How James Caan's Prep For Thief Changed His Life For Better And Worse

In the wake of the passing of Hollywood legend James Caan, journalists and archivists have been pulling out all the stops to help educate and remind the world of what a treasured personality Caan was on and off-screen. Caan was a rough and tumble kind of guy who wasn't afraid to speak his mind, even if what he said could be misconstrued as being harsh or extreme. For what it's worth, I love the outpouring of weird stories about James Caan. The ol' kid had moxie, I'll tell ya what. At 82 years old, James Caan enjoyed a prolific career playing a variety of wildly different characters, but if you had asked him which performance was his favorite, he'd correctly tell you it was Michael Mann's "Thief."

Caan is unfreakingbelievably good in "Thief," a neo-noir heist movie where he played a jewel thief trying to pull off one last big score. Caan loved the script and wanted to play the character so badly, he was able to throw his Hollywood star power around to get it made. Saying that Caan threw himself into the role would be putting it lightly, as he completely gave himself over into a method acting preparation that was simultaneously beneficial and detrimental to his real life. Method acting used to be the way of the world back in the day, and there weren't nearly as many conversations being had about the way the practice can totally screw up your life. But Caan was a pro, and as such, did what professionals at the time were going to do.

Caan could have been a real thief if he wanted

Insisting on knowing the complete ins and outs of the character he was playing, Caan took it upon himself to learn all of the practical skills required of a quality jewel thief. He learned how to properly handle a gun by attending a school run by someone who trained mercenaries, learned how to drill through a safe, and hung around real thieves to understand the vibe. He took inspiration by emulating jewel thief John Santucci, who ended up in the movie as the crooked cop named Urizzi. Mann wisely filled the tertiary roles in "Thief" with actual thieves and ex-cops, which gave the film an even more authentic feel. "All these guys grew up in the same neighborhood and they all knew each other," Mann said, "and they're usually chasing each other." According to Caan, the set was split "like the Dodgers and the Yankees."

Unfortunately, getting into the mind of a criminal had serious impacts on his real life. ”The way I work, I like to be emotionally available, but this guy is available to nothing," Caan said, adding: 

"Pretty soon I would find myself getting angry, my personal problems — with my son, with my ex-wife, whatever — would be magnified, because this guy was in existential pain for such a long time." 

Caan described himself as "a lunatic" for three months, citing constant migraines, a 20-pound weight loss, and for a time, couldn't even watch the film he would eventually declare his favorite. "My eyes were like two pieces of glass, they scared me," Caan said. "I said, 'That guy's a killer.'"

His preparation may have been unconventional, but it certainly allowed "Thief" to shine like the masterpiece it is.