JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:
Actor James Caan, who rose to stardom in "The Godfather" and spent the next six decades bringing a gruff realism to more than 100 film and television roles, has died. He was 82. Critic Bob Mondello has this appreciation.
BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: He was a coiled spring in "The Godfather," with a mind forever racing ahead of what he was saying.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GODFATHER")
JAMES CAAN: (As Sonny Corleone) He wants us to send Michael to hear the proposition, and the promise is that the deal is so good that we can't refuse.
MONDELLO: Sonny was the Corleone family's hotheaded heir apparent, and James Caan gave him a hair-trigger temper and not much interest in playing nice.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GODFATHER")
ROBERT DUVALL: (As Tom Hagen) Sonny, we ought to hear what they have to say.
CAAN: (As Sonny Corleone) No, no, no. No more. Not this time, Consigliere. No more meetings. No more discussions. No more...
DUVALL: (As Tom Hagen) It's business, not personal, Sonny.
CAAN: (As Sonny Corleone) Well, then business will have to suffer, all right?
MONDELLO: He was so effective in this gangster role that he was typecast as tough guys for years afterwards, in spite of the fact that just a year before "The Godfather," he'd won hearts in a far gentler and even more widely seen role on TV - that of Chicago Bears halfback Brian Piccolo in the rending tale of Piccolo's battle with terminal cancer, "Brian's Song."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BRIAN'S SONG")
SHELLY FABARES: (As Joy Piccolo) I'm scared.
CAAN: (As Brian Piccolo) I'm no idiot. This thing I got is bad. I know that. But, why, it's just a detour, Joy. I'm not going to let it stop me. I'm just not. There's no way.
MONDELLO: Caan had been rattling around television for a decade at that point, playing bit parts in shows from "Wagon Train" to "Get Smart." But the one-two punch of "Brian's Song" and "The Godfather" made him a bankable star. In short order, he appeared in the crime flick "The Gambler," the extreme sport fantasy "Rollerball," the war film "A Bridge Too Far," and almost more dangerously than anything he did in those, he dared to sing along in "Funny Lady," while Barbra Streisand's Fanny Brice was recording.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FUNNY LADY")
CAAN: (As Billy Rose, singing) Whether you're right.
BARBRA STREISAND: (As Fanny Brice, singing) Whether you're right, whether you're wrong.
CAAN: (As Billy Rose, singing) Whether you're wrong.
STREISAND: (As Fanny Brice) Shh.
MONDELLO: During those same years, he passed on a lot of movies that worked out well for other actors - "M*A*S*H," "The French Connection" and "Kramer Vs. Kramer" among them. In the 1980s, Caan went into a self-imposed exile for a few years, but Coppola brought him back in "Gardens Of Stone," and his career picked up again, being tormented by Kathy Bates in the horror film "Misery," or playing the workaholic children's book publisher in the Christmas comedy "Elf," who is not pleased when Will Ferrell's title character shows up unannounced.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ELF")
CAAN: (As Walter Hobbs) Just who the heck are you, and what is your problem?
WILL FERRELL: (As Buddy) I'm Buddy. I'm your son.
CAAN: (As Walter Hobbs) Where did you get this picture?
FERRELL: (As Buddy) Papa Elf gave it to me.
MONDELLO: Happy to play Scrooge amid so much sweetness, Caan was his gruffly, engaging self - versatile, cocky and confident in a way that had served him well for more than 50 years in a business where longevity can be its own reward. As of yesterday, he had several projects in the works. He'd finished shooting the gangster drama "Fast Charlie" and was reportedly eyeing yet another reunion with Francis Ford Coppola - James Caan, still after so many years, a coiled spring still racing ahead. I'm Bob Mondello.
(SOUNDBITE OF NINO ROTA'S "LOVE THEME FROM THE GODFATHER")
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