Michael Mann has paid tribute to James Caan, who died on Wednesday. They first worked together on Mann’s debut feature-length film, 1981’s Thief. Caan portrayed Frank Hohimer in the influential heist film based on Hohimer’s true crime book, 1975’s The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar.
“What a terrible and tragic loss. Jimmy was not just a great actor with total commitment and a venturesome spirit, but he had a vitality in the core of his being that drove everything from his art and friendship to athletics and very good times,” Mann wrote of his friend. “There was a core of values within him about how people should be, more or less. It might be variable, the corners could be rounded with urban irony, but there was a line and it was non-fungible. And it produced many outrageous and hilarious anecdotes.”
“I got so into the character, I could see people backing away from me,” Caan told Rolling Stone in 1981 of the arduous Thief shoot. “I was like a maniac. And I had to work very hard to make Frank human, because the guy is really a prick, a killer.”
In a 40th anniversary oral history story of the film published last year, Caan said he met Mann as the actor was working on Neil Simon’s Chapter Two. The young filmmaker was waiting outside of his trailer and he had the script for Thief with him. “I read this script which, for me, was insane. It was great.” He told Consequence of Sound.
Though working on Thief involved grueling hours, Caan said he had fun and played a couple of in-character-type pranks on Mann (like slipping in the word “electeded” in and never using contractions when he spoke). He shared fond memories of Mann and the film during the interview.
“It’s one of my favorites — if not my favorite — for selfish reasons. I mean, even divorcing myself from what’s good about it or what’s bad about it, I enjoyed it very much after it was put together,” Caan said. “It was really, really hard making it. Personally, I was very proud of it, which is a lot to say. Usually, I’m a little picky. But I was very proud of the movie.”
The feeling was mutual. “I loved him and I loved working with him. He reached into the core of his being during difficult personal times to be the rebellious, half wild child, institutionalized outsider Frank, in my first film, Thief. Frank is half Frank, half Jimmy,” Mann said in his tribute on Thursday. “The character and the man – like his Sonny in The Godfather – were made for each other. Unique. What a loss.”
What a terrible and tragic loss. Jimmy was not just a great actor with total commitment and a venturesome spirit, but he had a vitality in the core of his being that drove everything from his art and friendship to athletics and very good times. pic.twitter.com/72b06VJGIi
— Michael Mann (@MichaelMann) July 7, 2022