Actor James Caan, who died last week at 82, was not director Rob Reiner’s first choice for the brutalized writer/hostage Paul Sheldon in the film adaptation of Stephen King’s “Misery.” But once cast, Reiner had to depart from the groveling victim of the novel to make room for the inner toughness Caan projected. With Caan now on board, the odds didn’t look quite so bad for Sheldon, even though he was confined to a wheelchair in a locked room in a house occupied by a psychopathic killer.
They say that actors have “moments” that demonstrate why they are stars. Caan’s was when, mere hours after his captor Anne Wilkes had rebroken his legs, he showed that Sheldon still had enough fight left in him to give her the finger. And Caan made you believe he did, even though he was pale and rail-thin and sitting stiff-legged in a wheelchair.
Caan projected toughness no matter the genre. He fit the description of what hardboiled detective writer Raymond Chandler once said of Humphrey Bogart: that Bogart could be “tough without a gun.” Caan demonstrated this perfectly in the Arnold Schwarzenegger film, “Eraser.” The takeaway scene isn’t Schwarzenegger’s inevitable torn shirt moment or his one-liners. It is when an unarmed Caan immobilizes an armed opponent while still allowing the victim to hold his gun.
Offscreen, Caan was the real deal. He was born in the Bronx to working-class Jews and through pluck and luck netted a Hollywood contract. He even impressed John Wayne, who Caan starred in a Western with. A black belt in martial arts, which he practiced for 30 years, Caan had the distinction of being an actor — maybe the only one — who trained the police in self-defense.
Politically, Caan was a “take no prisoners” conservative; clearly unafraid of politically correct Hollywood and the horses they came in on, he dared to call himself an “ultra-conservative” the year he broke liberal ranks and voted for Trump in the 2016 election.
But unlike his liberal peers, Caan wasn’t preachy about his politics and was charming and self-deprecating. Regarding same-sex marriage, Caan refused to comment.
“I don’t want to comment on that. I’ll let those other geniuses do that — all those actors who like to find a stage to push their agendas. They don’t have political science degrees. … I certainly don’t,” he said.
During the 2016 election, Caan was unapologetically hawkish, stating that the “terrorists” were worse than the Mafia and that a Hillary Clinton administration would be disastrous in terms of national security.
Caan’s finest moments may have been off-screen. Those not in liberal Hollywood but on the front lines of the War on Terror detected his toughness.
On a visit to his beloved Israel, Caan said that he and a rabbi bonded even though neither spoke the same language. The link was, of course, their courage. Caan gave the rabbi the highest compliment a Brooklynite could; the rabbi was a “stand-up guy.” And the rabbi gave him the highest compliment an embattled Israelite could, calling Caan a “holy warrior.”