James Caan was born in the Bronx and died in Los Angeles, a typical launch and descent for such a potent cinema icon.
In a career that started in 1961 with a TV show credit in “The Naked City” and still has 3-4 films/shows in post-production, Caan was a true Hollywood renaissance man. He worked often and at his pace, pumping out supporting roles in the last decade. Heck, scroll down his IMDB page and one can notice a consistency in work going back to 1991. Ever since, he’s been in at least a film or three every year. Some more memorable than others, but each one lifted up by the Caan presence. Like the recently departed Ray Liotta, Caan just liked to work. Every actor knows the clock can stop at any moment not only in life, but in their career.
It’s easy to peg a favorite role from his collection of 137 performances. Sonny in “The Godfather,” Frank in “Thief,” or Paul Sheldon in the terrifying Stephen King adaptation, “Misery.” But he made the B-movies sing loud as well, especially when he matched wits with Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Eraser.” He was the big guy’s boss in the CIA, but also the one who would betray him. Caan brought out the best in Arnold, matching wits and wills, a game that the Austrian knew how to play. It’s an actor’s gift to elevate any material or film, because that makes them endlessly valuable.
As my former colleague and mentor Jordan Palmer said today, he was a Jewish tough guy. Someone who could act with his hands alone if the part called for it. Who could forget Caan’s eyes as Sonny Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s epic mafia epic? Every time you watch, the sinking feeling of Sonny’s fate is overmatched by the white knuckle desire to see his talent way before the flower completely bloomed.
While other actors get accolades for playing great cinematic sports coaches-Kurt Russell, Al Pacino, Denzel Washington among others-Caan’s performance as a wily and unconventional college football coach in “The Program” was something else. An underappreciated film due to its blunt depiction of the chaos surrounding NCAA football, the film wasn’t beloved critically, nor did it score well with audiences. But Caan delivered a titanic performance that rivaled Nick Nolte’s work in the similar fields/courts of “Blue Chips.”
It was intense, something Caan became known for over his long career. But intensity can also produce different shades and be manipulated in the right setup, something Jon Favreau took full advantage of in his Christmas film, “Elf.” Acting opposite Will Ferrell and Mary Steenburgen, Caan’s Walter was a burnt-out book publisher who needed a little holiday spirit rushed into his life. When Ferrell’s oversized yet lovable Buddy enters his world, the table flips and audiences get to see Caan use his hard-nosed intensity for comedic effect.
What looked to be phoned in on paper, like with Arnie in “Eraser,” was elevated by a great actor. Favreau said the cast and crew did certain things just to bring out “angry Jimmy.” Hilarious. Every performer has multiple shades. James Caan mastered a few of those and carved an excellent and long-lasting career out of it.
I think it’s time to watch “Thief” again. Get some Caan in your life this weekend, friends.
-The Film Buffa
Photo Courtesy of New Line Cinema