James Caan is first remembered in death. Not the one that just took the American actor away, last July 6 in Los Angeles, at the age of 82, but the one, magnificent, furious, that he gave to the character of Sonny in The Godfather (1972) by Francis Ford Coppola. Cracked with bullets at the gates of a toll booth, his body collapsed in apotheosis, in a rough and splendid twist, memorable, as every time an actor manages to portray the supreme moment in this way.

With his athletic build, his hairy and well-tempered masculinity, his square face, all protruding jaws, his playful vivacity that harbored bursts of brutality, Caan was in line with a James Cagney, who, too, in the skin. of a gangster, he had been able to die in an incredible accident at the end of hell is his (1949, Raoul Walsh). Knowing how to go up in smoke is not given to everyone.

A Bronx boy, James Caan, known as “Jimmy”, was born in New York on March 26, 1940, to a family of German Jewish immigrants, the son of a shopless kosher butcher who carried quarters of meat into the back of his van. He makes a short detour to the university, where he shares the same benches as the young Coppola, who becomes his friend, practices all kinds of extreme sports, from rodeo to karate, but above all pecks the theatrical insect.

Off-Broadway Debut

In 1960 he enrolled in the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater, an acting school in New York, and took lessons from Sanford Meisner, author of a method based on the instinct and spontaneity of the actor. He made his off-Broadway debut and, like many actors of his generation, amasses appearances in episodes of television series (The Incorruptibles, Young Dr. Kildare, Route 66, Alfred Hitchcock presents). He accesses the movie sets under the figuration side, then small roles: we see him fleetingly, here as a sailor in Irma the sweet (1963), by Billy Wilder, there as a juvenile offender in A woman in a cage (1964), by Walter Grauman.

It was a great master of the classical age then finished in Hollywood, Howard Hawks, who identified him and set foot in the stirrup, assigning him the main role of racing driver in Red line 7000 (1965), sensational flop (of which the actor will keep a deplorable memory), then of a clumsy young rookie of the late western Eldorado (1966), between John Wayne and Robert Mitchum. Three years later, his partner Coppola entrusts him The people of the rain (1969) a beautiful supporting role, that of a former football player with a burnt brain, who an adrift woman hitchhiked in the middle of his street. However, it is a show that will establish its notoriety, Brian’s song (1971), where he plays another footballer, this time suffering from terminal cancer.

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