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  • Writer's pictureDuke Daniel Pierce

Tough Guy Caan & Academy Alumni

Photo Credit: Rolling Stone

The Actors Society is saddened to hear of the passing of premiere Hollywood tough guy James Caan, who spent sixty of his eighty years on earth in the entertainment industry.

Caan was a born and bred Jewish New Yorker from the Bronx. He played football at Michigan State, was a black belt in karate, and even did time on the rodeo circuit. He got interested in acting while at Hofstra University and from there attended Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse as well as studying under Wynn Handman. Throughout the sixties, he worked constantly in several off-Broadway shows as well as on TV with his first credit coming at the age of twenty-one on the show Naked City. He got his big break when he co-starred next to John Wayne and Robert Mitchum in Howard Hawks’ western, El Dorado. His career was a long, often bumpy, road that was filled with memorable roles in such films as The Godfather, Misery, The Gambler, Thief, and Elf; but was also marred by the roles he turned down such as the leads in The French Connection, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Superman.

Throughout his career, he worked with many Academy Alumni such as Anne Hathaway (Specialized Training 1993) in the movie remake of Get Smart, Anne Bancroft (Class of 1950) in Honeymoon in Vegas, Jason Robards (Class of 1948) in Comes a Horseman, as well as Lauren Bacall (Class of 1942) and Jeremy Davies (Class of 1990) in Dogville. Three of his most prominent credits Brian’s Song, The Godfather, and Misery were also heavily influenced by alumni. Bacall plays Caan’s literary agent who helps to find him as he’s being held hostage by the unhinged Kathy Bates in Misery. The late Willam Blinn (Class of 1957) wrote the screenplay for Brian’s Song, which went on to become the most-watched TV movie of the time and garner eleven Primetime Emmy Nominations including one for Caan and a win for Blinn. David Huddleston (Class of 1958) was also featured in the TV movie.

While filming, arguably his biggest role, Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, Caan was having trouble getting into character on the first day and he called upon a certain Academy alumnus for help:

“I just didn’t feel comfortable, I would talk to Francis [Ford Coppala] (the director), we use to do improvs, this and that…. When people say what’s your method, well my method, because of this and many instances like it…, is that before the guy says roll’em I look up to God and say ‘give me a break.’ that’s it. So, I look up to God and I say ‘give me a break.’ [Maybe] because there was so many [Don] Rickels (Class of 1948) moments in my head where he was just outrageous or just destroying someone… I don’t know what made me think of him. The next thing I knew I was in the mirror and I was doing Rickles, I was just you know kind of laughin’... and the next thing you know, I didn't think about it, but that next morning I went in… I just started bustin’ everybody’s chops. I mean bad.”

Caan & Rickels on stage together at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas

Caan and Rickels had become good friends with James appearing on Don’s 1975 comedy special Don Rickles: Buy This Tape You Hockey Puck.

His most recent run-in with an Academy alumn was French Stewart (Class of 1985) in the movie Queen Bees. The film was described by Stewart as “mean girls in a retirement home.” Alongside Caan and Stewart, it featured Ellen Burstyn, Jane Curtain, and Ann Margret. The film would be Caan’s last screen credit.

Rest in peace tough guy.


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