Misery Proved James Caan Was Willing To Do What Many Other Actors Weren't

"Misery" character Paul Sheldon isn't a flashy role, at least not on paper. He's a smart guy, to be sure, but he does spend 90% of his screen time on his back and it turns out that wasn't a big selling point for the A-list stars of the late '80s/early '90s.

For the younger readers who are thriving in this age of streaming, us old folks used to buy our movies on physical media, and when we did they'd oftentimes come with a commentary track with the talent involved in said movie. On the commentary for "Misery" director Rob Reiner made it clear that many of the top stars of the time were intimidated at the notion of playing a bedridden leading man and listed off a who's who of people who turned him down, including Harrison Ford, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Richard Dreyfuss, and Michael Douglas.

Reiner posits that maybe these actors thought they'd look weak in this part, but it should be noted that they could have just not responded to the material or had scheduling conflicts.

Still, the role of Paul Sheldon is a pretty passive one, at least until the end. Sheldon's an author who crashes his car and is rescued by a psychotic ex-nurse named Annie Wilkes who just so happens to be his number one fan. She holds him captive and forces him to write another book in his popular romance series because she doesn't like what he did in the last one, an early critique of a demanding culture that would soon be the dominant voice in fandom.

A helpless tough guy

It is odd that of all the actors to be approached for this role, it was the toughest of the tough guys who finally said yes. James Caan, it turns out, was not intimidated by playing this part, and movie history was made.

There's a lot to say about Caan's talents as an actor, but I want to focus on one scene. At a certain point, Paul Sheldon realizes the seriousness of his situation. All pretense is gone. There is no help coming for him and Annie Wilkes will never let him go. So he takes matters into his own hands and hatches a plan. He rations his pain meds and hides the extras away and then turns on the charm, convincing Annie that he's falling in love with her.

Already we get a little bit of that Caan magic as he forces some chemistry between his character and the woman his character hates. But the best part is that when he finally orchestrates a romantic candlelit dinner after weeks of preparation and sneaks a lethal dose of pain medication into Annie's wine, it all comes tumbling down when she accidentally knocks over her glass.

Caan could do both subtle and broad

The look on Caan's face as his one ticket to freedom spills out over the table is why you cast an actor of Caan's caliber in that role. It's part 1,000-yard stare, part disbelief, and part sadness all sold Caan's eyes and slack face.

You need a guy like James Caan in this part. The fact that someone so capable is at the mercy of this crazed romance novel enthusiast is part of the flavor that makes "Misery" such a success.

It'll always be funny to me that a lot of these actors turned down this role because they thought they'd look weak and an actual real-life tough guy was the one to say yes and made movie history with one of the best thrillers ever be made. Kathy Bates may have won the Oscar for this movie, but Caan was no slouch. He was able to play the quiet strength of the character while embracing his helplessness, which according to Reiner was the big stumbling block for the other leading men of his day. The result is a movie that will live far beyond Caan, Bates, Reiner, and you and me as well.