10-The Killer Elite. All the tough guys worked with Director Sam Peckinpah. The legendary Director of “The Wild Bunch” and “The Getaway” with Steve McQueen was as notorious for his drunken brawls away from the set as he was behind the camera. James Caan worked with “Bloody Sam” on this revenge action drama from 1975. He stars with Robert Duvall as a pair of CIA operatives who find themselves double-crossed and set up to die. Lots of slo-mo gunplay and real live Ninjas fight their way across the screen, and is the only film that features both character actors Burt Young AND Gig Young, so there you go.
9-El Dorado. In 1966 James Caan was still a rising young Actor – he had gotten his movie start in a small role in 1963’s comedy “Irma la Deuce”, but it was this role alongside The Duke – John Wayne – that got Hollywood’s attention. He was a cocky young gambler who had a way with a knife – which was a good thing since he couldn’t shoot straight AND he wore a funny hat. Director Howard Hawks adds Robert Mitchum to the cast and this old-fashioned western is a lot of fun, and Caan shines.
8-The Gambler. In 1974, James Caan took on the role of a college literature Professor with one fatal flaw: he couldn’t stop gambling. So when the mob sends a hit man to collect their debt, he heads to Vegas for one last chance to find lady luck. This is a riveting drama, and Caan shows how well he can act. Now if he could just do comedy…
7-Honeymoon In Vegas. Do Comedy? With Nicolas Cage and Sarah Jessica Parker? And ELVIS? Of course! In 2000, Caan steals Parker away from her hapless fiancé, who just can’t resist a poker game in Vegas before he gets married. so what happens? Cage LOSES Sarah in the game to Caan aka Tommy Korman, a Vegas mobster who just wants Parker to marry him; as Parker screams at Cage when she finds out what happened: “you turned me into a whore, Jack, you turned me into a whore!” Cage ends up chasing them from Las Vegas to Hawaii and back again…its alot of fun, and is the only movie I know that features “The Flying Elvises!”
6-Rollerball. In the future, there are no wars. There is no crime. There is only…Rollerball. This 1975 sci-fi action thriller imagines a time when brutal athletes battle in a stadium to entertain you, and the lethal game they play is Rollerball. Caan shows off his athletic ability while skating around a rink and bonking guys in the head….not a bad way to earn a living. If you ever saw the disasterous remake, wash that memory out of your head by seeing how the pros do it.
5-Freebie and the Bean. Very popular when it came out in 1974, this cop action-comedy teamed up Caan with Alan Arkin as two cops who break all the rules to solve a crime. Not an original concept, but in 1974 this was the first movie to turn a city into an obstacle course, with huge action sequences that laid waste to much of San Francisco. Hated by critics, this is actually a funny, over-the-top film that many call the original “Lethal Weapon.”
4-Cinderella Liberty. in 1973, Caan was coming off an Oscar nomination for best Supporting Actor (more on that in a moment), and he followed that up with this quiet drama about a sailor on shore leave who falls in love with a prostitute, played by Marsha Mason ( best known for The Goodbye Girl.) This was filmed in my home town of Seattle, and shows a lot of the old first avenue grime and grit of the city, when it was a place for sailors to hang out on shore leave. A touching drama that shows off Caan’s acting abilities, and a slice-of-life character study that rarely gets made today.
3-Elf. What can you say? James Caan showed up in this instant holiday classic as mean-spirited, absent father Walter Hobbs who discovers that Buddy the Elf is his son. Caan plays the tough guy easily, but he also found a great comic rapport with Wil Ferrell.
2-Thief. Before Michael Mann directed “Heat”, he made this 1981 action thriller about a Thief who doesn’t want to join the mob. Caan is an independent jewel thief who resists an offer by the local Mobster to join the team. They make him pay, of course, but when you are James Caan, you make them pay right back. This is Direcotr Mann feeling out the crime genre, while Caan plays a tough guy who doesn’t want a boss…and Jim Belushi very strong in a supporting role as his co-worker. Tough, gritty character-driven action film.
1-The Godfather. He was hot-headed Sonny Corleone in the greatest movie ever made. Caan was never better than he was here, as quick to bang a bridesmaid as he was to punch out a wall. There are scenes of iconic violence alongside touching moments when Caan lets his temper cool off and horses around with his brother Mikey. In a movie of BIG BIG moments, Sonny’s death is one of the most memorable. Caan was Oscar-nominated for Supporting Actor alongside co-stars Al Pacino and Robert Duvall – perhaps that’s why they all lost of Joel Grey in “Cabaret.” However, Caan WAS voted “Italian Of The Year” after this performance, and here’s what he had to say: “I’m a Jew from the Bronx. I feel guilty about accepting these awards, but they wouldn’t let me turn them down.” George Lucas considered Caan for the role of Hans Solo in “Star Wars” – imagine how this tough guy would have done in outer space!
And off the list but worth noting:
Misery. Everyone remembers Kathy Bates in her Oscar-winning performance as a rabid fan who just doesn’t like her favorite Author’s new ending to his book, and Caan as the Writer who finds out how handy Bates is with an ax…Directed by Rob Reiner and adapted from a Stephen King novel, “Misery” is a terrific thriller as well.
Also not on the list: the 1971 TV movie “Brian’s Song.” Chicago Bears fans all know and love the legendary running back Gale Sayers, but another back on the team was Brian Piccolo, who befriends Sayers as they play together in the NFL. Their friendship grows stronger, and then Piccolo is diagnosed with cancer…a terrific sports movie with a great performance by Caan as Piccolo, and Billy Dee Williams as Sayers….
There you have it, let me know why you are angry that I left off Caan’s co-starring role with Barbara Streisand in “Funny Lady”, the musical followup to “Funny Girl”…because I did!