His mentor and associate, Francis Coppola, has just celebrated in Taormina the 50th anniversary of the masterpiece of both, “The Godfather” when James Caan abandons him, and the family chooses to communicate today, via social media, that the vigorous actor of that film (he was Sonny, Don Vito Corleone’s abusive and impetuous son) has left in silence at 82 years old.
Strange to say, despite the Oscar nomination and the undoubted personal success, James Caan did not like to identify with the character of the Americanized mafioso and laughed at the cliché that many in Hollywood believed he had Italian roots.
The fact is that in the noir genre and its surroundings, he often found himself reaping important successes: “40,000 dollars not to die” by Karel Reitz, “Killer Elite” by Sam Peckinpah in the 70s, “I will find them at any cost” (from himself directed) and Michael Mann’s “Violent Roads” (possibly his personal masterpiece) in the 1980s; Rob Reiner’s “Misery Must Not Die” and even Kelly Makin’s ironic “Mickey Blue Eyes” car in the 90s, up to Guillaume Canet’s unexpected “BloodTies” and Carol Morley’s “Out of Blue” with which it closed his career in 2018 virtually.
Born in the Bronx on March 26, 1940, the third son of a butcher of German descent, young James grows up in the violent streets of the New York suburbs; he is a listless student in Queens and then at the University of Hempstead where he meets his lifelong friend, Francis Coppola, for the first time. Caan, however, leaves school early to enrol in the acting classes of Sanford Meisner, his Pygmalion. He will appear uncredited on the set of “Irma la dolce”, will be noticed on TV with the series “The Untouchables” (1962), starring with John Wayne in “El Dorado”, finds Coppola (now a novice director) in “Non I’m going home tonight “(1969). The myth of him is Steve McQueen, the emblematic protagonist of a rough and vital America in which passion and desire to succeed are more important than culture.
He can choose manly roles (football player, abusive cop, hardened poker player, loyal soldier, cowboy at sunset) and will never deny his friendship with a character of dubious fame (tried for mafia) like Jo Jo Russo, undisputed head of the Persico family.
In his private life, he often changed his partner (four wives), and each of her leaves at least one child as a dowry: in the end, there are five, and with one, Scott, who works to create a platform for young independent authors.
In politics, James Caan has always been a fervent Republican (like his friend Bruce Willis) and was personally committed to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. However, as often happens to the heroes of American machismo, he hid a fragile character that had thrown him into a serious depression at the beginning of the 80s, forcing him away from the set for five years and leaving him with a dangerous addiction to cocaine from which he was able to free himself only thanks to Coppola who offered him the starring role in “Giardini di Pietra”.
In public, he instead showed a smiling face, ready for jokes and revelry in the company. It is difficult to imagine an American more American than him, and that is why great directors like Sam Peckinpah and Michael Mann had made him an ideal icon.