hare Tollway Oasis in “Thief.”
United Artists

A handful of behind-the-scenes gems from my James Caan interview about the making of the 1981 classic “Thief” — and the story of the three Bears.

  • For the iconic, nearly 10-minute sequence in “Thief” with Frank and Jessie sharing their life stories, director Michael Mann filmed at the O’Hare Tollway Oasis — the same spot where he and his future wife, Summer, had talked through the night years earlier.
  • The late Robert Prosky was a 51-year-old veteran of the theater when he made his feature film debut as crime boss Leo in “Thief.” Prosky went on to appear in films such as “The Natural,” “Broadcast News,” “Hoffa” and “Dead Man Walking,” and played Sgt. Stan Jablonski on “Hill Street Blues.”
  • Also making their film debuts in “Thief”: Jim Belushi as Frank’s partner Barry; William Petersen as a bouncer at Wise Fools Pub who scoots away when Frank puts a scare into him, and Dennis Farina, who was still on the Chicago Police force and was working as a consultant on the film when Mann cast him as one of Leo’s henchmen, who wounds Frank in the climactic scene before Frank guns him down.
  • Real-life jewel thief John Santucci was also cast in the film, as a corrupt police officer.
  • Two years after Tangerine Dream contributed the searing soundtrack for “Thief,” the German electronic group’s music was put to equally effective use in another memorable early 1980s Chicago adventure: “Risky Business.”
  • Of course, “Thief” wasn’t James Caan’s first Chicago-centric film that has stood the test of time. A decade earlier, he played Chicago Bears fullback Brian Piccolo, who succumbed to cancer at age 26, and Billy Dee Williams played Gale Sayers in the classic “Brian’s Song.” Real-life Chicago Bears had bit roles as themselves in the movie, and Caan said when the Bears would come out to play the then-Los Angeles Rams, a few of them would visit his house and knock down his door. Not ON his door, mind you.

“That was 50 years ago, holy s---,” said Caan. “Oh yeah, my boys, my Chicago boys. [Dick] Butkus, [Doug] Buffone, [Ed] O’Bradovich. They would break down my front door on a Saturday. They thought that was really funny. Seriously, they’d just pound it in. They wouldn’t knock or anything.”