James Caan 1940-2022

He was always more than Sonny Corleone.

James Caan 1940-2022
Photo by Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Jimmy Caan has left the toll bridge at 82. He had a great run as these things go, starting with an acting apprenticeship in the dying days of the studio era, playing for old lions like Howard Hawks (“Red Line 7000,” 1965; El Dorado,” 1967) and and young troublemakers like Robert Altman (“Countdown,” 1968). Then he met Francis Ford Coppola and played a brain-damaged college football player in the aching 1969 road movie The Rain People,” followed, of course, by Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather” (1972). In between those two films was another football drama, the TV movie “Brian’s Song” (1970), in which Caan played terminally ill Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo, and a generation of men learned it was okay to sob uncontrollably in front of their families.

Those two roles made him a star, and an unusual one, equally capable of threat and tenderness. Caan worked hard throughout the 1970s, and if you want to remember him best in the coming days, stream The Gambler (1974, for rent on Amazon and elsewhere), in which he plays a professor whose betting addiction spirals out of control. Directed by Karel Reisz and written by James Toback, it has deep roots in Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel of the same title, and it allowed Caan to express an intelligence and emotional depth he rarely had opportunities to explore elsewhere. Bookending this era is 1981’s “Thief” (streaming on Hoopla and elsewhere, for rent on Vudu), a tough, stylish neo-noir and the feature directing debut of Michael Mann.

In between is a fair amount of commercial silliness — Rollerball (1975), Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976) — and projects exquisitely of their era. Slither and Cinderella Liberty (both 1973), Freebie and the Bean (1974; Alan Arkin was “The Bean”), and the “Funny Girl” follow-up Funny Lady (1975) are all mid-1970s archeological digs whose entertainment rate of return is higher than you might expect. And Another Man, Another Chance (1977), a French western (!) directed by Claude Lelouch and co-starring Genevieve Bujold was a lovely one-off that was a personal favorite of the actor.

He fell out of favor, struggled with substances, came back (”Gardens of Stone,” 1987, for Coppola), and came back (“Misery,” 1990), and came back (“Bottle Rocket,” 1996), and came back (“Elf” 2003). He did a lot of junk in his final decades, playing out the string and sprinkling legend dust where he could. Of his “Godfather”-era peers, Caan didn’t have the matinee-idol soulfulness of Pacino, nor the violent unknowability of the young De Niro, nor the character-lead idiosyncrasy of Robert Duvall. He wasn’t the Great Thespian a la Dustin Hoffman or the Great Lover like Warren Beatty. He did have a watchful, down-to-earth directness that could be very sexy, and he had a sense of humor that wasn’t tapped nearly enough. In the end, he was a professional, always good, always committed, always interesting. The public imagination typecast him as a tough guy, but Sonny Corleone, the impulsive hothead — that was the exception. When you watched James Caan, you were seeing the drama of a man contemplating his next move and prepared for anything to come.

What’s your favorite James Caan movie memory?

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