For years James Caan has been on Twitter, posting old photos of himself in movies or shouting out actors he’s worked alongside or stuff he’s a fan of. The tweets, beloved and succinct, usually — but not always — conclude with “End of tweet.” Yesterday, Caan’s account announced that the actor had passed away. End of tweet.
In addition to being a beloved elderly poster, Caan was a ruthlessly talented and endlessly watchable actor who appeared in over one hundred films. Caan was in good movies, he was in bad movies. He did schlock; he did masterpieces — each one elevated by the Caanness of it all.
A Polish Jew raised in Queens and briefly educated in Michigan before returning to New York City to make it on the big stage, Caan embodied an all-Americanness both classical and innovative. He was a failed jock, but roguish and athletic all the same. He imbued a nervy sensitivity into his roles, and it was often easy to believe that underneath layers and layers of cool that he was vulnerable and gentle. He worked with Francis Ford Coppola and Wes Anderson. He was in Elf and Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs. It was possible to watch movies and see Caan before you knew him, but once you got it, you got it for life. I saw Brian’s Song no less than seven times as a kid on ABC not realizing there was a guy in that movie I’d spend the later half of my twenties saying, “I wish I could go back in time to fuck this guy,” which, if nothing else, ought to show the magic and the magnetism of James Caan.
People wanted Caan; they wanted to be Caan. The pinnacle, to me, is Thief, an opera of a movie. The film — dreamy and dazy and wet and aglow — is Michael Mann’s debut, a slick Chicago crime thriller, led by a softened-but-gruff Caan. He’s a safecracker, a man with his own principles, who gets roped into an organization and — like many who go to work for The Man — betrayed. Caan is everything in that movie: hot, capable, friends with Jim Belushi. At the end of the film, he blows up the iconic Chicago jazz club The Green Mill. He sets fire to a dozen cars. He burns every bridge, somewhat literally, in an attempt to start anew one last time. It’s unbelievably cathartic, borderline spiritual.
In interviews Caan was funny and natural, with a real fuckin’ attitude and a joke for every question. The Playboy interview from the 1970s is the important one, but his appearance on Maron from 2020 is a treat, full of anecdotes and enthusiasm for his own life and career and what he’d done with his time on Earth.
Caan was grateful and full of humility, a real guy’s guy, with a respect for art and a desire to throw around a football. Kathy Bates smashed up his legs and he’s still one of the hottest men to ever live. We won’t get that lucky again anytime soon.