By Dan Skip Allen
Many of these retrospectives on actors' lives have started with me talking about something I've seen in my childhood that I loved, which made me a big fan of a film, actor, or director. The same will go for Hollywood tough guy James Caan. The Godfather is in my Top 5 movies of all time, so I couldn't do a James Caan retrospective without bringing up "Sonny"/Santino Corleone, the first born son of Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando). He had a lot of fire and led the family differently than his father or younger brother, Michael (Al Pacino). His temper, especially toward his sister's husband in the film was legendary. He beat him to a pulp in that street scene. That was the mentality of Caan, though.
That is just one of the many notable performances from Caan. He's had a long and storied career in Hollywood. Another role he is noted for is that of Paul Sheldon in Misery, an author with writer's block who has traveled to a secluded cabin to write his next novel in his popular series. Unfortunately for him, he gets into a near-fatal car accident on the slippery mountain roads on his way to get some supplies for his stay at the cabin. He gets rescued by an innocent bystander who happens to live nearby, Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates). Bates won an Academy Award for her performance as this superfan turned kidnapper. Caan has to do everything he can to survive and escape this maniacal woman. This film showed Caan's range and put him in great company opposite Lauren Bacall, Richard Farnsworth, and the aforementioned Bates, who gave the best performance of her career opposite him. He played it a little more nuanced this time around.
Caan also works opposite one of the world's foremost comedians and television stars in Elf. He had to play the straight man, as Buddy's father opposite Will Ferrell. Ferrell is at the height of his popularity as this elf looking for his father in the Big Apple. He's such a child that everybody around him, including Caan's Walter Hobbs character, is playing second fiddle to Ferrell. Like in Misery, Caan creates nuance and subtlety to make this character memorable. The rest of the cast, including Peter Dinklage and Zoey Deschanel, add some addition to the film that makes it even more fun than it already is. This is an instant Christmas classic, and Caan is a major part of that.
In Caan's career, he played tough guys, innocent victims, and fathers who never knew they were a father of a man child, but he's also done a couple of football films that mean a lot to me. One I consider one of the best sports films ever, Brian's Song, a movie of the week where Caan plays Brian Piccolo opposite Billy Dee Williams as Gale Sayers. Both actors played football players who played for the Chicago Bears in the 1960s. Piccolo and Sayers were white and Black men in an era when segregation was still a thing, even in sports. They were symbols of what would become a norm in later decades. Both characters have various bouts of severe illness, and one was very tragic for Caan's Sayers. This film is amazing, and the performances between Caan and Williams are the main reason why.
In The Program, on the other hand, Caan plays a head coach, Sam Winters, of a college football team with all the cliche moments you'd think a football program would have: drug abuse, alcoholism, partying, and other criminal behaviors. This film was modeled after Florida State in the 90s and early 2000s, where Bobby Bowden had a great team, but his players weren't necessarily all on the up and up during their careers as college students/athletes. The student part seemed to go by the wayside, though. Caan played this coach with a manor of innocence towards his players while bringing the fire he was known for in his other films. He was cast perfectly as this coach with a championship goal despite the directives from his superiors at the school and his crazy and wild players.
Caan's career is varied, and he's played all kinds of characters. He is most known for Sonny in The Godfather, but he has been around since the '60s with El Dorado, and his 70's career had a mix of interesting roles in Rollerball and The Gambler. The 80s brought Thief, directed by Michael Mann, where he played Frank, a jewel thief trying to do one last score before he retires. This is always the case with criminals, but it never ends the way they think it is supposed to. In Mickey Blue Eyes, he plays a gangster once again, opposite Hugh Grant, who's trying to marry his daughter. This is another comedic role for Caan, who mixed up his parts very nicely. His career has given fans plenty of great characters and memories that will endure for many years to come. I will never forget him and his career as long as I live.
The Snake Hole
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