There are some movie stars for whom the thrill of fame and the jubilation of acting aren’t enough. James Caan, who died at the age of 82, found satisfaction in extreme sports, drugs and a colorful personal life. However, the many great performances he has given in dozens of films and television episodes will survive the gossip and sensational headlines.
His pivotal role was as Sonny Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). Academy Award nominee Caan was perfect as the hedonistic and unpredictable heir to the Corleone family whose bloody ways end in his own death. The film, which hints at the connections between the Mafia and American capitalism, portrays men like Don Corleone (Marlon Brando), the godfather of the title, as businessmen. But Sonny, a ruthlessly violent crook fueled by family loyalty, represented the true nature of the Corleone family.
Soon after The Godfather, Caan wallowed in violence again as the embittered hero of Rollerball (1975). Although Caan’s character, Jonathan E., is portrayed as the moral center of the film, he is just as sadistic as everyone else around him. Even more violence came his way as a brutal CIA man in Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite, and in contrast that same year he portrayed Billy Rose, the playing unfaithful husband of Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice in Funny Lady.
Caan was a good team with Geneviève Bujold in Claude Lelouch’s romance set in the United States, Another Man, Another Chance (1977), and with Jane Fonda in the western Comes a Horseman (1978). The latter title suited Caan, who was once dubbed a Jewish cowboy for his past participation in rodeos and owning a horse stable.
Film critic Pauline Kael wrote of Caan at this point in his career that “as an actor he’s not quite one piece: he’s never quite himself – you get the feeling he’s hiding rather than revealing a character”. He had then recently emerged from a messy divorce from his second wife, which may have influenced his later performances. In 1981, Caan’s sister, Barbara, to whom he was very close and who ran his production company, died of leukemia at the age of 38. “She was my best friend, my manager,” he said. “She was the only person I was afraid of.” Then he was in a motorcycle accident and his home was nearly destroyed by a landslide.
There were several flops, wrongly in the case of Michael Mann’s Thief (1981), released in the UK as Violent Streets, and deservedly with the quirky Kiss Me Goodbye (1982) – Caan’s comedic attempts were slow to be appreciated. His first and last directorial work, Hide in Plain Sight (1980), in which he played a man searching for his ex-wife and children, was met with a generally cool critical reception. Caan explained that “an idiot at MGM changed the movie”.
In addition, he left the set of The Holcroft Covenant (1985) and was replaced by Michael Caine. A few years earlier, when he was still bankable, Caan had turned down three Oscar winners, M*A*S*H, Kramer vs. Kramer (“that was such bourgeois, bourgeois nonsense”) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
During his fallow days between 1982 and 1987, he spent his days coaching his son Scott’s football and basketball teams and his nights at the Playboy Mansion (“There were loads of girls over there and, call me sick, call me crazy, but I liked her!”) and doing cocaine. Despite receiving professional help and being cured of addiction, he found himself unemployed in Hollywood.
“I hardly ever go out,” he told an interviewer in 1986. “I spend most of my time upstairs in my bedroom wearing down a spot on the bed that I sit on when I’m on the phone.” After he hadn’t appeared in a movie for four years, people in Hollywood began to wonder: “What happened to…?”
Then his friend Coppola gave him the lead role in Gardens of Stone (1987). Caan found a new Gravitas and was utterly compelling as a stubborn but compassionate army sergeant who feels there is “nothing to win and no way to win” in Vietnam. Caan’s comeback solidified with a difficult role in Rob Reiner’s Misery (1990) – he spends most of the film bedridden and doped up as a badly injured writer who was killed by his “No. 1 fan” (Kathy Bates, who won the Oscar for Best actress won) being held captive. .
But Caan made headlines again in the ’90s for all the wrong reasons. When his brother Ronnie was being held at gunpoint by gangsters, Caan enlisted the help of his mafia pal Anthony “the Animal” Fiato. Caan arranged to meet the kidnappers, paid them off, and then arrived with Fiato and his crew, armed with guns and baseball bats. On another occasion, the FBI intercepted a phone conversation between Fiato and Caan about actor Joe Pesci. Caan asked his friend to “take care” of Pesci after learning about Pesci’s stay at a friend’s hotel in Miami from an unpaid $8,000 bill.
