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The Career of James Caan

Culture

James Caan: A Closer Look at this Legendary Career

Remembering the Life and Career of James Caan

It’s funny how we (or maybe it’s just me) become proprietary about things in the popular culture:  rock stars, for example, TV stars, movie stars.  We fall into the notion that this particular performer is “ours.”  It’s a generational thing; it’s the talents we grow up with, we grow up in parallel with the arc of their careers, maybe even the entire arc of their careers.

I’m sitting in a theater watching The Graduate (1967) and then I remember watching a rerun of an old Naked City episode one afternoon and this Hoffman guy had a small scene.  I’m watching Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and this rumple-faced dude playing Warren Beatty’s brother looks familiar and then I remember seeing him not that long ago in an episode of The Invaders and a couple of years later I’m watching the same Gene Hackman perform his way to a Best Actor Oscar in The French Connection (1971)I’m sitting in the Park Theater, there’s a “Making Of” short running for Downhill Racer (1969), and watching the guy playing a shitheel hotshot skier, it comes back to me that I saw him a few years ago as a bootlegger on The Untouchables, playing Death in one of my favorite The Twilight Zone episodes, and later that same year I get to see Robert Redford become a superstar in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).

Look, I may love the work – even be a fan – of Gable, Lancaster, Loy, Douglas…that whole long roster of the good and great that had come and gone before I was old enough to go to the movies on my own.  But they’re not “mine.”  Those were my parents’ stars; they saw them when they broke through to becoming marquee names all the way through to the point where they were watching them on TV and muttering, “Jeez he got fat/bald/old.” 

But James Caan, who we lost this month, was one of mine.

I wasn’t aware of it until I started getting serious about movies, but I was growing up in synch with his career maturing.  I didn’t know I was watching a star-in-the-making when I saw him as a German squad leader in an episode of Combat! (ironic in that he was the son of immigrant German Jews), didn’t even notice him in a do-nothing part as one of an Irish crime family in an ep of The Untouchables.  Even though he was paying his dues doing a lot of TV work in the early 1960s, I didn’t start getting familiar with his face until I caught him in the nightly movie slots that were a regular part of network programming in those days, seeing him in these not-very-good theatrical fizzles he did trying to get some traction on the big screen, flicks like the too-clever-for-its-own-good Games (1967), or the bust of a Civil War adventure, Journey to Shiloh (1968). 

I think maybe the first time his face started taking root in my catalog of Guys I Like to Watch On-Screen was when my mom and dad took me with them to see the Western El Dorado (1966), Howard Hawks’ left-handed remake of Rio Bravo.  If I’d had the right radar at that time, I would’ve been able to tell this guy was going places by the way my mom kept going on about how cute he was (she thought he looked absolutely adorable in a turtle neck sweater in another of his early disposables, Submarine X-1 [1968]).

El Dorado

I’ve had the opportunity to see El Dorado quite a few times in recent years.  In the original, Hawks had cast John Wayne as the town sheriff, Dean Martin as a rehabilitating drunk of a deputy, and pop star Ricky Nelson as a young good-with-a-gun type.  For El Dorado, Hawks again had Wayne as a do-gooder gunfighter, Robert Mitchum as a drunk sheriff, and instead of a Ricky Nelson who looked like he had to concentrate on every word of dialogue to get it right, James Caan, and instead of a slick gunster, Hawks has him as gun-inept.

What strikes me now when I watch the movie is just how damned good Caan is in it.  Think of it:  here’s this young actor who’s done a lot of TV, only had small roles in a couple of forgettable flicks, and now he has to share the screen with two venerable battlewagons of the big screen – Wayne and Mitchum – guys who can take the focus away from damned near anybody this side of Jesus simply by standing there.

But Caan looks perfectly at home there, trading Leigh Brackett’s zingers with them with exquisite timing, looking every bit their equal in the frame, making them a perfectly balanced – and tremendously fun — trio.  If I hadn’t been eleven, I would’ve seen it then and there that the guy had the chops.

But Hollywood is a cruel universe, and talent is never enough.  I’m not the first person to observe that you also have to be lucky:  the right role at the right time.  For Caan, as his obits regularly point out, it was the TV movie Brian’s Song (1971), the true story of the friendship between Chicago Bear’s player Brian Piccolo, doomed by cancer, and teammate Gayle Sayers, a Black/white relationship that, in the days of Piccolo and Sayers, was – as the polite bigots used to say – just not done.  It was, as I recall, the first movie where manly men were allowed to get weepy…and God knows, we did. 

