Jimmy Caan died on July 6 at the age of 82. Yet it was believed to be unbreakable. Indeed, this intense actor symbolized in the 1970s the image of virility, in the same way as Burt Reynolds. It was his family who announced the sad news on their Twitter account, without giving further details on the circumstances of his disappearance. “It is with great sadness that we inform you of the passing of Jimmy’s passing on the evening of July 6th. The family appreciates the outpouring of love and sincere condolences and asks that you continue to respect their privacy during this difficult time.”, can we read on the social network. The actor sent back an image of a “tough guy”, a hardened type, with his build of a mover and his eyes of a cocker spaniel. Endowed with an intimidating screen presence, this athlete practiced many sports and was a boxer, a sixth-dan black belt in karate and a rodeo champion for nine years (he was nicknamed in competitions “The Jewish Cowboy”) . A real badass that you had to avoid looking for. And whose anger on the screen shook the viewer.
Born on March 26, 1940 in the Bronx district of New York, James Langston Edmund Caan (on stage, James Caan) grew up in a Jewish family of German origin. His parents moved a few months later to Queens. His father Arthur is a kosher butcher and, before entering college, James was hired by his uncle to unload 300-pound carcasses of beef at four in the morning in -15°C and store them in a room. cold! Surrounded by delinquency to the point of succumbing to it more than once, expelled from many public schools, the teenager is quite turbulent and often finds himself in fights with his younger brother Ronnie. Quarrelsome, he makes himself respected by the other kids and even becomes class leader. At the age of 16, he entered Michigan State University to study economics and play American football – his great passion at the time.
He then turned to legal training and obtained a scholarship to study drama for five years at a prestigious school in Manhattan, the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. He took his first steps on the boards and received his first stamp in 1961, at the age of 21, in an off-Broadway adaptation of Round by Austrian Arthur Schnitzler. He is then paid 45 dollars a week for eight months. The same year, he married a young actress, Dee Jay Mathis, and began a career in television. He also won the first four roles for which he was auditioned! We meet him in many series like NakedCity and The Incorruptibleswhere he gives the reply to Lee Marvin in one of the episodes.
Film debut under the patronage of Francis Ford Coppola
If Caan appeared for the very first time in a feature film in 1963 (he played a sailor in Irma the sweet by Billy Wilder, without being credited in the credits), it is the filmmaker Howard Hawks who will really reveal it in two films: Red Line 7000 (1965) and the western Eldorado (1967). In the first, he plays a jealous race car driver. In the second, he is Mississippi, the young accomplice of John Wayne and Robert Mitchum, a clumsy knife thrower and gunman. He then interprets a cosmonaut in Objective moon (1967) by Robert Altman. But it was in 1969 that he made a decisive encounter. The one with the director Francis Ford Coppola who entrusts him with the role of an ex-footballer who has become simpleton following an accident in the drama rain people. Moreover, he still plays a footballer – Brian Piccolo of the Chicago Bears, suffering from a rare form of cancer – in a TV movie which will be a huge success in the United States: Brian’s Song (1971), a sports melody which earned him an Emmy Award nomination.
One year later, he finds Coppola for a masterpiece that will change his destiny and propel him to stardom: The Godfather (1972) in which he plays the eldest son of Marlon Brando, the hot-tempered “Sonny” Corleone, whose volcanic temperament contrasts with that of Don Vito’s other son, the discreet Michael, played by Al Pacino. To interpret this character, he is inspired by gangsters he has known well (like Meyer Lansky, associate of the Luciano family). And, following the planetary triumph of this family saga over the Sicilian mafia, Caan is nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and moved to the first division. The actor will then make a brief appearance during a flashback in The godfather – part 2 (1974) and would begin a new career headlining films such as The high roller (1974) where he played a university professor prey to the demon of gambling. He also made three featured films in 1975: elite killer by Sam Peckinpah, a musical with Barbra Streisand funny lady and especially roller ball, a futuristic fable in which two teams face each other to the death in new circus games, broadcast live on television: Rollerball matches, a brutal sport that mixes American football, motocross and hockey. This science fiction film will be a hit in theaters and George Lucas will offer the actor the role of Han Solo in Star Wars (1977) – which he will refuse! In 1978, he was also offered that of Superman in the eponymous film by Richard Donner. But Caan doesn’t want to wear a red cape and underpants, for fear of ridicule.
A long crossing of the desert during the 1980s
The star kicked off the 1980s with a bang as a burglar and safe-cracker in Michael Mann’s feature debut The solitary (1981), a superb thriller and one of the films of which he is most proud. The same year, it runs under the direction of Claude Lelouch in his fresco One and the other. He led a jazz orchestra there in the 1940s and his character was inspired by the life of Glenn Miller. But when his sister Barbara dies of leukemia in 1981, James Caan will experience a terrible depression. Indeed, he stopped everything between 1982 and 1987. Six years of absence during which he is forgotten by the world of cinema. He tells the press: “I who had never touched drugs, I plunged into it body and soul. I hit rock bottom several times.“ The abuse of cocaine also causes skids (he beats his ex-wife). He also suffered a serious car accident in 1985. And his associates dealt him the coup de grace by ripping him off and fleeing with all his savings!
A real descent into hell and a vacuum that will end when his friend Francis Coppola will help him recover financially. He offers him the leading role in the moving stone garden (1987). Cropped hair, aged and unrecognizable, Caan plays a soldier, Sergeant Hazard, a veteran of Korea and Vietnam. A magnificent performance. Above all, he made his big comeback in 1990 in Misery, a successful adaptation of a Stephen King novel, in which he plays a famous novelist kidnapped by a fervent admirer (the terrifying Kathy Bates, who won the Oscar for Best Actress for this role of psychopathic fan). It is a challenge to have wanted to almost immobilize on a James Caan bed for 90 minutes. He could not indulge in his usual physical prowess. And the sequence where Kathy Bates breaks his feet with a sledgehammer after placing a block of wood between his ankles is still shocking! The same year, Andy Garcia plays Vincent Mancini, the illegitimate son of “Sonny” Corleone, in The Godfather III. And in 1994, Heidi Fleiss, a famous brothel owner frequented by Hollywood stars, claimed in Vanity Fair magazine that she had a relationship with Caan. But the latter categorically denies having flirted with this Californian Madame Claude.
A final comeback in the 2000s
In the early 2000s, the actor was 60 years old. But cinephile filmmakers appeal to him. He indeed plays gangster characters in works as great as The Yards by James Gray, Way of the Gun by Christopher McQuarrie or Dogville by Lars von Trier. And young contemporary authors dream of working with him. At the same time, he made his return to starring on television by playing the head of security for a large casino in the first four seasons of the series. Vegasbetween 2003 and 2007. He even plays the President of the United States alongside Steve Carell in the parody Max the threat (2008). Finally, in Blood Ties (2013), the American thriller directed by Guillaume Canet, he plays the father of two enemy brothers, one cop (Billy Crudup), the other gangster (Clive Owen), in seventies New York. In all this, James married four times and had five children (including actor Scott Caan, seen in particular in Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels). The comedian who appeared in a hundred films earned his star on the sidewalk of the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard in 1978. And this ultra-conservative, addicted to Fox News, supported the presidential campaign of Republican candidate Donald Trump in 2016. When asked how he imagines his death in the film documentary Seduced and Abandoned (2013), he replies that he does not want to die out slowly, to see himself decline physically but, on the contrary, to leave suddenly and spectacularly.