By David Raether
Soon after James Caan passed, I talked about him with one of my 30-something daughters. “I loved him in Elf (2003),” she said. “Yeah, well, I loved him in The Godfather (1972),” I countered. And there you have one of the more interesting examples of what we call “The Generation Gap.”
Caan’s career lasted nearly 50 years, beginning with his first guest spots on Route 66, the rather hip 1961 television program. His first feature film was an uncredited role in Irma la Douce (1963). Just four years after his debut, Caan was co-starring with John Wayne and Robert Mitchum in the Howard Hawks Western El Dorado (1966). And just five short years after that, he landed the role of Sonny Corleone Francis Ford Coppola‘s masterpiece The Godfather (1972).
James Caan was born on March 25, 1940, to German-Jewish immigrant parents in the Bronx. He was one of three siblings. The family of five later moved to the Sunnyside neighborhood in Queens, where Caan would graduate high school before attending Michigan State University to study economics. He tried out for the Spartan football team, but never made it. After two years at MSU, Caan left and returned to New York City to attend Hofstra University, where he came down with the acting bug (as my grandmother called it). So, he dropped out of Hofstra and was accepted into New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theater, where he studied acting for five years.
But acting wasn’t Caan’s only intense interest. He had a lifelong commitment to martial arts and obtained a black belt, became a skilled horseman, and, believe it or not, joined the rodeo in his 30s. Caan billed himself the “Jewish Cowboy from New York City.” And he wasn’t just fooling around—he was a serious rodeo cowboy. There is even a tribute to his rodeo days on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association website’s official website.
In 1969, Caan was cast in Francis Ford Coppola’s largely-forgotten film, The Rain People, with a cast that included Robert Duvall and Shirley Knight. One of the aides during the shoot was George Lucas, who was 25 years old at the time. Despite the pedigree, the film received mixed notices. On top of that, I’ve never seen it—which is saying something—and I don’t know anyone who has.
That movie did have one important consequence: it led to Caan being cast by Coppola The Godfather. Caan was magnificent and received a nomination for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work as Sonny Corleone. His career sort of stalled out after The Godfather for a bit, but he returned to prominence with a prickly and exciting performance Thief (1981).
In 1984, Caan took a three-year hiatus from film work to deal with an addiction to cocaine. Upon his return, he made a few movies, finally regaining his stride with Misery (1990) alongside. Kathy Bateswho won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance.
Over the next decade, Caan became a regular, bankable star in several films, including Honeymoon in Vegas (1992), Bottle Rocket (1986), Eraser (1986), and The Yards (2000). However, the quality of his movies in this decade was wildly uneven. Then in 2003, Caan was cast as the slightly cynical children’s book publisher Walter Hobbs in the Christmas classic. Elfwhich served as Will Ferrell‘s first starring role.
Caan continued working for another 16 years, making his last film in 2019 when he was 79. It was a full career and a full life. He was married and divorced four times and had six children from those marriages, including his son Scott Caanhimself an actor.
How many people do you know can claim the title of rodeo cowboy, martial arts blackbelt, and Academy Award nominee who has worked with everyone from John Wayne to Will Ferrell? Not many. I can think of only one: the inimitable man of the world, James Caan.
Here are six James Caan movies I highly recommend you add to your queue.