There are some movie stars for whom the intoxication of fame and the jubilation of acting are not enough. James Caan, who passed away at the age of 82, sought satisfaction in extreme sports, drugs and a colorful personal life. However, the many superb renditions he gave in numerous movies and TV episodes will survive the gossip and sensational headlines.
His defining role came as Sonny Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). Oscar-nominated Caan was perfect as the hedonistic and volatile heir to the Corleone family, whose bloody ways end in his own death. Pointing to the links between the mafia and American capitalism, the film portrays men like Don Corleone (Marlon Brando), the title’s godfather, as businessmen. But Sonny, a ruthlessly violent mobster driven by family loyalty, represented the true nature of the Corleone family.
Shortly after The Godfather, Caan wallowed in violence again as the embittered hero of Rollerball (1975). Though presented as the moral center of the film, Caan’s character, Jonathan E, is just as sadistic as everyone around him. More violence came his way as the ruthless CIA man in Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite and, in contrast, portrayed Billy Rose, the gambling, flirtatious husband of Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice in Funny Lady, all in the same year.
Caan worked well with Geneviève Bujold in Claude Lelouch’s romance in the US, Another Man, Another Chance (1977), and with Jane Fonda in the western Comes a Horseman (1978). The latter title corresponded to Caan, who was once referred to as the Jewish cowboy due to his previous participation in rodeos and his ownership of a horse stable.
The film critic Pauline Kael wrote of Caan at that stage of his career that “as an artist he is not quite a piece: he is never quite himself – you have the feeling that he is hiding himself rather than revealing a character”. He had then recently come out of a messy divorce from his second wife, which may have influenced his later appearances. In 1981, Caan’s sister Barbara, whom he had a close relationship with and who ran his production company, died of leukemia at the age of 38. “She was my best friend, my manager,” he said. “She was the only one I was afraid of.” Then he had a motorcycle accident and his house was almost destroyed by a landslide.
There were several flops, undeservedly in the case of Michael Mann’s Thief (1981), released as Violent Streets in the UK, and rightly so with the whimsical Kiss Me Goodbye (1982) – Caan’s attempts at comedy were slowly appreciated. His first and last directorial effort, Hide in Plain Sight (1980), in which he starred as a man in search of his ex-wife and children, was generally received coolly critically. Caan explained that “a jerk from MGM changed the movie”.
In addition, he walked off the set of The Holcroft Covenant (1985) and was replaced by Michael Caine. A few years earlier, while still affordable, Caan had turned down three Oscar winners, M*A*S*H, Kramer vs Kramer (“it was such bourgeois, bourgeois crap”) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
During his fallow period between 1982 and 1987, he spent his days coaching his son Scott’s soccer and basketball teams, and his nights at the Playboy Mansion (“There were tons of girls there and, call me sick, call me crazy, but I liked them!”) and taking cocaine.Although he received professional help and was cured of the addiction, he was unemployed in Hollywood.
“I hardly ever go out,” he told an interviewer in 1986. “I spend most of my time upstairs in my bedroom, wearing out one spot on the bed where I sit when I’m on the phone.” After he hadn’t appeared in a movie for four years, people in Hollywood began to wonder, “What ever happened to…?”
Then his friend Coppola gave him the lead role in Gardens of Stone (1987). Caan found a new gravitas and was utterly convincing as a stubborn but compassionate army sergeant who feels that “there is nothing to win, and no way to win it” in Vietnam. Caan’s comeback was anchored with a difficult role in Rob Reiner’s Misery (1990) – he spends most of the film bedridden and drugged as a critically injured writer held captive by his “No 1 fan” (Kathy Bates, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress).
But Caan made headlines again in the 1990s for all the wrong reasons. When his brother Ronnie was held at gunpoint by mobsters, Caan enlisted the help of his mob friend Anthony “the Animal” Fiato. Caan arranged a meeting and payment for the kidnappers, then arrived with Fiato and his crew carrying guns and baseball bats. On another occasion, the FBI intercepted a telephone conversation between Fiato and Caan about the actor Joe Pesci. Caan asked his friend to take care of Pesci after learning about an unpaid $8,000 bill from Pesci’s stay at a friend’s hotel in Miami.
