James Caan was a New Yorker in the same way that Willie Nelson is a Texan. He exemplified the spirit of the place he was from, reflecting somehow both the self-image of his home and the way that outsiders perceived it. The actor, who died on Wednesday at 82, was a man of many talents, capable of delivering iconic performances in films as disparate as The Godfather and Elf. There’s not much crossover between Caan’s career and the mandate of Texas Monthly—he could no more pass as a Texan than Matthew McConaughey could play a Brit—but there’s one role, from the seven decades in which Caan portrayed mostly heavies and gangsters, that brought him to the Lone Star State for a spell—and helped transform Texas film in the process: that of Mr. Henry in Wes Anderson’s 1996 debut, Bottle Rocket.
Bottle Rocket is an unusual film to revisit. Its lead actors, Dallas natives Luke and Owen Wilson, went on to become two of the biggest stars of the next several decades, and Houston’s Anderson has turned into one of the most consistently bankable directors to emerge from the nineties indie film scene, an auteur with an unmistakable artistic vision. But in Bottle Rocket, the Wilson brothers are just a couple of mixed-up kids acting in their first movie, and while you can see elements of the style Anderson would go on to develop on the screen, the film isn’t too far off from a student film (which makes sense, given that it started its life as a thirteen-minute short that Anderson and the Wilsons made in Austin when the director and Owen Wilson attended the University of Texas). The bulk of the cast is made up of newcomers and nonactors—except, of course, for Caan, whose presence in the film grants it legitimacy. Caan had been nominated for an Oscar, an Emmy, and four Golden Globes. More important, he’d played mobsters and crime bosses in two Godfather movies, in Dick Tracy and Honeymoon in Vegas, and more, which meant that his on-screen appearance in Bottle Rocket’s second half signaled to the audience that the wannabe crooks played by the Wilsons have stepped into something bigger.
Caan’s role in the film is one that only an actor who brings all of that baggage with him could deliver, and the realities of low-budget indie filmmaking in the nineties meant that only an actor with a taste for the weird over the commercial would possibly take the part. And it resulted in one of his warmest performances. Mr. Henry, the leader of the gang of thieves the Wilsons join, is the same sort of no-nonsense tough guy Caan had built his career on, but he plays the role as a surprisingly nurturing father figure to his young costars.
It mirrored the relationship he had on set with the cast, according to a 1995 profile of Anderson from the Dallas Observer about the film’s extended production and release cycle. Caan was playful on set; he practiced martial arts moves on Owen and offered Luke affectionate headbutts when Luke tried to improvise through blown takes to conserve film. Mr. Henry might not be the role for which Caan is most fondly remembered—it’s hard to dethrone Sonny Corleone, and his role in Elf will live on for generations—but it’s hard to think of another actor capable of the mix of intensity and tenderness that makes the part one of the most memorable characters in Anderson’s oeuvre.
In that 1995 Observer story, Caan reflected on the film’s title to author Matt Zoller Seitz. “I first saw it—Bottle Rocket—and I thought, what kind of f—in’ title is this? And then I got it,” he said. “It was beautiful, man, just beautiful, like poetry. What’s a bottle rocket? It’s a firecracker that only goes so far. A bottle rocket ain’t a big stick of dynamite that’s gonna blow everything to kingdom come . . . but that’s okay. That’s what a bottle rocket is built to do.” The two weeks Caan spent in Dallas during the production of Bottle Rocket may not have been the most explosive of his career, but they carried the firecracker of the film into something special. There will be plenty to miss about Caan on-screen and off, but we’ll remember him today as Mr. Henry.