These Old-School Pics of James Caan on Horseback Are Cowboy Cool

by Suzanne Halliburton

You knew James Caan as Sonny Corleone in the The Godfather, Brian Piccolo in Brian’s Song or maybe Paul in Misery.

But away from the camera, Caan was cowboy cool. The star died two months ago this week. He was 82. But Mike Kijanski, his long-time special assistant, is sharing behind-the-scenes snaps to keep the memory of his boss and friend very much alive.

On Monday, Kijanski posted a couple of photos of James Caan riding a horse. The photos are undated, but they’re probably from the late 60s, maybe 70s. They show Caan’s cowboy bonafides.

The caption? “How do you escape Hollywood? “Nothing makes me feel cleaner than being in the dirt.” JEC

Our best guess about these photos? They had something to do with his rodeo career. Yes, James Caan, the actor, also was a rodeo cowboy. He picked up his interest sport in the late 1960s when he was filming The Rain People on location in Nebraska. So this rodeo identity was with him months before Sonny Corleone or Brian Piccolo. Specifically, he liked roping.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing in the beginning, but I’m really a good mimic,” Caan told an interviewer in 1983 for the Official ProRodeo Media Guide. “I worked hard at my roping and learned it.”
And James Caan loved being around the PRCA competitors.
“Being around the people,” Caan said in another newspaper article, circa early 80s. “I like the way they treat me. It was hard to win their acceptance and respect. At first, they figured here comes this Hollywood actor wantin’ to play cowboys. I had to win to be accepted.

“After you win a few times, they treat you like just another guy out there competing and who can beat them sometimes. You can just be yourself. I don’t know what it is. It is partly being able to act out a kid’s fantasy. But I like being around them. It cleanses my brain.”

James Caan, when he was 25, co-starred in the John Wayne movie, El Dorado. (FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images)

Back in 1980, Caan competed with former world champion H.P. Evetts at the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo in Denver. He and Ellets turned in a 7.3-second run. That was good enough to finish in the money. Caan was the “heeler,” meaning he was the second roper. His duty was to rope the steer around the hind legs.

James Caan had more to say about those cool cowboys on the rodeo circuit.
“I think the reason the cowboys accept me is because I’m at a rodeo to win,” Caan said in a 1980 PRCA interview. “I’m not some Hollywood guy who acts like a professional roper, I am one. As a matter of fact, my rodeo accomplishments mean more to me than my Oscar nomination for the “Godfather.” There’s something about rodeo dirt that makes me feel clean – it gets me away from the fakery of Hollywood, and back to the basics.”

If you’re a fan of John Wayne and classic Westerns, then you recognize James Caan from Duke’s movie El Dorado. Caan, who grew up in the Bronx, played Mississippi opposite Wayne’s Cole Thornton and Robert Mitchum was Sheriff J.P.. Harrah.