Over the course of his career, James Caan brought a series of tough guys, gangsters and military men to vivid life on screen. But few films captured the actor’s swaggering physicality better than “Rollerball,” the 1975 dystopian classic with Caan as the star attraction of a futuristic game that devolves into gladiatorial chaos. Norman Jewison, the film’s director, says that Caan, who died July 6 at 82, was the only performer at the time who combined athleticism and heart.
Jewison spoke with Variety about their experience making “Rollerball” and the ineffable quality that made Caan such a great actor.
When I was casting “Rollerball,” I was looking for an actor who was tough and athletic, and I couldn’t think of anyone else other than Jimmy, who could put on a pair of roller skates and hang on to a motorbike. I don’t think he’d ever roller-skated in his life, but he was fearless. He had a deep desire to conquer the physical necessities of the role. Even when I went skiing with him up in Deer Valley, he just scared me with his intense commitment to the sport. I think he later got into rodeos, which was hilarious since he was a kid from the Bronx. But he was an intense guy.
In “Rollerball,” he totally understood the central point of the film, which was how big business is controlling everything. He got it emotionally and aesthetically, and that was tough because the movie was ahead of its time in a way. This was before cellphones and all these screens we have in our lives, but it captured something about our future.
He was so versatile. It’s astonishing the range he showed playing the football player in “Brian’s Song” or Sonny in “The Godfather” or “Gardens of Stone,” where he played the sergeant and was just astonishing. Those roles are all so different than “Rollerball” — and he was the best part of that film. I can’t think of anyone who had a more eclectic career than James Caan.
He could be difficult and he had his struggles with drugs, but he also had the courage to check himself into rehab and to get help. He was a very sensitive man despite his bravado and toughness, and that came through in his work. He’d been battered, bruised and scarred up, but there was something kind of gentle about him too. I liked him enormously, and I’m only sorry that I never got a chance to tell him how much he meant to me. He was a very special talent. We lost a great one here.