The role earned – and I emphasize the word “earned” – Caan an Emmy nom and raised his visibility considerably.  And then came The Godfather (1972).

The Godfather

Francis Ford Coppola had worked with Caan before, on his intimate drama The Rain People (1969), a flick which won Caan good notices but was a little too art housey at the time to do his career much good.  Caan had his sights set on the part of Michael Corleone but Coppola, thankfully, saw Caan as a better fit for the part of the hotheaded Sonny.  Caan brought to the part all the street punk wiseassedness he’d learned on the Bronx streets where he grew up, adlibbing the “BaddaBING!” line as he mimed shooting Al Pacino’s Michael in the head.  And with that, not only was a star born, but an iconic role as well.

It’s easily his best-remembered role and is no doubt responsible for his obits constantly referencing his “tough guy” image.  And that’s kind of a shame because it drowns out a lot of really fine work by someone who, as evidenced by the often nervy choices he made in his hot years of the 1970s, wasn’t so much interested in being a star as in flexing his acting muscles as far as they would go, fighting against the kind of type casting that often is a consequence of such defining role as Sonny Corleone.

“If it was up to them,” Caan once said, meaning the industry, “I’d be playing Sonny Corleone my entire life.  Usually, if there weren’t eight people dead by page eleven, they wouldn’t send me the script.  People say, ‘Gee, you do a lot of mafia movies.’  I think I’ve done two, out of sixty.”

Which is why, along with The Godfather, the films I think of when I think of Caan, are miles away from short-fused Sonny.  There’s Cinderella Liberty (1973), with Caan as a Navy “lifer” who finds himself falling in love with a prostitute (Marsha Mason) and becoming a father figure to her biracial son.  This is no sugar-coated Pretty Woman (1990);these are lost and pretty battered souls who find a kind of ad hoc family together, and the movie’s ending is unexpectedly bittersweet.  But Caan, fumbling his way to paternal responsibility, trying to do right by a woman for whom life has been chintzy with good breaks, makes for a nicely unromantic romantic lead.

Then there’s The Gambler (1974) a dark and always getting darker drama about a college professor with a self-destructive gambling compulsion, so addicted to risk that he’s not only willing to put every dime he has (and can borrow, beg, and mooch) on the line, but his life as well.

The Gambler - James Caan

Look at those two and then look at Slither (1973), a slight, light comedy with more chuckles than laughs where Caan is a low-grade ex-con stumbling into a cross-country quest with a few oddballs in pursuit of long-ago hidden loot bequeathed him by a dying fellow ex-con.  Caan looks just as comfy with the laughs as he did the romance of Cinderella Liberty as he did with the burning obsessiveness of his Gambler as he did with beating the crap out of his wife-abusing brother-in-law in The GodfatherAll this “tough guy” commemorating kind of shorts how many different colors the man had at his disposal.

Despite the current mourning over the loss of a Hollywood great, the sad fact is he didn’t have a spectacular career.  Even during his hot years, there were an awful lot of duds:  Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976), Another Man, Another Chance (1977), Comes a Horseman (1978).  Caan was always good, the movies either less so or – like The Gambler, or the brilliant modern-day noir, Thief (1981)just didn’t click with the mass audience.

But we liked seeing him up there.  I liked seeing him up there.  He was good-looking but not in a Robert Redfordy intimidating kind of way, he had an easy masculinity about him, but nothing oppressive.  Maybe the biggest key to why we liked him, why despite his flops and an iffy third act to his career, we always thought of him as a high-magnitude star was something about his Bronx roots he never shook; a blue-collar identifiability connecting him to the average guy, even when he was playing above-average characters, a sense that this was someone you could know from “the neighborhood,” who sat in on the weekend poker game with “the guys,” that you went to the races with.  He may have been a star, but he never seemed distant from us.

I think the role that probably best reflected the core of who he was isn’t any of the Caan classics, but the one film he directed:  Hide in Plain Sight (1981).  Caan plays a pretty average guy working in a Detroit tire plant who one day finds his kids whisked away with his ex-wife into witness protection because his ex is involved with a hood.  No big thrills, no punch-outs or blazing guns; just a frustrated, angry dad trying to get his kids back.

