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James Caan Dead: New Hollywood Icon and Beloved ‘Godfather’ and ‘Misery’ Star Was 82

IndieWire logo IndieWire 7/7/2022 Christian Blauvelt
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James Caan is dead at the age of 82, his family confirmed on Thursday. No cause of death has been released at this time. “The Godfather” actor shot to superstardom after playing the doomed Sonny Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 adaptation of the Mario Puzo novel, but he gained fans across decades. Not many actors could simulate being shot with dozens of bullets in one of the most bloody dramatic scenes from “The Godfather” and also star opposite Barbra Streisand in the musical sequel “Funny Lady” — or be tormented by Kathy Bates in the Stephen King adaptation “Misery.” Or play the curmudgeonly book publisher who finds he’s the father of one of Santa’s workers in “Elf.”

Born in 1940 in the Bronx, Caan entered Hollywood on the strength of his good looks before it became clear he was a serious actor. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Germany, and he initially crossed paths with Coppola while they were both students at Long Island’s Hofstra University. There, he became interested in acting and ultimately transferred to New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. He appeared in Off-Broadway plays and TV bit parts before making his debut in the 1963 Billy Wilder film “Irma La Douce.” The next year, his punk character would have his eyes gouged out in the Olivia de Havilland “trapped in an elevator” thriller “Lady in a Cage.”

Caan’s first starring role was in Howard Hawks’ “Red Line 7000,” a stock-car racing drama. But the film bombed. Caan’s biggest initial success was arguably the loose “Rio Bravo” remake, “El Dorado,” also for Hawks. The 1966 Western starred John Wayne and Robert Mitchum, and the role existed primarily to show off Caan’s matinee idol looks and low-key sense of cool. Wayne had taken an interest in developing young actors, and he often played off them in near-equal parts: Ricky Nelson in “Rio Bravo” and Fabian in “North to Alaska” come to mind. Caan’s character in “Mississippi” is basically just a do-over of Nelson’s “Colorado” from “Rio Bravo” except “Mississippi” is an expert knife thrower.

Solid movie, but not necessarily one that showed Caan’s range as a serious actor, despite his recitation of Edgar Allan Poe throughout the movie. It certainly didn’t show his years of being an acting student. Nor did all his guest roles on “Get Smart,” “The F.B.I.,” “Death Valley Days,” and “Dr. Kildare.”

It was Coppola who first allowed Caan to really stretch himself as a brain-damaged football player in his 1969 drama “The Rain People.” Type-casting could have followed, because his next role immediately after that one was as a dying football player in 1971’s “Brian’s Song,” in which he played the title character, Brian Piccolo, a real life Chicago Bears halfback who was diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly after turning pro. The film also raised the profile of a young Billy Dee Williams who played the legendary Gale Sayers, and the story is told through the lens of Sayers’ friendship with Piccolo. The film is considered one of the best made-for-TV movies ever aired by a broadcast network and the definitive “guy cry” movie.

And of course an extravagant death awaited him in “The Godfather.” His Sonny Corleone was the heir apparent to Marlon Brando’s Don Vito, save for his short fuse, that resulted in him infamously being gunned down at a toll booth outside Long Beach, New York. The rawness of the character, the charisma of the character, and one rather hot-and-heavy sex scene (that resulted in Andy Garcia’s character from “The Godfather Part III” existing), and the fact that it was, for a time, the highest-grossing film ever made as well as a Best Picture winner, catapulted him to Hollywood’s absolute A-list. He was nominated at the Oscars for Best Supporting Actor for the part, up against castmates Robert Duvall and Al Pacino. They all lost, with the prize going to Joel Grey for “Cabaret.”

Acclaimed parts followed in “The Gambler,” “Funny Lady” (he was liked even if the movie wasn’t, and it certainly was a hit), Norman Jewison’s “Rollerball,” the Richard Attenborough WWII epic “A Bridge Too Far,” “Comes a Horseman,” and Neil Simon’s “Chapter 2.” Caan had that rare ability to be a movie star with the soul of a character actor. And those gifts never came across more clearly than in Michael Mann’s “Thief,” which Caan said was the movie of which he was proudest, other than “The Godfather.” Its reputation has grown over the decades due to its taciturn script (which ultimately gives way to a seven-minute monologue from Caan, which he cited as his favorite scene from his career), sinuous night photography, a Tangerine Dream score, and a Bresson-comes-to-America emphasis on process (real-life thieves served as technical advisers).

One of his most infamous parts has to be as the popular novelist Paul Sheldon in “Misery,” in which he spends most of the film lying in bed as his nurse/obsessive fan Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) torments him until he rewrites the ending to his book series. Because of the unglamorous nature of the part, many actors in Hollywood had turned it down. But Caan accepted, all the more notable because of how many classic film roles he himself had turned down: “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Blade Runner,” “Apocalypse Now,” and even “Superman: The Movie.” Of the last, he told The Washington Post, “I didn’t want to wear the cape.”

There is an alternate universe where Caan could have had the careers of Jack Nicholson and Harrison Ford. But he went his own way. And by the 1990s, his career had begun to slow down enough that, having been married four times and had five kids including the actor Scott Caan, paycheck roles came to define his latter-day output. But one of those paycheck roles is arguably one of the most beloved roles of his career, and a character study in its own right: as Walter Hobbs, the children’s book publisher who finds he’s a father to a thirtysomething toymaker from the North Pole in “Elf.” The part was grumbly yet ultimately kind, a splash of bitters to keep that movie from ever becoming too Tollhouse-cookies sweet. For those who came of age in the 2000s, it’s arguable this role may be the one that resonates the most.

TV beckoned Caan once again as well, with him being the series lead in the 2003-2007 NBC drama “Las Vegas.” And so did social media, with him adopting a gruff persona not inconsistent with his support for Donald Trump in his final years. But that dubious choice seems fitting in a way for an actor who was so convincing as Sonny Corleone that he claimed he was turned away from a country club once because the staff thought he was a “made man.” A little dangerous, a little questionable at times, and always eclectic and interesting, Caan’s was a career that could never possibly be defined by just one thing.

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Video: James Caan, ‘The Godfather’ Star, Dead at 82 (ETonline)

James Caan, ‘The Godfather’ Star, Dead at 82
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