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Photo: James Caan/’The Godfather’
The Hollywood Insider would like to pay our condolences to the Caan family and everyone who loved him. We will always remember you James for your contribution to Cinema and the world.
Formative Years Giving Him Material to Draw From
James Caan was born, as many of the legends of Hollywood were, in New York, specifically the lively borough of the Bronx, to Jewish immigrant parents from Germany in 1940. Caan’s family stayed and raised him and his two siblings in New York City, where he attended school. After completing high school in New York, Caan found himself in unfamiliar territory attending college at Michigan State University.
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Caan wasn’t long for the dreary environment in the midwest and quickly found himself back in New York, transferring to Long Island’s Hofstra University after his first two years at Michigan State. Caan never graduated from college, but some would argue he accomplished something even more important during his time there, sharing a classroom with Francis Ford Coppola, the director who would ultimately lead to launching his incredible career.
With Caan not necessarily having an affinity for the traditional ways of learning, he sought a different path. He developed his passion and interest in acting at Hofstra. He applied for, interviewed, and was eventually accepted into the New York City Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre. Caan would spend the next five years studying at the Playhouse under the guidance of legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner, whose Meisner technique would play a significant role in helping Caan develop his acting style.
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Caan continued to hone his craft at the theatre and eventually found himself getting opportunities in stage acting in off-broadway plays such as ‘La Ronde.’ His biggest break to date came in his casting in the Broadway debut, ‘Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole.’
Finding His Footing
After some success on the Broadway stage in theater acting, Caan received another tremendous opportunity from his old Hofstra classmate, Francis Ford Coppola. Caan was cast as the role of “Killer” in the small yet intense directorial debut for Coppola, ‘The Rain People.’ A heavy and contained drama, Caan plays a critical role by joining Shirley Knight’s character, Natalie, on a road trip as she sets out to find herself away from her husband. A film largely misunderstood in its time, it stands out now as a prime example of Caan’s raw acting talent and ability. It also notably saw him share a set for the first time with not only Coppola but his fellow eventual ‘The Godfather’ co-star Robert Duvall.
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Like most great actors, Caan found himself taking on a myriad of roles in television as he tried to get his name out there. He was featured in episodes of television series such as; ‘Play of the Week’, ‘Route 66’, ‘Alcoa Premiere’, ‘Dr. Kildare’, ‘The Untouchables’ ‘The Doctors and the Nurses’, ‘Death Valley Days’, ‘Wide Country’ and ‘Combat.’ A prolific body of television work behind him, Caan was offered a life-changing role that would help cement his legacy as one of the greats.
Naturally burnt out and stressed by being typecast as a television actor, Caan initially rejected the offer he received to play the part of Brian Piccolo in the TV movie ‘Brian’s Song.’ Caan did not want to return to television for fear that he would never be able to break out into a bonafide movie star if he did. However, after being blown away by the incredible script telling the story of the friendship between the dying Piccolo and his Bear’s teammate Gale Sayers played by Billy Dee Williams. The film turned out to be a hit, with critics and audiences praising the acting by both men and their chemistry and ability to elicit the feeling of the real-life friendship between the two men.
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An Offer he Couldn’t Refuse and Mainstream Success
After absolutely knocking it out of the park in ‘Brian’s Song’, Caan’s next adventure would be the one for which he would become synonymous in his career. Reuniting with Coppola again, Caan was cast as the hot-headed Sonny Corleone in what some consider the greatest film of all time, ‘The Godfather.’
Caan’s legacy became directly tied to the success and acting bravado he puts on full display in the film. Announcing himself as fully capable of balancing action, grit, and love in every scene he is a part of, as much of the film is centered on Al Pacino’s Michael, Caan is ready and able to steal the scene in a blink. He masterfully plays the undermined and aggressive eldest brother and stands out amongst the brilliant cast. Caan, Pacino, and Duvall would all be nominated for best supporting actor for their work in ‘The Godfather.’ Caan’s portrayal of Sonny Corleone became so realistic that the role followed him around outside of the film. He went on record stating that he would be refused service places and was even picked up by Federal Agents who believed him to be an actual member of an organized crime family.
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Off the success of both ‘Brian’s Song’ and ‘The Godfather’, Caan found himself a legitimate in-demand movie star. He continued a prolific movie career throughout the 1970s, playing key roles in ‘Slither’, ‘Cinderella Liberty’, ‘The Gambler’, ‘Freebie and the Bean’, ‘Funny Lady’, ‘Roller Ball’, ‘The Killer Elite’, ‘Harry and Walter Go To New York’ and ‘A Bridge Too Far.’ However, while he succeeded in securing roles, Caan started to become disillusioned with the projects he was taking on. He continued trying to take on roles he felt would make him a more commercially viable actor but, in his opinion, started to lose himself in the process.
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To that end, Caan took a leap by going to France to work on the French film ‘Another Man, Another Chance’ by the French auteur Claude Lelouch. Caan praised the experience and did it for very little money, a passion project for him to reconnect with his acting sensibilities and remove himself from the Hollywood grind. To close out the 1970s, Caan completed and released his directorial debut ‘Hide in Plain Sight’, which was considered well received by critics but did not fully connect with audiences.