He dropped out of sight for about five years in the 1980s.  I heard different stories, he told different stories, said he was so ticked off from his experience working with director Robert Mulligan on Kiss Me Goodbye (1982), that he left the business.  But there were drug issues, depression issues, drugs, money problems…  It was a whole bag of personal horrors.

Caan:

“I went through some bad times, some very self-destructive stuff, you know, when I was on top. I’d got involved in partying and doing all that and I lost my sister and, basically, I got all screwed up in my head. She was like my best friend and I lost her to leukemia and I was just a mess. I had a lot of money because I’d worked a lot and saved it. I had it in a pension plan and then I lost all my money. My accountant. I just woke up one morning and I didn’t have a dime. We’re talking about tons . . . I mean, a lot of money, and I was flat broke.”

When he came back, well, it was good to see him back on the screen, but it wasn’t exactly a Hollywood movie happy ending comeback. 

James Caan

His first film after his hiatus was Gardens of Stone (1987) working with Coppola yet again, but this was Coppola in decline in a dramatically anemic, thematically fuzzy movie about Vietnam.  Then came Alien Nation (1988) which was a money-maker, but the kind of cop actioner – albeit with a nice ET spin to it – that didn’t ask much of the actor nor one, in interviews, he seemed to think much of (in an interview with AV Club, when asked about the movie he responded, “Why the fuck…Why would you bring that up?…I wouldn’t write it down as one of my favorite movies”.  He played one of the caked-over-with-makeup stars in Dick Tracy (1990), and then what was sort of a post-exile high with Misery (1990) a big hit but where most of the attention went to Kathy Bates’ breakout performance while Caan spent most of the movie stuck in a bed.

Whether it was out of necessity — that the rich lead roles weren’t coming his way anymore or that he simply needed a paycheck (“There’s a big difference between wanting to work and having to work. And I had to learn that the hard way. Now money is very important to me, because I ain’t got it”) – Caan reinvented himself as a supporting player.  Paradoxically, it was in those roles where he once again got to flex his acting muscles:  a lovestruck shady gambler in the comedy Honeymoon in Vegas (1992); the manipulative, malevolent, murdering dad in Flesh and Bone (1993), the befuddled father in the loopy Elf (2003).  He did a lot of TV (was hysterical as himself in an episode of NewsRadio fascinated by socially awkward Andy Dick (“That’s the craziest sonofabitch I ever saw!”), cartoon voice work (The Simpsons, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs [2009]), some indie features (Bottle Rocket [1996], Dogville [2003])…a little bit of everything.

Maybe a lot of it was paycheck work, and certainly, there were some B-caliber thrillers capitalizing on that “tough guy” thing that the industry had bought into, but it was always good to see he was still at it, still working.  In an interview just last year, at the age of 81, he talked about how he still wanted to keep working:

“I can’t take it easy.  I enjoy working. I love to work with good people. I have more fun when I’m working because I get to know new people, and mostly good people, you know?”

Unsurprisingly, he still has one movie – Fast Charlie – sue to be released.

I think my favorite role of his during the last part of his career – because it seemed to so epitomize his career – was as “Sarno,” the self-described “adjudicator” in The Way of the Gun (2000).  He’s got a line in there that could be his epitaph:

“The only thing you can guess about a broken down old man is that he is a survivor.”

*****

I’ve done a lot of these commemorative pieces over the last year or so, more than I ever remember doing before for this site and its predecessor, Sound on SightMaybe because it’s been so many – and it’s only July – it feels like that whole movie universe I grew up with has been in a steady contraction, growing smaller with each loss, with each great name taken off the active roster.

The generations that followed mine have grown up into their own movie universes, and I hope they enjoy theirs as much as I enjoyed mine.  I hope they find their George Segals, their Sidney Poitiers and Betty Whites, their Bo Hopkins, and a survivor like James Caan, whose career turns never dimmed his star…not the least littlest bit.

Written By

Bill Mesce, Jr.'s books include Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema, the recently published The Wild Bunch: The American Classic That Changed Westerns Forever (McFarland), and The Screenwriter's Notebook: Reflections, Analyses, and Chalk Talk on the Craft and Business of Writing for the Movies (Serving House), as well as the novel Median Gray (Willow River Press) and Inside the Rise of HBO: A Personal History of the Company That Transformed Television.

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