James Caan Had One Rule When It Came To Choosing His Roles

Hyperbolic words like "iconic" and "legendary" are thrown around quite casually these days, but when it comes to describe the career of someone like James Caan, it feels as if the English language doesn't actually possess a descriptor strong enough to do him justice. The beloved actor, who passed away this week, wowed audiences for over six decades with his tremendous ability to transform onscreen, magically avoiding the curse of being typecast. While Caan had a penchant for playing tough guys, he was never pigeon-holed into playing just tough guys. "I fought to always never be the same person," Caan told CBS Sunday Morning. "I mean the fun of being an actor is the fun of being somebody else for three months, you know?"

Known by most for his stunning performance as Sonny Corleone, the short-tempered eldest son of mafia don Vito Corleone in "The Godfather," James Caan enjoyed a prolific career ranging from serious dramas all the way to animated family features. Caan never allowed himself to be boxed in by an industry that craves easily marketable (and thereby bankable) faces, and chose his roles specifically to avoid being trapped into a lifetime of one-note performances. 

Here are three of his most memorable performances, and how they all wildly differ from one another.

Santino Sonny Corleone - 'The Godfather'

In what may be the greatest inverse of the "Italians playing Jewish" trope in cinematic history, James Caan as Sonny Corleone is, with no exaggeration, one of most incredible performances of all time. Forever in the shadow of his father Vito, Sonny takes his role as the eldest child with the utmost of seriousness, knowing he's positioned to be the heir of the criminal empire (as long as Michael doesn't get in the way, that is). He's had to prove himself worthy for his entire life, which has manifested in an explosive personality, an aggressive demeanor, and an undeniable level of charisma. Caan was so immersed in the character that he improvised one of Sonny's most famous scenes, and director Francis Ford Coppola loved it so much, it made the final cut.

Sonny means business, and isn't afraid to do whatever it takes to get his point across. He's an all-time great Wiseguy, with Caan even winning "Italian of the Year" twice in his lifetime, despite not actually being Italian. The Corleone family, despite their criminal background, is relatively chill, which allows Caan's performance as Sonny to really shine, as he continually brings violence, death, and turmoil to the family's door.

Paul Sheldon - Misery

Nearly two decades after playing a hot-headed mob boss, Caan took on one of his most vulnerable roles in his career — author Paul Sheldon in "Misery." Paul is a successful romance novelist who finds himself captured by his biggest fan following a car accident, and this actor known for playing characters in control of their own destiny was forced to play panicked, terrified, and without autonomy. In the film's infamous "hobbling scene," Caan is required to appear believably in peril, shedding his tough-guy image and retreating into the position of a victim.

William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Michael Douglas, Harrison Ford, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Richard Dreyfuss, Gene Hackman, and Robert Redford all famously turned down the role, with Warren Beatty expressing interest only if he could make the character less passive. Fortunately, Caan understood the character, and wanted the challenge to play something so different. It's almost impossible to think that this is the same guy from "The Godfather" but it's a true testament to his talent to see him in this manner.

Walter Hobbs - 'Elf'

"A hilarious and wholesome holiday classic for the whole family starring James Caan" sounds fake as hell, but thanks to the wintertainment that is "Elf," there are no lies detected with that descriptor. James Caan is thrown into a world of Christmas magic and the over-the-top antics of Will Ferrell, while playing a contemporary Ebenezer Scrooge type as Walter Hobbs. Sure, Caan playing an old curmudgeon who'd rather work on Christmas than celebrate it sounds right up his alley, but it wouldn't be a Christmas movie without the massive personality shift allowing this so-called Grinch's heart to grow three sizes as well. 

Caan is clearly in his element acting like an annoyed and absentee father, but he really steps into a new realm of character when he finally allows the magic of the season to overtake him, and spreads Christmas cheer by singing loud for all to hear. There's such a sweet, gooey center to his character hidden beneath the gruff carriage, and it's easy to see how perennial sweetheart ​​Mary Steenburgen's character would have fallen in love with him.