erik lundegaard

Monday July 11, 2022

James Caan (1940-2022)

In mid-1970s, leading man form.

This is how much of a prude I was as a kid. I watched “Brian’s Song,” about the friendship between Chicago Bears running backs Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo, and the death of the latter from cancer at age 26, when it premiered on television in November 1971. I was just 8, which is what, second grade? I think this was my intro to football, in fact. I wasn’t a fan yet and became one shortly thereafter. The movie, of course, wrecked me and my entire generation of boys. We were still living in insensitive times, when boys weren’t supposed to cry, when they were mocked for doing so; but if some kid said he never cried we’d go “What about ‘Brian’s Song’?” and he’d usually admit, “Yeah, OK, ‘Brian’s Song,’ sure. Who didn’t?” I still can’t hear the theme music without something stirring. For that role, James Caan was basically the patron saint of our generation: the full-of-life dude that died way too young.

Which explains my prudeness: how I was disappointed in Caan when I saw he was starring in a movie called “Rollerball” that was actually Rated R.

To the world he’ll forever be known as Sonny Corleone, the hothead brother and heir apparent to the Godfather throne, but he almost didn’t get the role. For the past few weeks I’ve been reading “Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli,” about the making of “The Godfather,” and while I knew there were disagreements on casting, I didn’t know how bad it got. Paramount and its president, Robert Evans, initially said they should go with unknowns and a smaller budget (because mob movies didn’t make money), then switched and said, “Hey, how about Robert Redford? How about Ryan O’Neal? Dustin Hoffman?” All were considered for Michael. Yeah, Michael. Director Francis Ford Coppola, meanwhile, had this idea from the get-go:

  • Brando
  • Pacino
  • Caan
  • Duvall

John Cazale was found off-Broadway.

Anyway, the studio didn’t want who he wanted, and eventually they spent nearly half a mil on screen tests to prove him wrong. Evans didn’t want Pacino in particular, who was an unknown and whom Evans dismissed as a shrimp, and so for a time Caan was tapped to play Michael rather than Sonny. But at the 11th hour, Coppola got his way and the rest is cinematic history. Pacino became a star, Caan became a star. He makes no sense as a Sicilian but we tend to gloss over that because he’s so good: angry, personable, fun, bada-beep bada-boop.

He was a man’s man who cut quite a figure with the ladies. In his heyday, he was broad-shouldered, thin-waisted, light on his toes, with a tick-tock walk and a look that often said, “Why the hell are you talking to me?” without heat. The other night we rewatched Michael Mann’s “Thief,” that ultimate Mann (and man) movie, and Caan in his early 40s looks fantastic: trim and handsome, quiet and sharp. (The New York Times obit says he plays a “not-too-bright ex-con” in the film, which is a not-too-bright description.) 

I haven’t seen many of his other ’70s flicks and hope to rectify that soon, but I remember him always there as I was growing up. And then he was gone. I assumed he took a break after a long period of starring roles—like Will Smith from 2008-2012—or maybe he just didn't like the way they were making movies in the early-to-mid-80s as opposed to the auteur '70s; but it was actually a bad cocaine habit. He didn’t make a movie for five years, wound up in debt, and when he returned, in Coppola’s “Gardens of Stone” in 1987, he looked much older. He was a young 41 and an old 47. I remember the ballyhoo about the return, and I went to the movie hoping for greatness. Has anyone seen it recently? Is it anything? Then “Alien Nation,” which I missed, and “Misery,” which I also missed.

I kept missing his movies—even the popular ones: “For the Boys,” “Honeymoon in Vegas,” “Mickey Blue Eyes.” The one Wes Anderson movie I’ve never seen is the one he’s in. I’ll have to rectify that. How many times did he play off the mob role? Or the tough-guy persona? That’s part of the joy of “Elf”: that man, that face, having to deal with batshit Santa stuff.

“I’ve been accused [of being a mob guy] so many times,” he told Vanity Fair in 2004. “I won ‘Italian of the Year’ twice in New York.”

He was Jewish, of course. He grew up in the Bronx, where his father was a kosher meat wholesaler. He hung around tough guys. He played football but he didn’t make the cut at Michigan State. Football’s loss was acting’s gain.

The Times obit says he improvised the bada bing part in this famous “Godfather” quote: “You gotta get up like this and—bada bing!—you blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit.”

I’ll also remember him for a line he didn’t speak but is spoken about him: 

Brian Piccolo is sick, very sick…

Rest in peace.

Posted at 07:31 AM on Monday July 11, 2022 in category Movies  
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