Bada bing! Farewell to James Caan, a badass with a heart as big as his fists
LLike a panther or a heavyweight boxer, James Caan knew when to follow his instincts. There’s a Famous Moment Early in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 Mafia Epic The Godfather – the film that earned Caan an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor and ensured his immortality – where he acts solely on intuition. The script called for Caan, playing Don Vito Corleone’s brash eldest son, Sonny, to confront FBI agents stationed outside his sister’s wedding. As he walked inside, he grabbed an officer’s camera and smashed it to the ground. “I didn’t know I was going to do it,” Caan told the audiovisual club earlier this year. “Nobody knew I was going to do it, but I did it. I was just impulsive.
Part of what makes the scene so memorable is what Caan, who died Wednesday, July 6, at the age of 82, did next. Without a word, he reached into his pocket and threw a few bills at the wreckage, then turned and walked away. “Where I’m from…if you put the money in the field, it’s fine,” Caan later explained. “You’re forgiven. You know what I mean? I paid for it and forgot about it. The gesture may not have been scripted, but it perfectly introduced both Sonny’s unstable temper and the Mafia’s attitude towards settling debts.Once set in motion, the character found himself on an inexorable path to his bullet-riddled murder at a tollbooth, one of the most famous deaths in history The scene was one of Caan’s many improvised contributions to The Godfather. He also dropped the musical phrase “bada-bing” in his frantic description of a close-quarters assassination, something he had heard crime family capo Carmine Persico say while researching his role. it is therefore Caan who The Sopranos I have to thank for naming their strip club.
When he appeared in The Godfather, At 32, Caan was already a leading man. He was born in the Bronx, New York, the son of Jewish immigrants from Germany, and grew up in Sunnyside, Queens alongside his friend and future collaborator Coppola. Caan began his acting career in off-Broadway plays before moving into film and television. Howard Hawks’ 1965 stock car racing drama Red Line 7000 gave Caan the lead billing for the first time, and he worked with the director again the following year on western Eldoradoalongside fellow American tough guys John Wayne and Robert Mitchum.
While Sonny’s role in The Godfather secured Caan’s reputation, it also pigeonholed him as a streetwise heavy. “I was always cast as Mister Tough Guy or Mister Hero,” he lamented in a riveting and far-reaching interview with The Independent Last year. “They wouldn’t let me do much else.” Caan both played and reversed this character. In a 1976 interview with Playboy, he complained that the tabloid press continued to portray him as “a fucking macho pig” who liked “to load up and go around people, hitting women in the gutter and all that.” The truth, Caan argued wryly, was very different. “I was raised to defend myself if I had to, but I’ve never started a fight in my life, and I can’t remember the last time anyone started one with me,” he said. he declared. “When I have a drink – which isn’t often, especially wine – I’m happy and I laugh a lot. And I’ve never fucked a woman in the gutter – not without first putting a pillow under her. Chivalry isn’t completely dead, you know.
The death of Caan’s younger sister, Barbara, from leukemia in 1981, coupled with her cocaine addiction, led to periods in the 1980s away from the screen. In the 90s, he re-established himself as a force to be reckoned with, beginning with his role as author Paul Sheldon in Rob Reiner’s 1990 adaptation of Stephen King. Misery. The role required him to be bedridden for most of the film. “It was a private joke,” Caan said. The Independent. “‘Let’s take Hollywood’s most neurotic actor and put him in bed for 15 weeks.'” In 1996, he helped launch Wes Anderson’s career by lending his star appeal to the director’s debut film bottle rocketwhile in 2003 Caan won a whole new generation of fans with his role as the cantankerous biological father of Buddy the Elf in Elf.
Perhaps Caan’s greatest performance came in Michael Mann’s crime thriller Thief, released in 1981, the same year that Barbara died. Reacting to the news of Caan’s death, Mann said the actor “reached to the core of his being during difficult personal times to be the rebellious, half-wild, institutionalized outsider Frank…The character and the ‘man – like its Sonny in The Godfather – we’re made for each other.”
Caan imbues his performance as master safecracker with plenty of swagger and enough sass to get your pulse racing, but beyond the heart-pounding action and high tension, it’s a performance full of heart. At the end of the first act, Frank de Caan takes Tuesday Weld’s Jessie out for late-night coffee to convince her to start a new life with him. Over the next 10 minutes, on a restaurant’s Formica table, Frank bares his soul, opening up about his job as a thief and his time in prison. Frank is a mess and Caan shows it to us: he is angry and sad, scared and brave at the same time. Like Caan himself, he is a macho man who leaves himself vulnerable and trusts his instincts.