Hollywood has a rich history of actors who seem as tough in real life as they do on screen, and James Caan ranks somewhere at the top of that list. His role as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather cemented that reputation early even as it demonstrated his skill as an actor—an absolute believability as a hot-headed, hungry Italian whose temper would permanently kill his chances (pun intended) to inherit the mantle of Don, but until then would not hesitate to do anything he was asked on behalf of his family.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of The Godfather, as well as its release in 4K by Paramount Home Video, Caan spoke to The A.V. Club about his iconic, star-making role, discussing his additions and improvisations that director Francis Ford Coppola encouraged him to make in the film, as well as some others that he feared landed him in hot water with costar Marlon Brando. He also corrected the record about at least one story from the making of the film, and volunteered to collect money from anybody who owed us money—so consider yourself warned.
The A.V. Club: Thank you so much, James, for your time.
James Caan: No problem—so far.
AVC: One of my favorite scenes in the whole movie is the scene where Sonny beats up Carlo, and I understand it took like four days to shoot that? Your energy in that scene is so amazing. When something is shot in the way that one was, did it make it easier or more difficult for you to be immersed in the moment?
JC: See, I’m gonna tell you something. It’s not your fault. It’s somebody who you interviewed, who didn’t know shit, who said it took four days. Francis never saw the fight until we did it for him. There’s was a great stuntman called Paul Baxley, who has a son who’s an older guy now, like my age. I met him on a Saturday. We went to the street up in Spanish Harlem, and we choreographed the fight that afternoon, Saturday afternoon. Francis never saw it. Nobody saw it. We shot it, getting out of the car, throwing the thing at him, all the stuff—I beat him with the trash can—all of the way through the entire fight through the kick at the hydrant, in that one day. So I don’t know where they got four days. I don’t know who would tell you something stupid like that.
AVC: Logistically I imagine that your death scene was the most complicated, but also what was the toughest from an acting perspective? Was it that scene or was it another one?
JC: No, that’s purely emotional. It doesn’t matter what I said. If I would’ve said, “you dirty bastard, you filthy prick” or whatever, that wouldn’t have made it any better while I was beating them. So I don’t think it’s ever what I said. But I don’t know. Ooh, I never really thought of that. I mean, a lot of that stuff, Francis was really good to me. I come from Sunnyside, Francis did too. His grandmother lived around the corner from me and we behaved in certain ways, so he let me go pretty much. And he tells people “bada bing” and all that stuff, it was never written. I just did it and Francis let me go.
For example, when those guys are taking down the telephone numbers outside the wedding with the FBI and he spits on them and he walks down back into the wedding. Well, the rest of the people out in front were extras and there was one guy playing a photographer who had one of those old box cameras, and as I went in there, I grabbed the friggin’ thing and I smashed it, literally threw it on the ground. I didn’t know I was gonna do it. Nobody knew I was gonna do it, but I just did it. I was just impulsive and did that. And in my neighborhood or neighborhoods like it, I remember just stopping and putting my hands in my pocket, taking out $40 and throwing it on the ground. Because like I say, where I’m from, like if you put the money on the ground, it’s okay. You’re forgiven. You know what I mean? I paid for it, and forget it.
So yeah, Francis literally let me go, with a lot of that dialogue, all of the bada bings and nonsense and fun stuff, like even the shoes. I had all of those black and white shoes, and I came for a wardrobe fitting. And I said, “Where are the shoes?” They said, “These are your shoes for the picture.” I go, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, because again, the Italians in my neighborhood, they may have two suits, but they’ve got 12 pairs of shoes. I said, “Don’t you have any black and white shoes?” They said no, so I went up to the Bronx. I went into an old clothes joint and I bought those shoes for $10, the black and white shoes I wore. And yeah, I was just given the luxury of a certain amount of freedom that Francis allowed me.
AVC: This movie kind of sealed your reputation as a tough guy. But would you say that’s accurate? Are you more like one of the other characters that we don’t know because we see how tough and badass you are on screen?
JC: Yeah, I feel myself more like Kay, if that’s what you mean. Well, if you have any money to collect, because I need it right now, gimme the name and I’ll show you. You’ll either get it, or I’m a pussy.
AVC: Noted. You’ve played these great characters later in your career that leveraged that reputation, from Bottle Rocket to Way Of The Gun.
JC: Bottle Rocket? Oh, Jesus. Yeah, go ahead.
AVC: Is there a favorite among those roles, or a role in your career that gave you some unique challenges?
JC: Well, the very good picture I did was The Rain People, which was Francis’ picture. I was 28 years old. And I remember this guy who had brain damage. I remember asking, what does brain damage mean? And the point is what I did was I just decided that anything that’s real is worthwhile. To really listen and really talk to the person. Now, I know that sounds oversimplified, but it’s true. A lot of times people are talking and they’re listening to themselves, they’re looking over their shoulder, who knows what the hell they’re thinking about. But to really listen and to really talk and not to anything, nothing.
So I don’t like music or scenery or whatever to lead my emotions, you know what I mean? I don’t like to be led, like they look at each other, the tears are coming out and all the sudden the orchestra starts. No shit they’re gonna kiss! You know what I mean? Who needs that? So I’m more of somebody who really wants to be involved. And I know I’m involved when I don’t know what I’ve done in the scene when they say “cut.” And by the way, you have to have the right director to have that kind of faith—“Is that good for you?” you know, whatever. And then I can walk away happy.
AVC: Whether or not you were in it, do you have a favorite scene from The Godfather?
JC: Yeah, but they’re for different reasons. There’s a few. I loved Brando by the way, man. He was the greatest, and I in turn served as his fuckin’ clown because he laughed—everything I said, everything I did, he laughed. All day! I mean, it was hysterical. So there’s a scene where [Robert Duvall] comes back from the horse’s head scene and we’re sitting with Brando in the living room. Brando, me and Bobby are sitting there, and he’s talking to him about the horse’s head incident. And when I sit down, this is one of the first scenes I shot with Brando. There’s a bowl of nuts to my left, walnuts. And I’m listening, hunched over. They’re to the left to me, the both of them, with a little table between them. And for whatever reason, Brando’s talking or Bobby’s talking, I unconsciously picked a nut out of the bowl, but they were not shelled. The shell was still on. And all of a sudden, I started to play with the nut. Now I had it in my hand and I tried to open it a little bit, and right in the middle of a sentence of Brando’s, he just lifts his head and looks at me, stares at me. And I’m going as Jimmy Caan, oh fuck.
I upstaged him. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t even try to make noise. I’m sitting there with this fuckin’ nut in my hand and I don’t know what to do with it now, you know, because it was Brando. And Brando just looked at me, and then I had to finish. So I opened it up very, very quietly and started eating it a little, little, little bit, little by little. And when he said cut, Brando started punching his fist and laughed and said, that was great. I said, what are you talking about? Because he was talking about Sonny not being a Don, like his mind is so scattered and whatever with the girls, with this and that. And the idea that I was playing with the fuckin’ nut proves it when he’s talking about serious business. So that turned out great. So that was a good scene.
AVC: Thank you so much for your time. As we’re wrapping, I just wanted to mention that Freebie And The Bean is one of my favorite movies.
JC: Ha ha ha! Oh yeah, I love that one. He made me laugh so hard, Alan [Arkin]. He’s the funniest son of a bitch. Yeah, that was fun to do.