James Caan: The Heartwarming Tough Guy

Until today, I never reflected on my relationship with James Caan. The charismatic actor always gave me “tough guy” vibes. I wouldn’t expect anything less from the son of Jewish immigrants born in the Bronx and raised in Queens.

So when I read that Caan sadly passed away at the age of 82, I started to think about his career, and the more I revisited his filmography, the sadder I was knowing the world lost a terrific actor. I did not know Caan personally so I can only speak about his performances. However, so many positive tributes have poured in about Caan, the man, and how much people loved working with him.

Every tribute to Caan will start with his role as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather. You’ll hear no negative remarks from me about Caan’s performance as Vito Corleone’s eldest son. Caan is a lightning rod throughout the film, bringing the necessary chaotic, machismo energy required to play the don-in-waiting. Al Pacino’s performance as Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II is arguably the pinnacle of acting, but Caan’s performance is better than Pacino’s in the first film. When he sees Connie with the bruises on her face, Sonny goes from enraged maniac to sympathetic brother in a matter of seconds, convincing the audience that he might show remorse towards Carlo, when in fact, he beats the life out of him. Caan is so committed and believable as an older brother who would kill to protect his family.

Caan’s other iconic roles in the 1970s that struck a chord with me are Brian’s Song and Rollerball. For the former, Caan played Brian Piccolo, a halfback for the Bears whose life ended at 26 from cancer. Caan wasn’t the tough guy anymore. Caan played Piccolo with such grace and vulnerability that it became known as a “movie that will make every guy cry.”


In Rollerball, Caan starred as Jonathan E., the superstar of the violent and deadly game known as Rollerball. The film was simply ahead of its time, brutally foreshadowing a world dominated by corporate greed and global capitalism. Caan is the perfect actor to give the middle finger to “the man” and represent individualism.

Skip ahead to 1981 when Caan ends up starring in Michael Mann’s directorial debut, Thief. For my money, Thief is on the Mount Rushmore of Caan performances. It’s the best representation of the heartwarming tough guy I used in the title. Caan is an enigmatic thief, but he’s a criminal with morals and a code of ethics that make him easy to root for. In one scene, he’s pistol-whipping a henchman. In another scene, he’s pouring his heart out at an adoption agency, trying to convince the state to grant him a child. Caan’s vulnerability is unmatched.

Unfortunately, Caan took a 5-year hiatus in the 1980s to coach his children’s sports teams to combat his depression over the death of his sister and his cocaine use. Luckily for us, Caan returned to acting and starred in 1990’s Misery. Almost every big name in Hollywood turned down the role of Paul Sheldon, who is brutally tortured and confined to a bed throughout most of the movie. But not Caan, who became the perfect foil to Kathy Bates’s Annie Wilkes.

Skip to 1996 when Caan appeared in four movies:

  • North Star, a movie I have never seen
  • Bottle Rocket, Wes Anderson’s directorial debut
  • Eraser, where he plays the adversary to Arnold Schwarzenegger
  • Bulletproof, where he struck up a personal and professional friendship with Adam Sandler

That’s a hell of a year.

The last iconic role of Caan came in 2003 when he played Walter Hobbs in Elf, the mean-spirited book publisher, and father to Buddy (Will Ferrell). To think there is an entire generation of people who know Caan strictly for Elf and not any of the roles mentioned above is a testament to his impact in Hollywood.

There are plenty of roles I didn’t mention, which speaks to Caan’s longevity and versatility. At the end of the day, Caan is one of the most talented performers of the last 60 years. It’s not hyperbole to say he is one of one. May he rest in peace.

What is your favorite James Caan performance? Leave your thoughts in the comments below or tweet me, at @danny_giro.