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James Caan’s Vulnerable Machismo

James Caan in Michael Mann’s Thief (1981)

An improvised blip of an interjection—“bada bing!”—turned out to have legs. The pivotal scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) is the one in which mob boss Vito Corleone’s youngest son, the one who had wanted nothing to do with the family business, becomes Michael Corleone. But before embracing his destiny, he weighs the options. Sonny, the eldest son and heir apparent played by James Caan, who passed away on Wednesday evening at the age of eighty-two, towers over Robert Duvall’s Tom, the consigliere, tips his upper body—a stiff inverted triangle topped by mile-wide shoulders—and calls for the blood of a rival mobster.

That, warns Tom, would lead to an all-out war between the five families of New York’s underworld and put a dent in the family business, not to mention sever ties with the Corleones’ political allies. Sonny reluctantly agrees to wait. “We can’t wait,” announces Al Pacino’s Michael, and with frigid calculation, he lays out a plan to murder not only the rival but also a corrupt cop. Laughter ripples across the room. Emanating both brotherly love and sheer disbelief, Sonny tells Michael that to shoot to kill, “you gotta get up close, like this, and bada bing! You blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit.”

As Adam Bernstein notes in the Washington Post, that “bada bing!” became “a mantra for mobsters and aspiring mobsters” as well as the name of the strip club in The Sopranos. Caan’s Sonny “embodied the agreement between Italians and Jews that we can play each other in film and television,” quips Andrew Crowley on Twitter. Caan was born in the Bronx to Jewish immigrants from Germany and grew up in Sunnyside, Queens. The kid could throw a punch that earned him the nickname “Killer Caan,” but what he really wanted to do was act. Eventually, he enrolled in Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, where he studied for five years.

Off-Broadway led to Broadway and small roles in television series and movies before he landed his first starring role as a race car driver in Howard Hawks’s Red Line 7000 (1965). Hawks took a liking to the young actor and cast him opposite John Wayne and Robert Mitchum in El Dorado (1966). Caan then worked with Curtis Harrington on Games (1967), a horror movie costarring Simone Signoret and Katherine Ross, and with Robert Altman on Countdown (1967), a race-to-the-moon drama with Robert Duvall.

Caan and Duvall were roommates by the time Coppola cast them in The Rain People (1969), in which Caan plays a brain-damaged former football player. He was a football player again—this time a real-life one—in the 1971 ABC Movie of the Week, Brian’s Song. Caan plays Brian Piccolo, who struck up a friendship with his Chicago Bears teammate Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) before cancer took him when he was only twenty-six. The actor’s moving performance in the highly regarded male weepie scored him an Emmy nomination. But the real star-maker, of course, was The Godfather. Caan, Duvall, and Pacino were all nominated for Supporting Actor Oscars—and probably cancelled out each other’s votes. The award went to Joel Gray for his turn in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972).

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,” writes Ty Burr. In his prime, Caan was “rugged but sensitive,” tweets Dana Stevens, “able to convey vulnerability in the same frame as barely contained rage, and never better than in Karel Reisz’s 1974 Dostoevsky adaptation, The Gambler.

Caan shows up—briefly and uncredited—in a flashback at the end of The Godfather Part II (1974), and the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw finds him “unforgettable in his rage at Michael joining the army, almost punching him at the dinner table for his disloyalty to the family and—a brilliant touch—contemptuously grabbing the hand that Fredo had offered him in congratulation and wrenching it away.” In Norman Jewison’s dystopian sports thriller Rollerball (1975), Caan stars as an athlete who ultimately defies his managers’ and fans’ lust for blood. Caan was particularly fond of Claude Lelouch’s Another Man, Another Chance (1977), a western in which he costarred with Geneviève Bujold. “The reviews were bad and the box office was worse,” tweets Farran Smith Nehme, “but I think this film is tender and lovely, and Caan carries it.”

In 1980, Caan directed his only feature, Hide in Plain Sight, in which he plays a man searching for his children after his ex-wife and her new husband disappear with them in the government’s witness protection program. Met with mixed reviews, the film never found its audience, and Caan blamed the “idiots” at MGM. “Everybody wants to do Rocky 9 and Airport 96 and Jaws 7,” he said the following year. “And you look and you listen, and what little idealism you have left slowly dwindles.”

He bounced back by signing up for what became one of his favorite films, Michael Mann’s 1981 debut feature, Thief. As Frank, a jewel thief and highly skilled safe cracker, Caan gives a performance “so alive that the weather of thought not only crosses his face but appears also to affect every other part of his body,” as Nick James described it in 2014. Caan was “too intense to ever be casual on screen,” writes Charles Taylor for Esquire. “You could never imagine him in a romantic comedy. But when it came to professing naked need—as he does in a knockout ten-minute diner scene with Tuesday Weld in Thief, two actors, masters at being fully in the moment in front of the camera, getting a chance to act without interruption—he delivered.”

That same year, Caan’s sister died. They had been close, and Caan fell into a spiral of depression and addiction. He was rarely seen on-screen until Coppola brought him back to play a hardened war veteran in Gardens of Stone (1987). The full-blown comeback, though, came with Misery (1990), an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel written by William Goldman and directed by Rob Reiner. Caan plays a novelist kidnapped by a nurse (Kathy Bates) who forces him to write another volume in his series of Victorian romance novels. For Peter Bradshaw, Caan “brought exactly the right kind of rugged everyguy persona: not an owlish bookworm, not a tortured intellectual, but a regular guy who looks like a sports writer, or a successful lawyer, or a newsreader. James Caan had just enough old-school machismo for his humbling at the hands of a scary woman to really mean something.”

Caan spent the 1990s “easing into his new position as a respected character actor,” writes Jason Bailey in the New York Times. In Wes Anderson’s debut feature, Bottle Rocket (1996), “Caan’s unsung comic side shines in the role of Mr. Henry, an imposing criminal mastermind (and the proprietor of a successful landscaping firm). It was one of his finest late-career performances, deploying his still-potent tough-guy demeanor and undercutting it with unexpected, self-aware wit.”

In 2000, Caan worked with James Gray on The Yards and Christopher McQuarrie on The Way of the Gun, and in 2003, he appeared in Jon Favreau’s hit comedy, Elf. “Even in a goofball lark like Elf,” writes Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, “which is the movie for which an entire generation probably best knows him best, he was a hard case—the tough-nut dad of Will Ferrell’s North Pole misfit, though by now he was the elder statesman of hard cases, carrying his savage credibility around with him almost as if he’d been an actual underworld character.”

Caan kept busy to the end, acting—he’ll be seen early next year in Phillip Noyce’s Fast Charlie—and tweeting. “The medium turned out to be perfect for the wise-ass octogenarian,” writes Alan Siegel at the Ringer. “On his account, which piled up more than 120,000 followers, he posted photos from the sets of his movies and cutting one-liners—closing every single message with the same declarative phrase: End of Tweet.” It’s “the perfect way to remember Caan’s voice: macho, hilariously to the point, and unmistakably his.”

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