James Caan was the quintessential New Yorker – brash, tough, and in-your-face. His persona was “this is me; here I am. If you don’t like it, tough.” That is the attitude he exhibited in most of his acting roles throughout his 60-plus years career, at least in his most memorable roles. How did he develop that persona? As he told one interviewer a few years ago, “I learned it growing up in New York. You had to be tough to survive.” You had to “know who to push and who not to push.” In addition, he often attributed his success to learning how and when to say “no” at an audition. In other words, if he didn’t feel a part was right for him he had no qualms about turning it down. (As you will see below, this philosophy resulted in him turning down many parts that led to successes for others.)
James Edmund Caan was born on March 26, 1940 in The Bronx, New York City, NY, but he grew up in Queens. He had a brother, Ronnie, and a sister, Barbara. His parents were Jewish working class immigrants who had emigrated from Germany. His father was a butcher.
He attended Michigan State University for two years. His dream was to make the MSU football team, but he wasn’t good enough. He transferred to Hofstra University on Long Island, but he didn’t graduate. It doesn’t sound like he was much of a student. Interestingly, two of his classmates were Lainie Kazan and Francis Ford Coppola who would later play a significant role in Caan’s career.
At some point, he developed an interest in acting. He applied for, was accepted to and enrolled in NYC’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. He studied there for five years. “I just fell in love with acting,” he told one interviewer. He added, “of course all my improvs ended in violence.” No surprise there.
Caan began his career in the early 1960s appearing in off-Broadway plays that only real aficionados of the theatre would remember such as La Ronde and Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole. Shortly thereafter, he progressed to Broadway where he starred in The Rain People, which was directed by Coppola. Additionally, he appeared in the usual hit TV shows in which all up-and-coming actors seem to appear, such as Route 66, Dr. Kildare, Combat, and The Untouchables. During this period he also appeared in a series of nondescript movies that few people, if any, saw and fewer remember. The one exception was Howard Hawkes’ movie, El Dorado, starring John Wayne and Robert Mitchum.
According to Wikipedia his first movie role in 1963 was an uncredited role where he played a “soldier with a radio.” I guess an aspiring actor hungry for work and experience has to start somewhere.
His first memorable role was playing terminally-ill (cancer) NFL running back, Brian Piccolo in the TV movie, Brian’s Song (1971), co-starring Billy Dee Williams as NFL superstar running back Gayle Sayers. It was a perfect role for Caan. Early in the movie he portrayed Piccolo as a glib, wise-cracking, undertalented, overachiever who made the team through sheer determination and hard work. As the movie went on and Piccolo’s cancer progressed Caan portrayed his struggles superbly. Viewers were captivated by Piccolo’s/Caan’s battle with the disease and his strong friendship with Sayers. (Don’t forget this was 1971, and Hollywood rarely portrayed such relationships.) Based on a true story it was a huge success, earned Caan an Emmy nomination, and put him on the map as an actor. As frequently happens in Hollywood the story is that, at first, Caan turned down the role without even reading the script, but, luckily for him, he changed his mind after reading it.
The next year came The Godfather. We all know what happened there. Caan got to play the signature role of his career. The Godfather was a mega-hit both critically and at the box office. It won 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. According to CBS News it grossed $135 million domestically (equivalent to $711 million today), and $270 million worldwide. It spawned two sequels, one of which, Godfather II, many critics consider to be as good as or better than the original, which is a real rarity. It featured an-all-Star cast led by Marlon Brando and Al Pacino. Originally, Caan was slated to play Michael, but Coppola wanted Al Pacino for that role, so Caan was switched to Sonny. Reportedly, one of the actors he “beat out” for the role was another young actor named Robert De Niro. He was the central figure in two of the more memorable scenes in the movie: (1) being killed at the toll booth (how many bullets does it take to kill someone) and (2) the scene where he beats up Carlo with a garbage can cover (adlibbed). Caan always said that one of the things that made The Godfather successful was that everyone “really enjoyed making it, and that comes off on the screen.” Finally, there were many memorable quotes. See below for my favorites. What are yours?
In the course of his career Caan turned down various starring roles in successful movies that turned out to be successes for others. Some of these movies were M*A*S*H, the French Connection, and Apocalypse Now.
Another of my favorite Caan movies was Misery, based on the Stephen King novel and co-starring Kathy Bates. Caan played a famous author who is kidnapped by a deranged fan (Bates). Many actors had rejected the role because the character spent most of the movie confined in a bed by Bates’ character. But, Caan accepted. It was a different role for him, and it was another hit. In addition, I liked him in Cinderella Liberty where he plays a sailor who meets a woman while on liberty. He falls in love and wants to marry her. His commanding officer refuses to grant him leave to get married. Caan asks why. The quote, which anyone who has served in the military will identify with, is (and I paraphrase): “You may think you’re in the United States; you may think you’re in the State of New York; but what you’re in is the Navy, and the Navy says no leave.”
Caan was married four times and had five kids, one of which is the actor Scot Caan (Hawaii Five-0). Caan was an accomplished martial artist, and he liked to participate in rodeos as a steer roper. He would call himself the “only Jewish cowboy from NY on the professional rodeo cowboy circuit.”
Caan passed away on July, 6, 1922 in LA at the age of 82. Jimmy (as he was often called), you entertained us for over 60 years. Rest in peace.
My favorite Godfather quotes:
- “I don’t want my brother coming out of that toilet with just his dick in his hands.”
- “Revenge is a dish that tastes best when served cold.”
- “Lawyers can steal more money with a briefcase than a thousand men with guns and masks.”
- “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
- And my favorite: “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.”