The Character That Was Almost Too Much For James Caan

Throughout his career, the recently departed actor James Caan took on a number of roles that would've stumped lesser actors than he: a hotheaded and doomed mob boss' son in "The Godfather," a crippled and subdued author in "Misery," and a cold-hearted cynic who denies the existence of Santa Claus in "Elf."

Yet, all of those characters were relative walks in the park for the tough guy performer, especially since Caan was more than comfortable with playing complicated, tragic and unlikeable people — as his work in "Brian's Song" and "The Gambler" proved early on in his career.

One of Caan's greatest challenges was instead playing a man who's outwardly competent, fair, motivated, and decent, but inwardly is dealing with a raging turmoil of frustration and a sense of lost time: the professional safecracker Frank in Michael Mann's feature debut, "Thief." The complexities of the part combined with Mann's insistence on precision and accuracy caused Caan to later muse on how playing Frank was almost too much for him.

Caan saw Thief as a breath of fresh air

After Caan was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in "The Godfather," he found himself disenchanted by the types of roles and films he was offered. In an interview with The Ringer in 2021, Caan explained that after playing Sonny, "I got put into that nice, wonderful category of being a leading man. And along with that doesn't come some of the great character work that I really like to do." As he lamented in a 1981 New York Times interview, "everybody wants to do 'Rocky Nine' and 'Airport 96' and 'Jaws Seven' and you look and you listen, and what little idealism you have left slowly dwindles." When pondering what allows him to love his work, Caan said that "I'd have to have a passion for the project, and things would have to be right, so I didn't have to have heartaches every day."

Things were right when television veteran and aspiring film director Michael Mann turned up on the set of one of Caan's films with a script for him. Caan was impressed with the "Thief" script, explaining how "There was just this unbelievable character. It's almost, like, too much. It's almost like the Hunchback of Notre Dame."

Citing Victor Hugo's Gothic novel (which has several film adaptations in which the character of Quasimodo is played by the likes of character actors Lon Chaney and Charles Laughton) may seem odd in the context of a movie about a streetwise tough guy thief, but Caan keyed in on the character's emotional complexity and nuanced masculinity right away — along with just how precise Mann intended on being when it came to Frank's world.

Playing Frank took a toll on Caan

Portraying a character who was not only a total pro at taking down scores but was desperate to build a life and legacy for himself after spending more than a decade of his life incarcerated, Caan had to do a lot of preparation for "Thief."

Mann had the actor attend a firearms school so Caan could learn his way around handling pistols and shooting technique, along with having him learn other skills such as how to crack a safe with a magnetic drill weighing 200 pounds. During the shooting of a safecracking scene, Caan recalled: 

"They're all standing there with their hands folded: Let's see what you can do, buddy [...] Michael would just roll the camera. What do you want me to do? 'Bust the godd—n safe,' he says. I said, 'Oh, my God.'"

Yet an even bigger challenge for the actor was getting into Frank's headspace for the duration of shooting. Finding himself deep in character, Caan explained how this caused him some trouble:

"The way I work, I like to be emotionally available, but this guy is available to nothing. 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. For three months, I was a lunatic, I had migraines 24 hours a day, I lost about 20 pounds. And then when I looked at the movie, I couldn't stand it. My eyes were like two pieces of glass. They scared me. I said, 'That guy's a killer.'"

Thief remains a triumph for Caan, and a career kickoff for Mann

Caan's performance in "Thief" is so remarkably self-assured and measured that he almost makes it look easy. In fact, it was anything but — after all, the actor was simultaneously having to play a veteran criminal while presenting an existentialist take on masculinity as well as, according to Mann, be "the locus of a leftist, existentialist critique of American capitalism."

Reflecting on the making of the movie, Caan exclaimed that, "I was up and running at f—ing 90 miles an hour pretty much all the time. So it was hard. That's just how that went. And since I couldn't snort cocaine, I had to just do it."

While "Thief" didn't make a splash at the box office upon its release in theaters in March of '81, it kicked off Mann's film career as a director, one that still continues to this day. The film also became a reference point for the actor, with Caan calling it "surely one of my favorites, if not my favorite." In the pantheon of Caan performances that includes Sonny Corleone, Paul Sheldon, Walter Hobbs and a plethora of other indelible characters, Frank stands tall. To paraphrase Caan himself: End of article.