R.I.P. James Caan

Trying to be Brando long before he knew he’d play his son someday

Well, I was working on something pretty important just now but I just got the news about James Caan’s passing, and that’s a stop-the-presses situation. It’s made me sadder than I would have dreamt possible, and I guess it’s because I grew up watching him — nostalgia, and all.

We’ve seen him die before, of course, in Altman’s Countdown (1968), in the TV weepie Brian’s Song (1971), which was probably the first role I ever saw him in, and The Godfather (1972) which I was a little too young to see upon its first release. Because of that film and because he went to Hofstra with Coppola, people are inclined to talk about The Rain People (1969) as his breakthrough film, but that’s pretty absurd. As early as 1964 Caan chewed the scenery as a psychotic hoodlum in Lady In a Cage opposite no less than Olivia de Havilland. THAT is a trial by fire, boy!

Good looking, cocky, curly headed, muscular, he was one of THE stars of the mid ’70s. I’m certain he is the first person I ever heard utter the phrase “Bodda Bing!” Every shmuck with a blog or a podcast has something to say about The Godfather — I just heard Alec Baldwin say the STUPIDEST things two minutes ago — so it’ll be a good long while before it gets my attention, but during the same years I saw him in tons of stuff I still regard as 70s classics: there’s Cinderella Liberty (1973) with Marsha Mason, which would make a great “sailor on leave double feature” with The Last Detail (as it should, they were both written by the same guy); Freebie and the Bean (1974) with Alan Arkin, one of the first “buddy cop comedies”; Funny Lady (1975) in which he played Billy Rose to Streisand’s Fanny Brice; the dystopian sports thriller Rollerball (1975) with John Houseman; Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite (1976); Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976) with Elliott Gould.

For a while his vogue seemed to ebb, but then he came back with such a vengeance in Stephen King’s Misery (1990) forced to act with nothing but his face, a man accustomed to throwing his whole body into roles. In a way, it was like coming back to the psychobiddy origins of Lady in a Cage, with the roles reversed. It’s interesting to me that he was so successful as an actor. He’s really good, don’t get me wrong, but he usually came off hard and unsympathetic, and (though likeable) frequently obnoxious. Ben Affleck has always reminded me a little of the young James Caan. For a really good time, dig up The Godfather cast reunion from a few years ago in which most of the principals were gathered together for a group interview. Woo boy, is he hilarious — and boy do his colleagues roll their eyes (with affection) as he spins his B.S. It’s hard not to love a guy like that, a guy who can upstage De Niro and Pacino and they just shrug and smile and say “That’s Jimmy”.

“Jimmy” was from Queens and he learned to act at Neighborhood Playhouse. His final credits are still in post-production. He was 82.