‘Godfather’ legend James Caan advises students to ‘be ready’ and a little nice

The students were all far too young to remember the theatrical release of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. And the likes of big-screen leading men like John Wayne and Robert Mitchum are pure cinema history for them.

Nevertheless, for 90 minutes an audience of Chapman University undergraduates – mostly acting majors – sat spellbound as actor James Caan, that Oscar-nominated legend of
Godfather fame, visited campus and shared behind-the-scenes stories about some of Hollywood’s most legendary films and performers.

“I’m in 127 pictures and I bet you guys haven’t seen four of them,” Caan joked during an informal master’s class he gave in Waltmar Theatre on Friday, Dec. 4.

But they were no strangers to many of Caan’s screen successes, including The Godfather, the Academy Award-winning film that featured Caan in one of his most memorable roles, the hot-headed Sonny Corleone. Students asked Caan about a variety of topics, from his method of getting into character as Sonny, to the best advice for aspiring actors.

Now a star teacher, too

james caan accepting award
Pictured with Caan are Kelly and Trustee James V. Mazzo, honorary chairs of American Celebration.

James Caan received the University’s 2015 Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award at this year’s American Celebration gala, where he announced he would teach a class at Chapman.Luck always plays a big part when it comes to landing a breakthrough role, he said. But being ready to make the most of those lucky moments is all about preparation.

“When you get your shot, you better be ready. I studied for three or four years before I even went out on an audition,” Caan said. “Study, study, study and work.”

For Caan that meant training in the Meisner way of acting, a style that challenges actors to inform their portrayals with their own intuitive or emotional impulses. Caan said that kind of focused energy shaped the memorable wedding scene in The Godfather when his character charges at a photographer lurking outside the wedding reception. Much of that scene was improvised by Caan, including – to the chagrin of the film’s prop master – his smashing of a vintage box camera and the flinging of dollar bills at the wreckage.

But leave the drama on camera, he added. Caan rolled his eyes as he described working with actors who blustered or treated film crews poorly.

“The one thing that I’ve learned is that when you’re having a good time on a picture and you like people, I think some kind of osmosis takes place. I mean people don’t consciously think about it, but the picture’s invariably better than some other pictures. You can just sense that people like each other,” he said. “The other thing that I’ve learned is that the most talented people that I’ve met in this business, are always the nicest.”

Featured image at top/James Caan answers students questions during a talk in Waltmar Theatre.

Dawn Bonker

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