R.I.P. James Caan, Hollywood’s Legendary Tough Guy Artist

The son of a kosher butcher from Sunnyside, Queens, was the kind of actor Hollywood had never seen before, and which it hasn’t produced since

James Caan, the swaggering, fiery-eyed bull of an actor whose six-decade career ignited the moment that his first-born mafia scion, Sonny Corleone, chased his unruly passions into a machine-gun ambush at a tollbooth in 1972’s The Godfather, died on Wednesday. He was 82.

Caan’s family posted news of his death on Twitter, ending their statement with the same stenographer-dictation sign off practiced by the actor himself: “end of tweet.” Neither his family nor his manager have since provided a place or cause of his death.

With his volatile physicality, Caan emerged in New York’s 1960s theater world, joining a coterie of young Adler- and Meisner-trained actors who populated Hollywood in its era of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls sweaty realism in 70mm. In this world, Caan offered a leaner, faster, wisecracking version of Marlon Brando’s brooding pugilist. In a milieu of theater aesthetes who discussed method and process, the Queens-raised butcher’s son and friend to a member of the Colombo crime family brought the air of a mafia foot soldier who’d wandered into a studio lot. He built a distinguished career in a dynamic array of street-tough roles, and a blazing offscreen trajectory in tabloids chronicling Hollywood excess.

Born March 26, 1940, in the Bronx, James Edmund Caan was raised in Sunnyside, Queens, the eldest son of three children to kosher wholesale butcher Arthur Caan and his wife, Sophie. After a checkered academic career, Caan graduated high school at 16, tried Michigan State, then Hofstra, before dropping out to spend five years of study at Manhattan’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater, where acting guru Wynn Handman took him on as protégé.

While working steadily in ‘60s TV shows like Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey, the former high school football star pursued boxing, rodeo, and other examples of what he told Marc Maron were “non-Jewish activities” on the comedian’s interview podcast WTF in 2020. As Maron noted, Caan is the supreme figure in Hollywood connoisseurs’ “tough jew” pantheon. A status that could have been cemented solely by his priapic, hot-blooded Sonny, a decidedly non-bookish, unreflective counterweight to the collegiate Machiavellian future don, Michael, played by Al Pacino.

Caan played troubled athletes in dramas like Francis Ford Coppola’s 1969 The Rain People and 1971’s TV weeper Brian’s Song, but soon revealed the emotional depth and rage of a dramatic heavyweight—giving his gambling-addicted English prof in The Gambler a harrowing obsessiveness, portraying excruciating focus as recidivist jewel thief Michael Mann’s Thief in 1981, even singing and dancing opposite Barbra Streisand in the hit 1975 movie-musical Funny Lady.

A discriminating approach to roles and various personal upheavals sidelined Caan through much of the 1980s, until Rob Reiner’s inspired casting of Caan in the horror two-hander Misery, adapted from Stephen King’s novel, opened a new career phase. As a bedridden pulp novelist held hostage and tortured by a psychotic superfan, Caan’s aura of indestructibility amplified the terror of various mortifications of the flesh his character receives, and his acute facility showed us every bone-breaking blow that was delivered just out of shot.

Caan’s subsequent roles often winked at his 70s-minted image, underplaying a lovestruck mobster in 1992 romcom Honeymoon in Vegas, and giving an amused understatement to a gangster silent partner to a couple of hapless wannabe criminals in Wes Anderson’s 1996 debut film, Bottle Rocket. 

Early this year, a podcaster aptly fêted Caan in an episode parsing millennial touchstone Misery. “The Godfather is probably his most iconic role,” You’re Wrong About co-creator Sarah Marshall told her movies podcast partner, recalling the eye-popping, bullet-dancing scene of Sonny’s execution on the Jones Beach Causeway. “They shot that character an incredible number of times because the movie recognized that people weren’t going to believe that this wonderful, larger-than-life, horse-dicked-man could possibly die after being only shot, like, seven times.”

Caan winked and riffed on this kind of man for decades after Hollywood ceased producing them, an inveterate New York City street tough who thrived in an industry town.

“I flew out and it was a fuckin’ cow town, man,” he recalled to Marc Maron. “You gotta drive a half hour to get a newspaper, are you fuckin’ nuts?”

Caan is survived by his brother, Ronald; five children, the actor Scott Caan and Tara, Alexander, James, and Jacob Caan, as well as four grandchildren.

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