It in no way shortchanges the brilliance of James Caan, who died Wednesday at 82, to point out that he had a special gift for playing insensitive men. He was a gruff, tough, raging, muscular actor, with a ramrod physicality and an imposing look: the wiry curls of brownish-blond hair, the handsome planed face that seemed carved out of granite, the mouth set in a scowl that was a challenge and often a threat. (You got the feeling that even his brain knew how to bench-press.) In “The Godfather,” the movie that not only established him as a great actor but marked him as a mythological presence, Caan played Santino “Sonny” Corleone, the lone hothead in a family of very cool criminals. Don Vito was a courtly, soft-spoken manipulator, Michael a moody intellectual, Fredo a black-sheep nebbish, and Tom Hagen the adoptive sibling as passive bureaucrat.
But Sonny? He glared and shouted and busted balls. He blurted out what he thought, he slept with whomever he wanted, and when a rival sought to make an example of him, it wasn’t hard to light Sonny’s fuse. Sonny had already stomped the crap out of his own brother-in-law — smashing him, in one of the most electrifyingly realistic fight scenes in movie history, with a garbage can. He was teaching the guy a lesson for having become the violent domestic abuser of Sonny’s sister. And when it happened again, the raging, thick-headed Sonny never dreamed that he was being set up.
It’s a true fact of Hollywood lore that Caan, in “The Godfather,” was originally cast to play Michael Corleone. (The Paramount executives liked him for the part; they thought Al Pacino was too short.) Yet it’s part of the film’s timeless power that of all the Hollywood casting yarns you’ve ever heard, that one may be the most impossible to imagine. James Caan as Michael? It would be like asking a German Shepherd to impersonate a Labrador. Caan became Sonny, investing him with a magnetic and, at times, tormented volatility that seemed to boil up over the sides of the character. It’s a performance so indelible that you may watch it and think the actor is simply pouring his own self into the role.
Yet that wasn’t the case. If you want to know what a potent act of imagination Caan’s performance in “The Godfather” was, just watch him in the drama he made the year before, the one that established him as a presence for the 30 million viewers who saw it. That would be “Brian’s Song,” the 1971 ABC Movie of the Week in which he played Brian Piccolo, the Chicago Bears running back who was struck with terminal cancer, and Billy Dee Williams played his friend and teammate Gale Sayers. This was a story of Black-and-white bonding as moving — and, I would argue, as culturally significant — as “In the Heat of the Night.” And Caan made Brian Piccolo the soul of a kind of shaggy heartrending American openness, a man driven, almost by instinct, to overcome the prejudice around him.
What James Caan possessed that emerged from own temperament was a gleeful and irrepressible machismo. He could turn almost any scene into a power play, and did. You see that in “The Gambler,” the Karel Reisz/James Toback New Hollywood-meets-Dostoyevsky drama he made two years after “The Godfather,” where he played the title character — a college instructor turned compulsive gambler — as a man so driven to live on the edge that it was as if he was competing with himself, courting danger as a test of mettle. It’s one of Caan’s most gripping performances.
Even so, he spent the ’70s searching for how to anchor his identity as an actor. He went the downbeat romantic route in “Cinderella Liberty” (1973), as a melancholy sailor opposite Marsha Mason’s single mother and sex worker, and opposite Barbra Streisand in the misbegotten sequel to “Funny Girl.” But he kept getting drawn back to the role of tough guy: as the bullheaded buddy cop in “Freebie and the Bean,” the betrayed assassin of Sam Peckinpah’s “The Killer Elite,” the dystopian gladiator of “Rollerball,” and the divorced father turned vigilante detective in “Hide in Plain Sight.”
Most of these, at heart, were overpriced B-movies. But they culminated in Caan’s performance as the wizardly safecracker trying to go straight in “Thief” (1981), Michael Mann’s searing debut feature. It’s an exquisitely stylish and tautly executed modern-day noir, and what gives the film its soul is Caan’s performance as a criminal who is desperate to find some sort of redemption, despite the fact that prison taught him to live in a place “where nuthin’ means nuthin’.” In “Thief,” Caan projects not just an expression of macho values but, in a certain way, the ultimate critique of them. Apart from “The Godfather,” it may be his finest performance.
Caan enjoyed a rare moment of blockbuster levity in “Misery,” the gothic-comedy adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, in which he played a romance novelist who is captured by Kathy Bates’s deranged fan. It was a riff on celebrity culture in which Bates, with her polite homicidal hostility, had the showpiece role, but it’s Caan, with his sly and quiet reactions, who roots the scenario and makes it work as drama. After that, he played a lot of aging criminals, in movies from “Bottle Rocket” to “The Yards” to “Dogville.” Even in a goofball lark like “Elf,” which is the movie for which an entire generation probably 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.
For that’s how legendary his performance in “The Godfather” had become. It helped to form our very image of who a gangster was — and, in fact, of all the major players in “The Godfather,” the one who comes closest to resembling a real-life gangster is Caan’s Sonny. Yet what we cherish about the character isn’t just how tough he was. It’s how large he loomed. Francis Ford Coppola has said the reason the scene where Sonny gets massacred at a tollbooth goes on for so long is that it felt like that was the level of ballistic overkill needed to wipe out the character. And even then, he lingered. You couldn’t imagine that someone with this much fire and force was gone.