James Caan – A Masterful Third Act
After admittedly having a tough time struggling in the 1980s from Hollywood burnout and depression after losing his sister to a battle with cancer, Caan made a roaring comeback in the 1990s and 2000s. His next significant return to big screen prominence came in the way of the Rob Reiner adaptation of the Stephen King novel ‘Misery’ alongside Kathy Bates in one of the more memorable roles of his career. He next ripped off an impressive run of starring turns in films like ‘The Program’, ‘Honeymoon in Vegas’, ‘For the Boys’, ‘Flesh and Bone’, ‘Bottle Rocket’, ‘A Boy Called Hate’ (with his son Scott), ‘Eraser’, ‘Bulletproof’ and ‘Mickey Blue Eyes’. In these films, Caan found his heavyweight acting talents paired up with other brilliant actors such as Bette Middler, Hugh Grant, Adam Sandler, Damon Wayans, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Caan brought his legendary talent to each film, parking up with the biggest stars of the modern day. It was a testament to his right to his ability and impact on the newest generation of actors who would want to work alongside him.
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Caan’s prolific work continued into the 2000s, with roles in ‘The Yards’, ‘Luckytown’, ‘The Way of the Gun’, ‘Dogville’ and perhaps most notably of them all, ‘Elf.’ In retrospect, to imagine that Sonny Corleone would have signed on to play the biological father of Will Ferell’s Buddy the Elf is something beyond amazing. One of the most beloved Christmas movies and comedies in its own right, Caan brings his usually gruff masculinity to the part of Walter Hobbs, while also balancing out the ability to pitch perfectly play comedy off of Ferell and allow Buddy to open up his heart. As silly a movie as ‘Elf’ is, Caan’s part has always stood out to me as incredibly important and integral to making the movie work. It’s one of those roles that feels like it was perfectly cast and could have only ever been Caan to play the part.
Caan continued making films and appearing in tv shows over the last 15 years, starring in the series ‘Las Vegas’, and the films ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’, ‘Get Smart’, ‘Detachment’, ‘Henry’s Crime’, ‘That’s My Boy’, ‘Small Apartments’, ‘A Fighting Man’, ‘The Outsider’ and his final film which was 2021’s ‘Queen Bees.’ He will also be seen in a posthumous release of the film ‘Fast Charlie.’
James Caan was a brilliant and voracious actor until the end, still working on films into his eighties. He leaves behind an incredible body of work dating back over 50 years. His work is an excellent example of an actor continuously working to hone their craft. He will be sorely missed, but I will spend a good amount of the next month diving into this master of his craft’s work.
By Mark Raymond
Click here to read The Hollywood Insider’s CEO Pritan Ambroase’s love letter to Cinema, TV and Media. An excerpt from the love letter: The Hollywood Insider’s CEO/editor-in-chief Pritan Ambroase affirms, “We have the space and time for all your stories, no matter who/what/where you are. Media/Cinema/TV have a responsibility to better the world and The Hollywood Insider will continue to do so. Talent, diversity and authenticity matter in Cinema/TV, media and storytelling. In fact, I reckon that we should announce “talent-diversity-authenticity-storytelling-Cinema-Oscars-Academy-Awards” as synonyms of each other. We show respect to talent and stories regardless of their skin color, race, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, etc., thus allowing authenticity into this system just by something as simple as accepting and showing respect to the human species’ factual diversity. We become greater just by respecting and appreciating talent in all its shapes, sizes, and forms. Award winners, which includes nominees, must be chosen on the greatness of their talent ALONE.
I am sure I am speaking for a multitude of Cinema lovers all over the world when I speak of the following sentiments that this medium of art has blessed me with. Cinema taught me about our world, at times in English and at times through the beautiful one-inch bar of subtitles. I learned from the stories in the global movies that we are all alike across all borders. Remember that one of the best symbols of many great civilizations and their prosperity has been the art they have left behind. This art can be in the form of paintings, sculptures, architecture, writings, inventions, etc. For our modern society, Cinema happens to be one of them. Cinema is more than just a form of entertainment, it is an integral part of society. I love the world uniting, be it for Cinema, TV, media, art, fashion, sport, etc. Please keep this going full speed.”
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Mark Raymond is a writer and screenwriter who believes himself to be the only person desiring to work in film who originated in New York and currently resides in Los Angeles. Mark was inspired to write from a young age and has always desired to connect and uplift others through his work, as those that motivated him did for him. Mark feels very strongly that the world could use a lot more positivity and optimism, and is therefore very aligned to the mission of The Hollywood Insider to not spread hate or gossip, but instead to build each other up and shine a positive light on anyone bold enough to put their heart and soul into a piece of art. In his writing, Mark aims to use his signature wit to highlight the severity of the more serious and pressing issues of our time, to shine a beacon of light through the darkness. A devoted ally to all, he seeks to inspire and use his platform to give a voice to the voiceless and let his readers know that while everything may not be great right now, one day it can and will be.