By John H. Foote
He was forever Sonny, or Santino.
The first time I remember seeing James Caan in a film was the 1971 made for television drama Brain’s Song, in which he portrayed Brian Piccolo, a football star who had died years before of cancer. Piccolo and teammate Gale Sayers were the first black-white roommates in professional sports and developed a close personal friendship that saw them become the very best of friends. Caan was superb as Piccolo, a fun-loving Italian who does not see the colour of Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) skin, only the heart that beats beneath it.
A deeply moving TV movie, it was the first time I can remember weeping at the staggering impact of a film.
James Caan died Thursday at the age of 82.
He was best known for his Oscar nominated performance as Santino Corleone, the hot-headed brother in The Godfather (1972) who dies in a hail of bullets at a toll station. The performance remains beloved and among the best in a film bursting with great work. Caan and his friend, actor Robert Duvall had fun on set mooning actor Marlon Brando throughout Brando’s time on set. Caan and Duvall remained lifelong friends.
Though not as gifted an actor as were Brando and Duvall, Caan always did a fine job and worked hard in his films.
He was excellent opposite Barbra Streisand in Funny Lady (1975), an underrated sequel to Funny Girl (1968), gave a brawny performance in Rollerball (1975), and did some career best work through the seventies and eighties. As the salty sailor who finds himself a father figure to a young boy, the son of a hooker in Cinderella Liberty (1973), he was again worthy of Oscar attention that did not come. A year later in The Gambler (1974) he gave what might be his finest performance aside from The Godfather. He gave a superb performance with Jane Fonda in the under appreciated western Comes a Horseman (1978) and in 1979 gave Neil Simon romantic comedy a try in Chapter Two (1979).
Michael Mann offered the actor a role in his film Thief (1981) resulting in one of Caan’s finest performances and films, and though he worked steadily through the eighties and nineties, good work was hard to find. He certainly found it in Misery (1990) stepping in for Warren Beatty when he left the shoot, as well as Dick Tracy (1990) directed by Beatty.
His last real hit film was the Will Ferrell holiday comedy Elf (2003).
Actors and directors have set forth an outpouring of affection for the actor on Instagram, such a beloved man.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.