After the news of James Caan’s death on Thursday, I, maybe like you, read the outpouring of love for his iconic roles. Obviously there’s The Godfather. And then, of course, Misery. Then there are the slightly deeper cuts not everyone has seen that are amazing, like Thief and The Gambler. (If you haven’t seen either of these movies, you should. Like today.) And then he introduced himself to a whole new generation in Elf.
A quick aside about this. A few months ago I’m with a friend at a bar and we are discussing the main movie I’m going to discuss ahead, Kiss Me Goodbye. My friend is expecting two of his friends to join us. Mid conversation about Kiss Me Goodbye they show up and say, “Hey, we consider ourselves movie buffs, what’s this movie you two are talking about. So we tell them the cast and we are greeted with a look of puzzlement. “Hm, James Caan, remind me how I know him?” My friend says, “Well obviously The Godfather.” And that was met with, “Hm, I haven’t seen that one yet.” (At this point I’m starting to doubt the whole “movie buff” deceleration.) After a couple more examples of movies James Caan is in that they don’t know, I finally interrupted, “You know him from Elf. He’s the dad in Elf.” I was correct. They knew him from Elf.
Anyway … my first introduction to James Caan was by the way of a comedy and I’ve always, strangely, kind of always thought of him that way. (When Francis Ford Coppola reacted to the news of Caan’s passing, one of the things he said was, “one of the funniest people I’ve ever known.”) This movie is the aforementioned Kiss Me Goodbye that you should really try to see. (I had to resort to buying the DVD off eBay, but I’m also told it’s streaming on Starz right now.) After I heard the news of Caan’s death, I tweeted about Kiss Me Goodbye and I was kind of shocked at how many people remember the movie and also love it. (Caan was … not a fan of this movie. But Caan had a lot of, let’s say, interesting opinions about his past work.)
Directed by Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird) the plot is … kind of insane. (And my parents thought this would be a good movie for an eight-year-old child.) Caan plays Jolly, who is basically Bob Fosse, who is the toast of Broadway and seems to know everyone and everyone knows Jolly. While hosting a party at his Manhattan townhouse, Jolly trips and falls down the stairs and dies. Eventually his widow, Kay (Sally Field), starts dating again, and starts seeing a nice, but kind of dull, man named Rupert (Jeff Bridges). Eventually, the ghost of Jolly shows up to both (a) do some tap dancing and (b) ask about this drip Rupert who keeps coming to the house. What makes it interesting is Kay then tells Rupert about Jolly’s ghost. Rupert, of course, does not believe Kay. So the whole movie is basically Jolly roasting Rupert to his face and Rupert has no idea this is happening. (Also, good work by Bridges here being able to successfully ignore James Caan.) Anyway, I love this movie and I bet if it were easily streaming somewhere it would be one of those, “what on Earth is this?” movies. And even though Caan wasn’t a fan of this one, his comedic chops are undeniable.
He’d use those to great effect in both Honeymoon in Vegas and Mickey Blue Eyes. (Mickey Blue Eyes gets a bad rap, but it’s a pretty good movie!) Though it’s interesting in all three of these comedic performances, Caan is playing a larger-than-life character (a Broadway directer, a professional gambler who may have connections to the mob, a mob boss) against a handsome leading man (Jeff Bridges, Nicolas Cage, Hugh Grant) vying for the heart of a woman (Sally Field; Sarah Jessica Parker; Jeanne Tripplehorn, in this case being his daughter). It’s like he knew his formula for comedic success and, when it came around, he took it.
I interviewed Caan once, 12 years ago, for a website that no longer exists. But I have the transcripts and I asked him about doing comedies. Before we get to that, I have to reprint this part. First, 12 years ago I hadn’t been doing this job very long and then I’m basically thrown into a cage with James Caan, who eats people like me for breakfast. (I have a theory my editor at the time just didn’t want to do it for that very reason so passed it on to me.) In other words, I was very nervous. Here’s how the interview starts:
How are you doing, sir?
Sir? That’s right! Do I owe you money? James is not good, either, because I always feel like I’m getting in someone’s car when they say James. So, Jimmy would be great. Or, “Your Holiness,” one of the two.
Anyway, I eventually ask him what’s more difficult, playing Sonny Corleone or playing Frank Vitale. (For those who don’t know Mickey Blue Eyes by heart, Frank Vitale is James Caan’s character in Mickey Blue Eyes.) So we will leave you with this. (Also, you will be shocked to learn Caan didn’t love his experience on Mickey Blue Eyes.)
It all depends. Listen, I had a great director in Francis. Not such a great director in Mickey Blue Eyes. I love comedy, personally. I love to do comedy because, most people, if there aren’t 12 people dead by page nine, they don’t send the script to me. There’s always, “Well, Jimmy, I didn’t know you could sing and dance.” Shit, no one ever asked me! But, you know, “good” is the answer. For me, Sonny was one of the most fun, vibrant characters. I had so much fun because I just busted everybody’s chops from morning until night. It didn’t matter who it was.
One night I was stuck, this is a true story, we did this first scene in the Genco Olive Oil company, the very first scene, and I interrupt and Brando says to never talk about the family business in front of anybody. I was so lost that day, I was just fumbling. I was kind of friendly with Don Rickles. I used to follow him around, he used to make me laugh. You know, I was the young kid around Don Adams. And one night I was shaving and, I swear to you, it was like a lightning bolt: Don Rickles came into my head, I don’t know why. I came in the next morning, and for whatever reason, I walked in and start busting everyone’s balls. “Francis, why don’t you change the goddamned suit? What? You want money for a cleaner? You’re wearing that same goddamned corduroy suit.” And it just gave me a whole essence and I was basically Don Rickles. And I could have done Hamlet like Sonny. After awhile, he let me improvise and jump around there’s so much stuff that just came out of that.
The truth is, I swear to you, I can tell, and I’m sure you can tell, subconsciously, if the people that are working on a movie are enjoying it or they’re enjoying each other. I think that comes off the screen. So on The Godfather, we all liked each other and had respect for each other. It was fun. The pictures where I have the best time doing them are the best pictures I make. It’s the same thing with great actors. I’ve found in my life that the best actors are the easiest ones to get along with. It’s all those assholes, all about themselves and their make-up and their bullshit. The trailers, this and that. That’s all diversionary tactics. The reason they do that is because they really have nothing to offer and they don’t want people to see they have nothing to offer, so it’s a diversionary tactic. “Lets talk about my hair today.” And it’s true: The most talented people are the nicest.
So, yes … no one will ever say James Caan had “nothing to offer.”
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