Throughout a career spanning over six decades, James Caan, who passed away on July 6 at age 82, played some of the most memorable characters in cinematic history. His Oscar-nominated portrayal of Sonny Corleone in The Godfather propelled him into stardom, yet the explosive Sonny proved to be only a small glimpse at Caan’s incredible talent.
Caan was best known for playing gangsters, soldiers, and athletes who hid deep vulnerabilities beneath tough-guy exteriors. He could exude menace without raising his voice and although the following quotes are laced with profanities, his delivery was often skillfully restrained. His consistency in gracing his characters with nuance and gravitas mark him as a true Hollywood legend.
Staff Sergeant Eddie Dohun, A Bridge Too Far (1977)
“Would You Look At Him Please, Sir. Right Now. Or I’ll Blow Your F*****’ Head Off.”
In this World War Two epic, Allied troops attempt and ultimately fail to retake essential roads and bridges from the Nazis in the Netherlands. When Dohun’s captain is injured, he brings him to a medic who assumes nothing can be done to save him. Dohun pulls a gun and quietly threatens him.
He is adamant and completely sane; he doesn’t care about the consequences, he just wants the medic to do all he can. Caan’s acting is restrained and subtle, a perfect representation of a soldier’s inner struggle and outward composure. His performance stands out amongst an all-star ensemble cast.
Abe Henry, Bottle Rocket (1996)
“I Don’t Mean To Offend You, Bob. But Your Brother’s A C*********. Does That Offend You?”
Although Wes Anderson’s first film was a box office flop, it was well-received by critics. Caan was the movie’s biggest star, playing a landscaper and part-time criminal who nurtures the protagonists, a trio of aspiring criminals planning a heist.
Crime comedy Bottle Rocket has some of the best action sequences in a Wes Anderson movie. But it is the small moments, like the one in which Caan gently delivers this line, that makes the film unique and deserving of its cult following. Though the words are aggressive, Mr. Henry is offering his support to an abused character in the only way he knows how.
Frank “Buck” Athearn, Comes A Horseman (1978)
“You Know Lady, You’ve Got Balls The Size Of Grapefruits.”
Comes A Horseman is a sweeping Western starring Caan, Jane Fonda, and Jason Robards as three cattle ranchers caught up in a power struggle. Caan’s Buck and Fonda’s Ella form a reluctant alliance to stand against Robards’ powerful and corrupt J.W. Ewing, who’s trying to take over Ella’s ranch.
Caan’s portrayal of the rough-around-the-edges yet inwardly sweet and caring Buck is retrained and masculine without being aggressive. This loving moment in which Buck compliments Ella is a wonderful representation of Caan not stealing a scene and knowing when to let his fellow actor shine; it is Fonda’s Ella who has the biggest emotional moments.
Jonathan E., Rollerball (1975)
“It’s Like People Had A Choice A Long Time Ago Between Having All Them Nice Things And Freedom. Of Course, They Chose Comfort.”
This science-fiction film stars Caan as the captain of a Rollerball team, a sport that’s a cross between gladiator games and rugby. It takes place in a near future (2018, to be precise), where supercomputers and corporations rule over a society that has lost its humanity.
Caan’s performance throughout is marked by his retiring, soft presence off the rink, which is juxtaposed against his ferocity on the rink. In this scene, Jonathan is lamenting to his ex-wife about corporate greed, materialism, and agency. But he’s so removed from his feelings that he can’t fully express himself or his love for her.
Axel Freed, The Gambler (1974)
“I’m Not Going To Lose It. I’m Going To Gamble It.”
Caan stars as a college professor who moonlights as a gambler with huge debts in this crime drama that earned him a Golden Globe nomination. Axel’s gambling addiction leads him to make increasingly bad decisions until he ultimately gambles his own life.
In this scene, Axel has just secured a loan from his mother to pay off the mafia, but instead of doing so, heads to Vegas. The line might hit hard for anyone struggling with a similar addiction, grappling with the thrill of gambling. Caan’s delivery is glib and unbothered; it’s obvious he knows he’s making the wrong choice, but he’s going to do it anyway.
Walter, Elf (2003)
“Who Wouldn’t Wanna Meet You?”
This Christmas classic is about a man raised by elves on the North Pole who travels to New York City to find his father. It is heartwarming and hilarious, with Caan portraying Buddy’s prickly, workaholic, and selfish father Walter.
Elf didn’t just give Peter Dinklage one of his best roles – it introduced Caan to a new generation and helped revitalize his career. He and Will Ferrell work off each other beautifully, with Caan’s dry sarcasm a nice foil to Ferrell’s wild performance and highly physical cringe humor. This is showcased best when Walter makes this sardonic comment, too dry and mean for the likes of sweet Buddy.
Frank, Thief (1981)
“I Am The Last Guy In The World That You Want To F*** With.”
In this underrated action thriller from Michael Mann (his first feature), Caan stars as a professional safecracker who is trying to go clean. The ex-convict spent over a decade in prison, where he lost touch with reality, technology, and pop culture, making his social interactions stilted and awkward.
Delivered with subtle menace, this moment encapsulates Caan’s mastery of his craft. He has the capability to explode, but he knows when it is appropriate to fly into a rage – and, more importantly, when it’s not. Frank is too emotionally stunted for such a display, and Caan knew it.
Brian Piccolo, Brian’s Song (1971)
“I Think I – I Owe You A Beer.”
This made-for-TV movie is based on Gale Sayers’ autobiography I Am Third about his friendship with Brian Piccolo. The two professional football players were the first interracial roommates in the NFL and remained great friends until Piccolo’s untimely death in 1970 from cancer.
After Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) is injured, Piccolo helps him recover. This line comes after Sayers beats him in a race, proving he’s fully healed. Sayers’ response is, “I think I owes you a lot more than that.” It is an understated yet emotional moment that makes Brian’s Song the ultimate “guy-cry” movie, bolstered by Caan and Williams’ subtle and nuanced performances.
Paul Sheldon, Misery (1990)
“Eat It! Eat It Till You Choke, You Sick, Twisted F***!”
Rob Reiner’s Misery, based upon Stephen King’s novel of the same name, is a quintessential forced proximity thriller. Though Kathy Bates won an Academy Award for her portrayal of the obsessed fan Annie, Caan’s victimized author Paul is her perfect foil.
In this climactic scene, Paul tricks Annie into believing he’s destroyed the manuscript she’s forced him to write. After she attacks him, he pins her down and shoves burnt pieces of paper into her mouth. The moment gives Caan the opportunity to really let go as his character reaches his ultimate breaking point, the violence worsened by his desperation to survive.
Sonny Corleone, The Godfather (1972)
“You Gotta Get Up Close Like This And – Bada Bing! – You Blow Their Brains All Over Your Nice Ivy League Suit.”
It goes without question that Caan will be remembered best for his role as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather. The hothead firstborn who takes over the family business when his father is shot, Sonny wants to do everything in his power to keep his brother Michael clean.
In the scene this dialogue appears in, Sonny urges Michael to take what he’s proposing more seriously (killing a police officer, albeit a corrupt one). Caan improvised the now-iconic “bada bing!” part on the spot, claiming he didn’t know what motivated him to say it. No matter where it came from, it is now a huge part of mobster vernacular and even inspired the name of a strip club in The Sopranos.