When Ronnie Lorenzo, an LA mobster, was arrested for drug dealing, kidnapping and racketeering, Caan offered his home as collateral for $2 million bail and posed as a character witness for his “best friend.” Caan was also the first major movie star to admit to being friends with “Hollywood Madam” Heidi Fleiss, though he said the relationship was platonic.
He was sued by a woman who claimed he tried to strangle her. (The matter was settled out of court.) Then the morning came when he woke up at a friend’s apartment to find 10 Los Angeles cops standing over him, guns drawn. Outside, eight floors down, they had discovered the body of an aspiring actor, Mark Alan Schwartz, on the sidewalk. Caan was interrogated for almost 10 hours before they released him after concluding that Schwartz fell trying to break into the apartment. “It was a nightmare,” Caan said. “I mean, I woke up and this whole thing happened while I was sleeping. But it looked really bad. I looked guilty.”
Caan survived all of this to rebuild his career. Rarely unemployed, he happily traded his ’70s persona, notably playing older and smarter versions of Sonny Corleone, either as a mob boss, luche player, or businessman with mob ties in films like Honeymoon in Vegas (1992), Mickey Blue Eyes (1999), starring Hugh Grant’s British art auctioneer mistaken for the Mafia, City of Ghosts (2002) and Dogville (2003).
Although Caan had proper Italian gestures as Sonny, he was the son of Jewish parents Sophie (née Falkenstein) and Arthur Caan, who were refugees from Nazi Germany. Born in the Bronx, New York, he grew up in Queens, where his father was a kosher butcher. After attending various schools, he attended two universities, Michigan State University, where he was a football hero, and Hofstra University, Long Island, but without graduating.
While studying at Hofstra, he became interested in acting and was soon accepted into the theater’s Neighborhood Playhouse School in New York, where he studied under Sanford Meisner, whose technique was related to the method. One of Caan’s classmates was Robert Duvall, with whom he would star in The Godfather, Robert Altman’s moon landing drama Countdown (1967), The Rain People (1969) and The Killer Elite.
In the early ’60s, Caan made his Off-Broadway debut in Schnitzler’s La Ronde and appeared on television, primarily as a juvenile delinquent, on shows such as Naked City, Route 66, The Untouchables and Dr. Kildare. After an uncredited role as a sailor with a radio in Billy Wilder’s Irma la Douce (1963), he rose to stardom with remarkable speed.
His first role was as a young thug terrorizing Olivia de Havilland in Lady in a Cage (1964). Tough nonchalance was his style, which went well with handsome but rather unemotional features. This cool and calculating facet of Caan was exploited by Howard Hawks in two films, as the daredevil racer in Red Line 7000 (1965) and as the laid-back “Mississippi”, John Wayne’s gunslinging sidekick in El Dorado (1967).
In The Rain People, the first of the three films Caan made with Coppola, a certain vulnerability and warmth came through as he played a soft-hearted drifter. Also as a naïve sailor who falls in love with a prostitute, he showed his tender side in Cinderella Liberty (1973) and in Karel Reisz’ The Gambler (1974), in which Caan, intense and likeable, is one of his best performances as an addict University professor admits to gambling.
In later years, Caan was content with the security of a popular television series, Las Vegas (2003-07), and starred as a former CIA agent who is now chief of security at the fictional Montecito Resort and Casino. He was also willing to land supporting roles in films such as Get Smart (2008), Mercy (2009), which was written and starred by his son Scott, Middle Men (2009), The Outsider (2014) and The Good Neighbor (2016 ) to take over ). In Carol Morley’s Out of Blue (2018), an adaptation of Martin Amis’s 1997 novel Night Train, he was the intimidating father of a murdered astrophysicist’s daughter, and his film work lasted until his death.
Caan has been divorced four times. He is survived by a daughter, Tara, from his first marriage to Dee Jay Mathis; a son, Scott, by his second, to Sheila Ryan; a son Alexander from a third marriage with Ingrid Hajek; and two sons, James and Jacob, by his fourth to Linda Stokes.
James Edmund Caan, actor, born March 26, 1940; died on July 6, 2022