James Caan Said John Wayne Was ‘A Piece of Work’ Who Tried To Intimidate Him

by Suzanne Halliburton

John Wayne could intimidate the best of actors. Now, imagine how overwhelming it could be working on one your first big movies alongside The Duke.

That was James Caan’s predicament in 1966. He was a 25-year-old from the Bronx who earned the role of Alan Bourdillion Traherne. If you saw El Dorado, you probably know Caan as “Mississippi.” John Wayne was the star of the movie, portraying former gunslinger Cole Thornton. Robert Mitchum was a co-star, playing an always drunk sheriff.

Caan recalled his John Wayne experience with the FilmSchoolArchive.

“He was a piece of work,” Caan said. “I enjoyed (him), but it took a little while. He’d try and get ya intimidated. And we became pretty close, only because he knew I was like this half-ass stunt man. That’s what he liked. … And he would really try and intimidate you. First week, it was like me and him.”

Then Caan explains that he studied at the prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater. Then he started doing a slow drawl version of John Wayne.

“And I’m looking at him and I can’t believe I’m listening to this,” Caan said. “So every time he talked, the only reality was I was smiling the whole way. So when Mitchum came in, he look at the dailies and said “you’re doing a lot of smiling, Jiminy Cricket. He called me Jiminy Cricket. I said “what do you want me to do? I had a really good time with those guys. Course, I had to wear lifts this big between those two guys. “

James Caan Wore 3-Inch Lifts to Stand Next to John Wayne

Yes, it’s true. Caan wore lifts in his boots to stand alongside John Wayne, who was 6-foot-4 and Mitchum, who was 6-1. Caan stood about 5-8.

He also provided some more John Wayne and El Dorado flavor in 2013 during an interview with AVClub.com.

“Yeah, that was quite the experience,” Caan said. “But I was always kind of a punk, you know? A real New York guy. John Wayne was always calling me “kid,” and he was a guy who, if he could intimidate you, he would. But I just kept laughing at him. And, thankfully, he respected that.”

Howard Hawks directed the movie. He’d worked with Caan on Red Line 7000. That movie was Caan’s first as a star. Hawks was impressed enough with Caan that he cast him in El Dorado. Hawks often worked with John Wayne. El Dorado was the middle of a series of three movies sandwiched between Rio Bravo and Rio Lobo. Wayne had worked with Hawks since 1948.

Of course, Caan also had a successful career. By 1971, his career started zooming after he starred in the TV movie Brian’s Song. Caan played Brian Piccolo, the Chicago Bears running back who died of testicular cancer. The movie explored his friendship with Gale Sayers, who was played by Billy D. Williams.

Then came his role as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather. The rest is movie history.

You can check out the rest of the interview: