James Caan: From A Mobster To A Romance Writer

Entertainment | August 19, 2021

With John Wayne in El Dorado. Source: (MUBI).

James Caan has had quite the career, appearing not only in more than 70 films, but also acting on stage and on television. James Caan was born in the Bronx and grew up in Queens. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Germany, and his father worked as a meat dealer and butcher. He began college at Michigan State University and transferred to Hofstra, where his classmates included Francis Ford Coppola, but Caan did not graduate. He did, however, graduate from New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater, after studying there for five years.

In The Rain People. Source: (IMDb).

The Beginnings Of His Career

Caan’s career then began in off-Broadway plays, like La Ronde, and his Broadway debut came in Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole. He had his first big screen appearance in 1963 in an uncredited role as a sailor in Irma la Douce, and his first substantial role came in 1964 in Lady in a Cage. In this film, he played a hoodlum whose eyes get poked out. He also had television roles, including The Untouchables and Wide Country. Throughout the ‘60s, he was in a number of films, including El Dorado with John Wayne and Robert Mitchum, gradually receiving better billings, and then in 1969, he was in Coppola’s The Rain People with Robert Duvall and Shirley Knight. Caan received praise for his performance as a brain-damaged football player in this film. In 1970, he had the lead role in Rabbit, Run, based on John Updike’s novel of the same name. However, this film, like many of the others he performed in, was not a box office success. In 1971, he decided to return to television in Brian’s Song. At first, he turned down the role, but then he read the script. His performance as Brian Piccolo, a dying football player, led to an Emmy nomination.  

With Al Pacino in The Godfather. Source: (IMDb).

Becoming A Wiseguy

His second Emmy nomination came the next year, for his role as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather. Caan, who was originally cast as Michael Corleone, Sonny’s youngest brother, demanded the role of Michael go to Al Pacino; Caan wanted to play Sonny. Caan spent time with Carmine Persico, a mafioso who went on to become the head of the Colombo crime family, and government agents briefly assumed that he was not an actor, but an aspiring mobster. The role also had other consequences; he may be the son of Jewish immigrants from Germany, but the role helped to define him. According to Caan, "They called me a wiseguy. I won Italian of the Year twice in New York, and I'm Jewish, not Italian.... I was denied in a country club once. Oh yeah, the guy sat in front of the board, and he says, 'No, no, he's a wiseguy, been downtown. He's a made guy.' I thought, What? Are you out of your mind?" 

In Thief. Source: (IMDb).

After his role in The Godfather, he had roles in Slither (1973), Cinderella Liberty (1973), and he landed the title role in The Gambler (1974). He also appeared in Freebie and the Bean (1974), and he played Billy Rose opposite Barbra Streisand in Funny Lady. He next appeared in action films, Rollerball (1975) and The Killer Elite (1975). He continued to work throughout the ‘70s, and then, in 1978, he had his directorial debut in Hide in Plain Sight, which was about a father who was searching for his children in the Witness Protection Program. The film received critical praise but was not a commercial success. He returned to acting, appearing in Thief (1981), the film he has said is the one he is most proud of, next to The Godfather. He has not taken every role he has been offered though, rejecting starring roles in films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Apocalypse Now, Love Story, and Superman.

With Kathy Bates in Misery. Source: (The Movie Database).

Returning To Acting After A Hiatus

From 1982-1987, he took a hiatus as he coped with the death of his sister from leukemia, problems with cocaine, and, as he has said “Hollywood burnout.” During this time, he coached his son’s Little League team, and he considered retiring, but decided to return to acting because he needed the money. When he did return, it was as an army platoon sergeant in Gardens of Stone. However, his big comeback came as Paul Sheldon, who is tormented by his nurse in Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery (1990). This was followed by Honeymoon in Vegas (1992), and Mickey Blue Eyes (1999); in both comedies, he played a gangster. And, of course, he had a supporting role in Elf (2003). He played the role of “Big Ed” Deline in Las Vegas (2003-2008) and gave his voice to the character of Tim Lockwood in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009) and its sequel in 2013. 

His character in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.

Acting With His Son

He has been married four times and fathered five children. His son, Scott, has followed in his father’s footsteps, and Caan has acted alongside him in A Boy Called Hate (1995), and as a guest star in the re-imagined Hawaii Five-0

Tags: James Caan | John Wayne

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Linda Speckhals


When she’s not out walking her dog, or taking in a baseball game, Linda loves learning about history, science, and philosophy. She will travel wherever the wind may blow, and happily loses herself in a book, whenever she can. At heart, she is a music loving tree-hugger.