Remembering James Caan And His Most Badass Moments

Videos by Rare

Videos by Rare

James Caan, who died on July 6 at the age of 82, was the ultimate tough guy. He solidified his reputation playing in 1972 playing Sonny Corleone: brash and violent heir apparent to the Godfather crime family. And his personal interests were similarly badass: Caan was a practicing martial artist and participated in rodeos as a steer roper; he once referred to himself as “the only Jewish cowboy from New York.”

So, in honor of this legend’s passing, let’s remember some of his most iconic on-screen moments.

That Glorious ‘Godfather’ Performance

As Sonny Corleone, Caan imbued a brutish — potentially flat — character with crackling enigma. Caan’s handle on the material was noted immediately during the audition process, causing director Francis Ford Coppola to pass over Robert DeNiro for the part. And audiences picked up on that spark. Sonny’s arc in the Godfather was, arguably, the most memorable aspect of the first film, so it was no came as no surprise when Caan received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. (He lost, in 1973, to Joel Gray for Cabaret.)

Watch above as Sonny, the most hot-tempered of the Corleone clan, beats the living sh*t out of his brother-in-law Carlo. With little background noise, every punch, every kick, every rattle of the weaponized garbage can, rings out angrily. The scene seems to go and on. And all the while, Caan’s teeth are gritted together in a sadistic… sneer? Grin?

Although Sonny dies in the events of The Godfather: Part Iwatch that epic blowout below — he remained a fan favorite of the series thanks to Caan’s textured performances. (Caan also appeared in The Godfather: Part II through a flashback cameo.)

Caan’s turn in the Godfather was so piercing that it came to define his entire identity. Many fans are shocked to learn Caan is not even Italian! (Raised in Queens, he is Jewish of German descent.) Caan did, however, make some mafia friends around the time of the Godfather’s release. Caan was so close with Andrew Russo, the real-life kingpin who ran the Columbo crime family, that Russo became godfather to Caan’s oldest son Scott. (Russo died earlier this year, at age 87, while awaiting racketeering charges.)

Taking It Like a Champ

Even though James Caan maintained a macho image throughout his lifetime, he resisted obvious typecasting. Stating that he wanted to be “an actor, not a millionaire,” Caan was picky. According to the Chicago Tribune, he turned down roles in such blockbusters as  M*A*S*HThe French ConnectionOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestClose Encounters of the Third KindKramer vs. KramerApocalypse Now, Blade RunnerLove Story, and Superman.

So it’s interesting that Caan accepted the role of writer Paul Sheldon in Misery, the Rob Reiner adaptation of a Stephen King novel. The role was originally envisioned for William Hurt, but many other leading Hollywood men — including Kevin Kline, Michael Douglas, Harrison Ford, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Richard Dreyfuss, Gene Hackman, and Robert Redford — also rejected the part, likely not wanting lie down for an entire movie.

Luckily though, Caan was game. And his anguished performance, along with a pitch-perfect Kathy Bates, made for a chilling, dramatic two-hander. Premiering in 1990, Misery also represented a comeback for Caan whose career wained throughout the 80s due mainly to personal issues.

Above, watch Bates, as Annie Wilkes, “hobble” her prisoner.

Teaming up with John Wayne

El Dorado, a 1966 western, cast James Caan alongside the hero of yesteryear: John Wayne. In an interview years later, he called Wayne a “piece of work,” saying that the elder actor tried hard to intimate others on set. But still, Caan says, the two were fairly close; it sounds like Wayne had a begrudging respect for the up-and-coming Caan, who describes himself at the time like “a half-assed stunt man.”

Although El Dorado may feel a little dated today, it’s historic for united Caan and Wayne, as well as Robert Mitchum. It also has some great knife work by Caan’s character: watch above.

James Caan Talks Dostoevsky?

In 1974’s The Gambler, James Caan played a professor tormented by gambling addiction. For his character, who teaches literature, it represents a sort of poetic death wish. And while the casino scenes full of pimps and bookies are definitely more colorful, this dynamic classroom scene showcases Caan’s studied range — and I think that’s pretty badass.

Caan was a student at New York City’s prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre for five years during his twenties. It’s where he fell in love with acting. ”Of course, all my improvs ended in violence,” he told the New York Times in 2004 while promoting his NBC show, Las Vegas; the well-received series would cement his connection to the Sin City. Its success also represents the constant ebb and flow and reinvention that defined Caan’s career.

After all, who would have guessed that the Sonny Corleone act would be known to younger audiences as the dad from from Elf?!

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