James Caan brought strength and style to some of our greatest films

Over almost six decades, the tough guy excelled in multiple genres and starred in five undeniable classics: ‘The Godfather,’ ‘Brian’s Song,’ ‘The Gambler,’ ‘Thief’ and ‘Misery.’

SHARE James Caan brought strength and style to some of our greatest films

In his signature role as Sonny Corleone, James Caan co-starred in “The Godfather” with Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and John Cazale.

Paramount Pictures

You can’t start a tribute to James Caan without mentioning Caan’s Oscar-nominated supporting turn as Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather,” as Caan created one of the most indelible characters in the greatest movie ever made. But this was just one of the iconic roles in the legendary career of Mr. Caan, who died Wednesday at the age of 82.

Consider that in addition to “The Godfather” (1972), Caan starred in four other films that were arguably among the Top 10 all-time in their respective genres:

  • In 1971, Caan played Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo, who died from cancer at age 26, opposite Billy Dee Williams’ Gale Sayers in “Brian’s Song,” which became the most-watched television movie ever at the time. It remains a friendship story for the ages and one of the most enduring football movies ever.
Dying of cancer, Brian Piccolo (James Caan) seeks strength from his friend and teammate Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) in an emotional scene from the made-for-TV movie “Brian’s Song.”

Dying of cancer, Brian Piccolo (James Caan) seeks strength from his friend and teammate Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) in an emotional scene from the made-for-TV movie “Brian’s Song.”

ABC Television

  • Three years later, Caan delivered a searing and tragic performance as the English professor Alex Freed in “The Gambler,” whose self-destructive personality and addiction to wagering leads to him making insane decisions at the blackjack table (“Give me the three,” he says to a dealer when he doubles down on 18, and when it miraculously hits, he takes zero joy in the moment); luring a student-athlete into shaving points on a basketball game, and deliberately getting into a brawl that ends with him slashed across the face with a switchblade. It’s perhaps the most complete performance of Caan’s career and one of the most powerful movies about gambling ever made.
  • In Michael Mann’s classic noir thriller “Thief” (1981), Caan was a scene-stealing force as Frank, an ex-convict and safecracker supreme. It’s one of the greatest heist movies of all time.

  • And while Kathy Bates won the Oscar (and deservedly so) for “Misery” (1990), it’s Caan’s Paul Sheldon who is there with Annie Wilkes every brutal step of the way, in one of the great two-handers of the 1990s and surely one of the scariest and most intense psychological thrillers we’ve ever seen.

If James Caan had starred in just those five movies, what a memorable career it would have been. Caan’s legend becomes all the more impressive when we take in the depth and breadth and longevity of his work, from the hoodlum who gets his eyes gouged out in the Olivia de Havilland-starring “Lady in a Cage” (1964) through supporting John Wayne and Robert Mitchum in “El Dorado” (1966) and his first collaboration with “Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola in “The Rain People” (1969), his fine work in the John Updike adaptation “Rabbit, Run” (1970) — and then, after dozens of films big and small, hits and misses, reaching a whole new generation of moviegoers as the biological father of Will Ferrell’s Buddy in “Elf” (2003).

With his broad shoulders and no-nonsense demeanor and distinctive way of delivering his lines, Caan was first and foremost a classic cinematic tough guy, whether he was playing anti-heroes or bad guys, but he dabbled in a myriad of genres, co-starring with Marsha Mason in Neil Simon’s “Chapter Two,” playing opposite Barbra Streisand in “Funny Lady” and returning to TV in the 2000s for the NBC drama “Las Vegas.”

When I spoke with Mr. Caan last year via Zoom, just a few days after his 81st birthday, he cracked, “You can’t have any ‘Happy Birthday’ [at this age], those two friggin’ words don’t go to together anymore.” He told me his decades-long problems with a bad back had led to him staying in the hospital for nearly a year, and he was just starting to walk again. The injuries he suffered through the years, he told me, were from “the rodeo and all of that, all the non-Jewish activities I did.” (Caan loved talking about how he had won “Italian of the Year” awards even though he was Jewish.)


James Caan starred in the 1981 heist film “Thief,” shot in Chicago.

United Artists

As for Caan’s signature, often deliberate way of reading lines, he told me, “[That way] I never have to repeat myself. Haste makes waste.

“Where I come from, in Sunnyside in Queens, and I’m sure this is true of Chicago as well … these kind of gangster guys, they have these four-dollar words. … There’s a scene [in ‘Thief’] with the old man down in the basement and we just finished a score and I say, ‘The yield of my labor is in your pocket. But that is OK because I ‘electeded’ to do that. ‘Electeded.’ You go, ‘Wait a minute, what the f--- is that?’ It’s all these guys who have these four-dollar words and they try to use them, and they’re [using them] wrong.”

Caan reportedly turned down a number of huge roles, from “The French Connection” to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to “Kramer vs. Kramer” to “Superman,” but he told me he had no regrets and just loved acting. “If you can afford to, it’s fun to be somebody else for three months. Being an actor is being a child, number one — and playing games.”

Some of the most memorable games ever captured on film.

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