When Ronnie Lorenzo, an LA mobster, was arrested for drug trafficking, kidnapping and extortion, Caan offered his house as collateral for the $2 million bail and appeared as a character witness for his “best friend.” Caan was also the first major movie star to admit to being friends with “Hollywood Mrs” Heidi Fleiss, though he said the relationship was platonic.
He was charged by a woman who claimed he had tried to strangle her. (The case was settled out of court.) Then the morning came when he woke up in a friend’s apartment to find 10 Los Angeles cops looking over him with guns drawn. Outside, they had found the body of an aspiring actor, Mark Alan Schwartz, eight stories below on the sidewalk. Caan was interrogated for nearly 10 hours before they released him, having concluded that Schwartz had fallen while trying to break into the flat. “It was a nightmare,” Caan said. “I mean, I woke up and this all happened while I was sleeping. But it sure looked really bad. I looked guilty.”
Caan survived all this to rebuild his career. Rarely unemployed, he happily traded with his 70s character, mostly playing older and wiser versions of Sonny Corleone, either as mob bosses, seedy gamblers or businessmen with mafia connections in films such as Honeymoon in Vegas (1992), Mickey Blue Eyes (1999), with British art auctioneer Hugh Grant getting confused with the Mafia, City of Ghosts (2002) and Dogville (2003).
Although Caan had the correct Italian gestures as Sonny, he was the son of Jewish parents, Sophie (née Falkenstein) and Arthur Caan, refugees from Nazi Germany. He was born in the Bronx, New York, and grew up in Queens, where his father was a kosher butcher. After attending several schools, he attended two universities, Michigan State University, where he was a football hero, and Hofstra University, Long Island, but failed to graduate from either.
While studying at Hofstra, he became interested in acting and was soon accepted by the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater in New York, where he studied with Sanford Meisner, whose technique was linked to the method. One of Caan’s fellow students was Robert Duvall, with whom he would co-star in The Godfather, as well as in Robert Altman’s moon landing drama Countdown (1967), Coppola’s The Rain People (1969) and The Killer Elite.
In the early 1960s, Caan made his off-Broadway debut in Schnitzler’s La Ronde and began appearing on television, mostly as juvenile delinquents, on series such as Naked City, Route 66, The Untouchables and Dr Kildare. After an uncredited bit as a sailor with a radio in Billy Wilder’s Irma la Douce (1963), he rose to stardom remarkably quickly.
His first role was as a young thug who terrorized Olivia de Havilland in Lady in a Cage (1964). Harsh indifference was his style, well suited to handsome but rather emotionless features. This cool and calculating facet of Caan was exploited by Howard Hawks in two films, as a daring driver in Red Line 7000 (1965) and as the laid-back “Mississippi”, John Wayne’s marksman in El Dorado (1967).
In The Rain People, the first of three films Caan made with Coppola, a certain vulnerability and warmth surfaced as he played a meek drifter. He also showed a tender side as a naive sailor who falls in love with a prostitute in Cinderella Liberty (1973) and in The Gambler (1974) by Karel Reisz, in which Caan, intense and sympathetic, gives one of his finest performances as an addicted university professor of gambling. .
In later years, Caan was content with the security of a hit TV series, Las Vegas (2003-07), appearing as a former CIA agent and now the head of security at the fictional Montecito resort and casino. He was also willing to play supporting roles in such films as Get Smart (2008), Mercy (2009), written by and starring his son Scott, Middle Men (2009), The Outsider (2014) and The Good Neighbor (2016). ). † In Carol Morley’s Out of Blue (2018), an adaptation of Martin Amis’ 1997 novel Night Train, he was the intimidating father of a murdered astrophysicist daughter, and his film work continued until the time of his death.
Caan has been divorced four times. He is survived by a daughter, Tara, from his first marriage to Dee Jay Mathis; a son, Scott, from his second to Sheila Ryan; a son, Alexander, from his third marriage to Ingrid Hajek; and two sons, James and Jacob, from his fourth, to Linda Stokes.
James Edmund Caan, actor, born March 26, 1940; died July 6, 2022