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Wednesday, July 13, 2022

In Memoriam: James Caan

Written by Jon Williams

The film industry lost an incredible actor and a unique, larger-than-life personality last week with the passing of James Caan. He was 82.

Born in the Bronx in 1940, Caan was determined to avoid working as a butcher like his father. He went to Michigan State University with hopes of playing football but moved on to Hofstra University when those dreams fell through. It was at Hofstra that he met Francis Ford Coppola and developed an interest in acting. In the early 1960s he started turning that interest into a career, first with some stage work and then with a series of small television roles. His first significant film role was opposite Olivia de Havilland in 1964’s Lady in a Cage, and his part in 1965’s The Glory Guys earned a Golden Globe nomination for New Star of the Year. He landed his first starring role in the racing film Red Line 7000 for director Howard Hawks in 1965. He followed that up with another Hawks film, the Western El Dorado, which also starred John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, and Ed Asner. He worked with Robert Altman in the 1967 space thriller Countdown, and with his friend Francis Ford Coppola for the first time in 1969’s The Rain People.

Many of his films in the ‘60s struggled at the box office, but Caan’s status was about to skyrocket. The 1970s started with the starring role in Rabbit, Run, an adaptation of the John Updike novel. In 1971 he played dying football player Brian Piccolo in the TV movie Brian’s Song, earning an Emmy Award nomination (as did costar Billy Dee Williams). Then in 1972 came the role with which he would forever be associated, mobster Sonny Corleone, in Coppola’s The Godfather, widely regarded as one of the best films of all time. Playing the short-tempered and violent Sonny, the oldest son and heir apparent to Don Vito Corleone, earned Caan nominations for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe. He reprised the role in a cameo appearance for The Godfather: Part II in 1974. Other notable performances in the ‘70s include The Gambler, Funny Lady, Rollerball, and A Bridge Too Far, to name a few.

The ’80s started strong for Caan. In 1980 his passion project, Hide in Plain Sight, was released, the only film he directed. Next came the stylish crime thriller Thief, the directorial debut of Michael Mann. Soon thereafter, though, a series of personal issues forced Caan from the limelight. Thinking he was done acting, he paused his career for several years. He did return, though, starting with another Coppola flick, Gardens of Stone, in 1987. He dipped his toe into sci-fi with 1988’s Alien Nation, which spawned a separate TV series. He then completed his comeback with another iconic role, playing injured and stranded author Paul Sheldon against Kathy Bates’s sadistic nurse and “number one fan” Annie Wilkes in the adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery.

From then until his passing, Caan worked steadily, appearing in roles both large and small across all genres. He did straight drama (The Program), crime drama (The Yards, The Way of the Gun), and comedy (Mickey Blue Eyes, Get Smart). He appeared in Wes Anderson’s debut film, Bottle Rocket, and Lars von Trier’s avant garde ensemble drama Dogville. He starred in the modern Christmas classic Elf. He did voice work for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and its sequel, as well as for the anime film The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, and even voiced himself in cameos for both The Simpsons and Family Guy. He also had TV roles in the shows Las Vegas, Magic City, and Back in the Game. Caan’s final movie role was as an aging mob boss in the crime drama Fast Charlie, which will release in 2023.

James Caan leaves behind an extensive body of work that fans old and new will want to explore for years to come. Click on the links above, or SmartBrowse his name on our website to find all his movies we have available on DVD and Blu-ray. Patrons can also find a selection of his films available digitally on hoopla.

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