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Like a mob hit – the passing of a generation of movie gangsters

James Caan was so persuasive as "Sonny" Corleone in <em>The Godfather</em>, that he got turned down when he tried to join a country club because its members thought that he, like his character, was a "made man."
CBS Photo Archive/CBS via Getty Images
James Caan was so persuasive as "Sonny" Corleone in The Godfather, that he got turned down when he tried to join a country club because its members thought that he, like his character, was a "made man."

At the outset of The Godfather, in a room shrouded in shadow, a stricken Sicilian undertaker whose daughter has been brutalized, kisses the hand of Marlon Brando's Don Corleone, asking for justice in a way the Don has indicated he must.

In the background of the shot, not yet in focus either as a character or as an actor, but listening intently to Brando, is James Caan playing Sonny, the Corleone family's heir apparent.

"Someday," says Brando's don to the undertaker." And that day might never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me."

Many months later, Sonny — having long since come into focus as hot-headed, impulsive and violent — lies shredded by bullets on a mortuary slab, and "someday" has come.

"I want you to use all your powers and all your skills," the Don tells the undertaker, seeking one last comfort for his son. "I don't want his mother to see him this way."

Then his voice breaks. "Look how they massacred my boy."

In the gangster flicks of an earlier era, nearly always told from the moralistic viewpoint of the authorities, this scene wouldn't exist. In 1972, The Godfather changed the formula. It asked us to identify not with the law, but with the Mafiosi.

A new template: realistic gangsters

Actually, it went further: It asked us to feel for the Mafiosi. And we did. When mobsters died in The Godfather, audiences wept.

And the actors who played those mobsters became identified with them in ways that earlier actors — say, Jimmy Cagney, who played tough guys in The Public Enemy, The Roaring Twenties, White Heat, Angels with Dirty Faces and a dozen other films — never did.

Of course, given the artificiality of gangster flicks in the 1930s and '40s, it made sense that no one would confuse Cagney with the tough guys he played, any more than he'd be confused with Broadway showman George M. Cohan when he played him in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

But shortly after The Godfather made him a bankable star, James Caan got turned down when he tried to join a country club because its members so believed his performance, they thought that like Sonny, he was a "made man."

"I'm not even Italian," he told them, "I'm Jewish." Didn't matter. And with The Godfather ushering in a new realism in mob movies, Caan wasn't alone.

Ray Liotta, who exploded to stardom when he played the young lead in Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas, also struggled to avoid typecasting, going so far as to refuse a major role in The Sopranos (though he relented many years later, taking a part in last year's Sopranos movie prequel The Many Saints of Newark).

Paul Sorvino, who played Paulie, Liotta's quietly thuggish mentor in GoodFellas, faced a similar struggle. Though he was an opera singer, a poet, and a deft comic actor, he got stuck in the public mind as a tough guy. He ended up playing mob bosses repeatedly over the next three decades, including as recently as last year in television's Godfather of Harlem.

And the once-a-gangster-always-a-gangster problem didn't just apply to featured players. Quite a few of Sorvino's GoodFellas henchmen found steady employment with suburban mafioso Tony Soprano a decade later, including Paul Herman who played Beansie Gaeta, and Tony Sirico who played Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri.

As the Mafia recedes, so must its interpreters

Actor Tony Sirico relaxing in his trailer circa 2000 on the set of <em>The Sopranos</em>.
/ NY Daily News via Getty Images
NY Daily News via Getty Images
Actor Tony Sirico relaxing in his trailer circa 2000 on the set of The Sopranos.

Still, this wave of modern mafia epics was just that — a wave. And it crested with the six seasons of The Sopranos almost two decades ago. There are still occasional mob stories with Italian faces being produced. But in recent years, a more egalitarian Hollywood has turned its attention to African-American anti-heroes, Asian cyber-criminals and drug cartels from Latin America. And as the Mafia recedes, so, eventually, must its interpreters.

All five of these actors – Caan, Liotta, Sorvino, Herman, and Sirico — were still robust and working at the start of this year. Now, in the space of just a few months, they're gone — which is perhaps unsurprising in actuarial terms, but still comes as a shock. We tend to freeze actors in the roles we best remember. Caan, for instance, was in his early 30s — young and vital — when he made The Godfather.

But it's now a half-century later. Liotta was in his 30s, Sorvino, Sirico and Herman were in their 40s and 50s when GoodFellas premiered and that's 32 years ago. We remember them all at their peak, which makes their loss feel like the passing of a generation.

It happens to every genre — the great silent comedians, the tap-dancing musical stars of the 1930s and '40s, the cowpokes and lawmen who rode a Cinemascope range in the 1950s. There will come a time — one hopes, many decades from now — when audiences will mourn the passing of a generation of superheroes.

But this crowd is the one we're losing now: the mobsters we unexpectedly — and against all our better instincts — came to care about.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.