When James Caan’s household introduced his demise on Thursday, it despatched shock waves via cinematic circles — not as a result of his passing was notably untimely (he was 82), however as a result of he appeared such a vibrant and outsize persona, you figured he simply would possibly dwell perpetually.
He hadn’t retired, and even slowed down a lot, in previous age. He co-starred (with Ellen Burstyn, Jane Curtin and Ann-Margret) in “Queen Bees” final 12 months and has one other movie nonetheless due out. Greater than that, he had maintained an energetic presence on Twitter, regularly sharing pictures from his movies and reminiscences of his collaborators and all the time concluding his messages with the phrase “Finish of tweet.”
But Caan was a collection of contradictions: a Jewish actor greatest recognized for taking part in an Italian, a number one man who by no means fairly grew to become a film star, an actor equally adept at taking part in energy and weak spot, rage and vulnerability. His assault on his abusive brother-in-law in “The Godfather” is among the most visceral scenes of violence in film historical past. However simply the 12 months earlier than, he had starred in a movie nonetheless remembered for its potential to make males cry. We’ll start our have a look at his lengthy, diverse profession there.
Caan had already banked a number of years of tv work and a handful of juicy movie roles (together with memorable appearances in Howard Hawks’s “El Dorado” and “Purple Line 7000” and Robert Altman’s “Countdown”) when he starred on this “ABC Film of the Week.” Caan and Billy Dee Williams starred because the real-life Chicago Bears teammates Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers, the primary interracial roommates within the historical past of the N.F.L. and greatest mates till Piccolo’s premature demise from most cancers in 1970. Caan and Williams’s straightforward rapport sells the connection, and Caan is actually heartbreaking within the closing scenes, which show a too-rare showcase for his tenderness and heat.
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Caan’s breakthrough position got here the next 12 months in Francis Ford Coppola’s sensational adaptation of the very best vendor by Mario Puzo. The director — who had used Caan to nice impact, in a a lot gentler position, in “The Rain Individuals” (1969) — solid the actor as Sonny, the hot-tempered oldest brother within the Corleone clan. The studio wished Caan to play Michael (executives didn’t care in any respect for this Pacino child Coppola was caught on), however the filmmaker knew Caan had the combination of girls’ man charisma and brute drive so important to Sonny. It was a scene-stealing position, and Caan took benefit of it, taking part in the character’s many memorable moments to the hilt: his memorable in flagrante delicto entrance, his mocking “bada bing!” second with Michael, that street-fight humiliation of his brother-in-law and, most of all, his surprising, bullet-ridden final gasps on the Jones Seaside Causeway.
As with many of the actors related to “The Godfather,” Caan was rapidly elevated to main roles within the wake of its astonishing success. The perfect of that bunch might effectively have been this spiky story of a privileged English professor who finds that his high-society pedigree and formidable mind aren’t any match for a spiraling playing habit. Caan’s duality — his potential to appear to maneuver between worlds, ethnicities and lessons — was hardly ever more practical than right here, as his Axel Freed should appear at house each within the classroom, lecturing concerning the works of Dostoyevsky, and within the again rooms of New York’s seedy playing underbelly, making an attempt to purchase extra time from his bookie.
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In our present cinematic panorama, an actor who fronts vital successes like “The Godfather” and “The Gambler” is often ripe for selecting by the Superhero Industrial Complicated, handed a pleasant payday and a simple shoot in change for lending class and gravitas to a popcorn film. Caan’s taking the lead in Norman Jewison’s big-budget sports activities film might have appeared like the identical transfer, downshifting his appreciable onscreen intelligence into one thing a bit brawnier. However “Rollerball” is not any typical sports activities film. Set within the then-distant way forward for 2018, it’s a prescient warning of the hazards of company overreach, overt violence and sophistication warfare in sports activities leisure — and society basically — and Caan conveys each the character’s fierce physicality and his mind with ease.
Caan turned in arguably his most interesting efficiency — and definitely his most soulful — on this astonishing mixture of crime film and middle-age melodrama from the writer-director Michael Mann (“Warmth”). Mann makes a speciality of working-class criminals, guys who see their work as a job and nothing extra, a approach to make a dwelling with out punching a clock. Few actors understood that character like Caan, who performs the safecracker, jewel thief and ex-con Frank as a person who will break the legislation however not his ethical code, and who so longs for the fruits of his labor that he carries round a collage of his imagined excellent, suburban life like a cell imaginative and prescient board. Caan wears the heaviness of the character like a winter coat; he does what he has to do to get by, perpetually greedy for the final huge rating that all the time appears simply out of attain.
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Caan spent a lot of the ’80s in a self-imposed exile, burned out from his busy ’70s, battling addictions and caring for his kids. He stepped again into the business with this Rob Reiner adaptation of Stephen King’s greatest vendor, however did so with a generosity of spirit: Moderately than selecting a solo automobile that may showcase his presents, he took the decidedly secondary position of bedridden novelist Paul Sheldon and ceded the highlight to the relative newcomer Kathy Bates, who had the a lot showier position of his obsessed superfan Annie Wilkes. She received an Oscar, and thanked him profusely in her acceptance speech: “I actually am your No. 1 fan, Jimmy.”
Caan spent the ’90s easing into his new place as a revered character actor, with copious supporting roles each in movie and on tv. The remnants of Sonny Corleone made him a no brainer for villain roles, and he performed them effectively, however a few of his most memorable work inverted and confounded these expectations. Among the finest examples was this romantic comedy from the writer-director Andrew Bergman, starring Nicolas Cage as a newlywed who gambles away a weekend together with his spouse (Sarah Jessica Parker) to Caan’s excessive curler. On paper, the character is reprehensible — however Caan invests him with a lovelorn sweetness that lends the image, and its central battle, some sudden ripples.
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Caan might have had visions of John Travolta’s “Pulp Fiction” comeback when he accepted a supporting position within the up-and-coming Wes Anderson’s debut function, a cockeyed caper image a couple of crew of incompetent criminals. It didn’t have the identical end result — the movie didn’t discover its viewers till years later, after Anderson had established himself — however Caan’s unsung comedian facet shines within the position of Mr. Henry, an imposing legal mastermind (and the proprietor of a profitable landscaping agency). It was one in every of his most interesting late-career performances, deploying his still-potent tough-guy demeanor and undercutting it with sudden, self-aware wit.
While you dwell and work for so long as Caan did, you turn out to be beloved by every technology for a distinct position, and if boomers beloved him for “The Godfather” and Gen Xers for “Bottle Rocket,” this smash household comedy endeared him to Era Z. A lesser actor, solid within the position of the daddy to the North Pole elf Buddy (Will Ferrell), would possibly’ve winked or mugged and ruined the entire thing; Caan correctly performed this harried dad near the bone, keenly conscious that the straighter his face, the funnier his scenes. Drama, comedy, suspense, motion, children’ films — there was really nothing James Caan couldn’t do.
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