James Caan as 'The Gambler' was a triumphant role

RIP James Caan (1940-2022)

Among the Hollywood tough guys, James Caan was among the toughest. Yet, it’s his heart that will be missed most. He was 82.

Born in 1940, James Caan was the son of a Kosher butcher in the Bronx, New York. His initial dream career had his sights set as a famous football player. Little did he know at Hofstra University that he would be nominated for an Emmy Award as Brian Piccolo in one of the best sports movies ever, Brian’s Song.

The news came from his Twitter account noting his death today to the newsdesk of Agents of Fandom. He was 82 years old.

The Early Days of James Caan

James Caan first gained notoriety opposite John Wayne and Robert Mitchum in 1966's El Dorado
Source: Paramount Pictures/Laurel Productions

The Jewish-American actor became synonymous with a “Hollywood tough guy” early on in his career. While studying at Hofstra University in New York state, he met an up-and-coming director who would cement Caan’s name among Tinseltown’s elite. The man was Francis Ford Coppola and the role was, of course, Santino “Sonny” Corleone in The Godfather.

Before Coppola called him to be a gangster, Caan reached “leading man” status at the age of 25 in a stock car drama Red Line 7000. While few people recall that, his next movie made James Caan one of those actors, co-starring alongside Robert Mitchum and John Wayne in Howard Hawks’ El Dorado. (Hawks directed Red Line 7000, so there’s that.)

In that lauded western, Caan learned more about being someone he wasn’t.

“First of all, I had lifts in my goddamn shoes,” Caan said. “I mean, Mitchum is 6’2″, Wayne’s 6’4″, so I have the lifts in my shoes.”

CBS News, 2021
James Caan's work in The Godfather would be his only Oscar nomination
The Corleones, from L to R, Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, James Caan, and John Cazale (Credit: Jack Stager/Paramount Pictures)

For the record, Caan was 5’9″ but he stood taller above most he acted with on screen.

Serendipity tended to be the grizzled actor’s blessing as one director got him on a western and in 1969, Caan played a one-time college football star hitchhiking aimlessly across the country in a film called The Rain People.

The director was that mustachioed guy he met in college who would later become his destiny. Coppola knew James Caan was going to be a part of the crime family saga–only he wasn’t certain how.

Originally, Caan auditioned for Michael, which went to Al Pacino. So, as Sonny, Caan earned his only Oscar nomination in 1972. His portrayal of the ill-tempered heir of the family business was marvelous–up to his startling death when he was set to be shot 140 times.

The James Caan Catalog

Source: Columbia Pictures/Castle Rock Entertainment

The interesting thing about the man is the great movies you may not recall. When news about his death happened, headlines led with The Godfather this and Misery that. Some shared his heartwarming role in Elf and others touched upon his role in Bolero as a WWII jazz musician (he was dynamic there).

His immensely deserved accolades are many, namely in Misery as kidnapped author Paul Sheldon when his ankles go counter-clockwise. Bravo!

Here are a few of James Caan’s collection that may not stand out as much as you think, but he was a standout for sure.

  • Thief (1981) — This was Michael Mann’s directorial debut, and Caan was, quite simply, a badass.
  • Brian’s Song (1971) — If you haven’t seen this film he starred with Billy Dee Williams, who plays Gale Sayers, this will make the most macho of men cry like a schoolgirl seeing Justin Bieber.
  • The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013) — Wait, what?! Yes, Caan’s gravelly tones were heard in the Bamboo Cutter. Go listen again.
  • Eraser (1996) — Yes, that Arnold Schwarzenegger film, and for those who don’t know, this was vintage James Caan. He commanded the role as Agent DeGuerin, a misanthrope U.S. Marshal who clearly had a conflict of interest. He was great.
  • The Good Neighbor (2016) — Want to see an old man give it to those douchey young kids for grins? Caan dominates the “Get off my Lawn” feels in this one.

Caan’s life over his 60 years in Hollywood wasn’t perfect. In the early 1980s, drug use spiraled out of control because he grieved his sister’s death from leukemia. In 1989, it was Misery that re-introduced the world to the beleaguered actor, and thank God for Rob Reiner!

Despite that one decade, James Caan has remained one of the most respected actors in recent memory. And today, while his light has been extinguished, his legacy will live on.

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