James Caan Had Just One Problem With Will Ferrell's Pitch For Elf

It's hard for an optimist to make it in a gritty, materialistic world. That harsh reality is a big part of what makes "Elf" so compelling — an innocent, doe-eyed North Pole resident wandering through the unsympathetic streets of New York City — but it also nearly kept one of the film's biggest names from signing onto the project.

James Caan is probably best known for his role as Sonny Corleone in "The Godfather" — a tough mafioso who won't hesitate to protect his family. Given his past role's weight, it might not seem too surprising that Caan had some reservations before signing on as the dad in "Elf." After all, the now-iconic Christmas movie was an unlikely success — Will Ferrell had made a name for himself on "Saturday Night Live," but was far from the major movie star that he is today, and Jon Favreau had only directed one other film at that point.

But Caan wasn't concerned about the movie's goofiness, or about the fact that he would essentially be playing its grinch — instead, he got hung up on the title. In an interview with Turner Classic Movies' Ben Mankiewicz, Caan recalls telling Will Ferrell that he "can't do it. I'll do a picture called Elk, but I won't, I don't do Elf."

While it might seem silly to care so deeply about a film's title when you don't mind its arguably more outlandish content, we can't say that we blame Caan, either. No one knew that "Elf" would be a hit, and Christmas movies aren't usually well-respected. If "Elf" hadn't done so well, its stars may as well have had a movie called "Christmas Unicorn" on their filmography list — and let's be honest, it probably would've set off a few judgemental alarms.

Life imitates art, or something like that...

In the end, Caan relented and joined the cast of "Elf" by playing Walter Hobbs — Buddy the adopted elf's biological dad. And while we're pretty sure that casting directors would prefer to avoid conflicts, Caan's initial reservations actually made him the perfect man for the job.

Within "Elf," Walter starts off as a less-than-ideal dad. He makes snide remarks about his long-lost son, looks down on Buddy's differences, and doesn't really want to learn more about his elfish lifestyle. In short, he's highly disapproving. However, the old man eventually comes around — just in time for a wholesome finale where his singing helps save Christmas.

Like his character, Caan's "Elf" journey certainly started off with some skepticism. Both Walter and Caan had to be won over by a loveable Will Ferrell, too — and once Caan came around, he couldn't stop having a blast. While it might be a bit of a stretch to say that Caan's performance saved Christmas, Walter's growth is certainly an integral part of the movie. After all, there's nothing like watching a cold-hearted city dweller warm up to family on Christmas. And given the film's ongoing popularity, the movie has inevitably made its way into some viewers' Christmas traditions — with Caan's performance making their holiday season a little bit more wholesome.

An elf by any other name just isn't as sweet

Sure, the word may have seemed silly at first, but we're glad that Caan came around to "Elf." The title is whimsical and simple, perfectly capturing the spirit of the movie. Plus, it's the type of title that we can see an adult questioning but a child embracing at face value — exactly like how some of the film's most notable characters react to Buddy.

That being said, the title is almost deceptively simple. While "Elf" is undoubtedly light-hearted, it's filled with relatively complex themes that adults can latch onto and appreciate. What makes a family? How do we respond to life-changing news? Can we shake off pride? What will a father sacrifice for his son? "Elf" isn't afraid to grapple with the kinds of questions that should have an easy answer (especially when viewing the world with childlike simplicity) but only become more complex as we get older, all while appealing to the whole family and keeping things from getting too heavy. It's no wonder that the film has become a modern classic.

Plus, it's fun to watch Will Ferrell unapologetically act like he's a kid again — "Elf" allows us to vicariously embrace our inner child during a time of the year that's especially nostalgic and tradition-heavy. In a world that feels increasingly jaded and splintered, it lets us return to simplicity, to integrity. And sure, the title doesn't set elaborate expectations. It doesn't promise endless spectacle, nor does it guarantee action so fast-paced that your thoughts are numbed for two hours. But it does make a humble promise: there's an elf. If you're willing to take the film up on that promise — hedging your bets on simplicity — boy does it deliver.