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The Movie Man: Remembering James Caan

James Caan, who died recently at 82, was greatly admired by his fellow actors for his ability to play virtually any role and do it well. He steadfastly refused to be typecast and picked his parts with care.


He is best known for his portrayal of Sonny Coreleone in The Godfather (1972). Surrounded by heavy hitters, he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Robert Duvall and Al Pacino were also nominated as Supporting Actor and all of them lost to Joel Grey for Cabaret. Marlon Brando won for Best Actor and the movie itself won the Oscar. It became the rather high bar for gangster movies. Caan’s Sonny is a somewhat dull-witted philanderer whose drunken antics shame the family. Caan’s role in Part II is limited to a flashback to the famous birthday party, a snippet for which (at his insistence) he was paid the same as he was for Part I.


Caan’s first big part was as the dying Brian Piccolo in the made-for-TV Brian’s Song (1971). He is convincing and quite human and has great rapport with football colleague Gayle Sayers (Billy Dee Williams). There are few dry eyes in the house when this one winds up. The 2001 remake, also a TV movie, is a pale imitation of the original.


Caan’s next great role after Godfather was in Thief (1981). In a frankly surprising bit of casting, he plays Frank, the title figure. A nifty take on the old “one last job and I’m out of the business” plot, Frank is an expert jewel thief who wants to go straight. His thuggish boss wants him to keep stealing, and tries to renege on the money Frank is entitled to. The boss and his minions try to get rid of Frank. There’s an ending that will please most everyone.


Caan spends most of Misery (1990) flat on his back. He is Paul Sheldon, a famous author who has a car wreck and the misfortune to be “rescued” by nurse Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates). She says she is his number one fan and that she loves his romance novels featuring a character named Misery. She is outraged when she sees the manuscript of his new novel in which Misery is killed off. She reveals that no one knows where he is and when he tries to leave she stops him. From there is gets worse. This one will keep you guessing (and maybe hoping) ’til the credits roll.


Elf (2003) requires of viewers a giant dose of “just go with it.” Suspend your disbelief and enjoy the fun! Will Ferrell portrays Buddy, who as a baby sneaked into Santa’s bag and was taken to the North Pole. The other elves accept him as one of them, but as he grows taller, they realize he is not. Buddy travels to New York to meet his real father Walter (played by Caan) who is a children’s book publisher. From there, stranger things happen, most of them pretty funny.


Caan can also be seen to good effect in Rabbit, Run (1970), Cinderella Liberty (1973) and Chapter Two (1979).


All of the films in this article are available on DVD and many of them are available for free at your local library. Only Elf is really suitable for kids.