I was sorry to read of the death yesterday of actor James Caan. Caan, who had a long career in Hollywood, died at age 82.
Of course, most people will remember James Caan most for The Godfather and his depiction of Sonny Corleone, the explosive hothead son who temporarily took over leadership of the Corleone crime family after his father, Don Vito Corleone, was gunned down in a drive-by shooting. That’s not surprising because Caan absolutely nailed that role and was riveting as a man who loved his family–memorably explaining to his little brother Michael about how Mafia killings are messy, up-close and personal affairs and then kissing him on the head–but eventually was done in by his temper and impulsiveness.
My favorite James Caan role, however, was his pre-Godfather turn as Brian Piccolo in the 1971 ABC Movie of the Week Brian’s Song. That film tells the story of Piccolo, a running back trying to make the team for the Chicago Bears and competing with the legendary Gale Sayers. After Piccolo does make the team, he and Sayers develop a great respect for each other that deepens into a loving friendship that helps Piccolo deal with a devastating disease that tragically cuts his life short at a young age. Caan was perfect as a guy who was cocky, funny, mischievous, decent, and a good football player, too, and his memorable performance and obvious chemistry with Billy Dee Williams, who also was excellent as Gale Sayers, helped to make Brian’s Song one of the best movies about sports ever made.
James Caan was good in other roles, too: as the writer at the mercy of lunatic Kathy Bates fan character in Misery, as Buddy’s Dad in Elf, and as the star player in Rollerball (which is also a pretty good sports movie). He even co-starred in a western with John Wayne. But the best testament to his acting skill, in my view, was his ability to portray Brian Piccolo and then, one year later, convincingly present himself as the volcanic Sonny Corleone. James Caan clearly could act. He will be missed, but his legacy lives on on screen.