James Caan was the ultimate New Yorker
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In 1988, film critic Roger Ebert talked to James Caan about the actor making a comeback after a brief absence from Hollywood. Caan, a pistol, spoke fondly about his rebellious early years in the movie business.

“If there’s any one thing I could attribute my success to, it’s that I said ‘No.’ You’d go to an audition and they were always very cordial and nice and ‘How do you do, sir?’ And if I didn’t like the job, I’d turn it down,” he said.

“You were angry in those days?,” Ebert asked.

“I was just New York, is all.”

Caan, who died Thursday at age 82, always screamed New York. Having grown up here, he lived and breathed NYC throughout his life, and the five boroughs fed his legendary performances like the Hudson feeds the Atlantic.

The actor was born in the Bronx in 1940, raised in Sunnyside, Queens and studied with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in Manhattan.

(That’s three out of five, but we’ll also give him Staten Island because that’s where the wedding scene in “The Godfather” was shot.)

James Caan got gritty in "The Godfather."
James Caan got gritty in “The Godfather.”
Courtesy Everett Collection

His human, confrontational, unpretentious approach to acting — much the same as friend and “Godfather” co-star Marlon Brando — was entirely the result of his years spent here living, working and training.

He got his start on small stages, performing off-Broadway in a 1960 revival of the sexually charge “La Ronde” at Theatre Marquee on East 59th Street.

His first Broadway part was as an understudy in John and William Goldman’s 1961 play “Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole” at the Morosco Theatre. (It’s now the Mariott Marquis hotel if you wanna make a pilgrimage.) The drama starred another young gun making his Broadway debut – Peter Fonda.

James Caan, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and John Cazale in "The Godfather."
James Caan, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and John Cazale in “The Godfather.”
Everett Collection / Everett Col

His Gotham guts surely gave the Jewish Caan the gumption to say, “You touch my sister again and I’ll kill ya!” as Italian mobster Sonny Corelone in 1972’s “The Godfather.”

Those Midtown memories certainly informed his Manhattan author role in 1990’s “Misery,” when he and Kathy Bates enact every New Yorker’s flyover country fears, and he tries to sweet-talk his captor like he’s haggling for a discount.

In the 2003 Christmas movie “Elf,” Caan jumped into “Miracle on 34th Street” territory playing a grumpy New York publishing executive and nailed everything the city is — workaholic, skeptical, quick-tempered, harried, well-dressed.

Caan's character was brutalized by a crazed Kathy Bates in "Misery."
Caan’s character was brutalized by a crazed Kathy Bates in “Misery.”
Everett Collection (25507.jpg)
In "Elf," the actor played an angry New York publishing exec.
In “Elf,” the actor played an angry New York publishing exec.
©New Line Cinema/Courtesy Evere

When his long-lost son, Buddy the Elf (Will Ferrell), arrives at his apartment, he demands the cheery guy be tossed out on his tuchus.

“We can’t just throw him out in the snow,” his wife says.

“Why not?,” replies Caan’s character. “He loves the snow. He’s told me 15 times!”
Caan played many, many more roles throughout his six decade screen career, and his loss is enormous.

Remember that he was among the last of a scrappy group of young actors whose gritty, modest New York City POV shook up Hollywood in the 1960s and ‘70s and changed the movies forever.  

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