Sodium lights across Wabash. Coffee and donuts by the Adler. Midnight blues on Lincoln Ave. Car light chats beside the Chicago River. The streets are soaked. The night is blue. The men are dangerous. This is the world of Michael Mann’s Thief.
Inspired by Frank Hohimer’s 1975 true crime book The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar, the feature film debut of the Chicago veteran is a bridge between two times: a boiling point for ’70s crime thrillers and a fever dream of the ’80s to come.
In 1980, Mann knew exactly where he was going when he set out to play in his hometown. From the prescient use of Tangerine Dream to the lone wolf archetype he gave to James Caan, Thief serves as a blueprint for everything that defines his CV.
A CV, mind you, that would not only go on to define the ’80s but recalibrate the crime drama forever. Look back — but not too far — and you can see his fingerprints on everything from Grand Theft Auto, to Drive, to the Golden Age of Television.
But it all starts with Thief. Released on March 27th, 1981, the United Artists picture cemented Caan as King of Cool, introduced another Belushi, dragged Dennis Farina off his beat, plucked Robert Prosky from the stage, and put the Red Headed Stranger behind bars.
In commemoration of its 40th anniversary, Consequence assembled a Chicago crew to speak with stars James Caan and James Belushi, who regaled them with tales that prove these two are the last guys in the world you wanna fuck with…
I’m Waiting for the Mann
In 1979, James Caan was filming the Neil Simon romantic comedy Chapter Two. One day, he found a young filmmaker named Michael Mann waiting outside his trailer. With him, in a manila envelope, was the script for Thief, inspired by the 1975 true crime book The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar by Frank Hohimer (real name John Seybold). After reading the script, Caan knew right away that he had to do this film.
JAMES CAAN (“FRANK”): I was doing Chapter Two, and I came out of some shot at the studio, and sitting in front of my trailer was this guy with a manila envelope on his lap. It was Michael [Mann]. He wanted to know if he could talk to me for a little while. I said “Of course.” The only thing he had done at the time was The Jericho Mile, I believe, which was a TV movie. It’s very good. And then I read this script which, for me, was insane. It was great.
And that was it, I guess.
Following in the steps of his brother John, Jim Belushi began his career as an actor by working in Chicago’s thriving theater scene. By 1980, the young actor honed his skills at prestigious institutions like Second City and the Goodman Theatre, and even appeared as regular on two ill-fated sitcoms. But a significant film role had eluded him. That was until a fateful audition with Michael Mann, who cast him as Barry in Thief.
JIM BELUSHI (“BARRY”): I was at the Goodman Theatre doing Richard Nelson’s adaptation of Brecht’s Bal. It was a very heavy play. So I was at the Goodman Theatre when Michael [Mann] was doing his casting. I’ve always been involved in [comedy and drama], but comedy is more where I’m recognized. As an actor you do it all. I mean, I’ve danced and sang on Broadway. I do improve. I do comedies. I’ve done slapstick and drama. I’ve been killed and I’ve killed in movies. I do it all. I grow pot now, so what the fuck.
Anyway, my agent, she was wonderful. She put me up for it. When I read it I said, “No, I can’t do that.” And she said, “No, no. Meet on it.” So I met with Michael. I sat in the hotel suite and I read the scenes with him. And before I read, he said, “What do you like about the script?” And I said, “Well, I like two things. One, I get to die. I’ve always wanted to die on film. And two, I get to kiss a woman’s breasts.” It was described [in the script] that I jump in the water with my wife and I pull down her and I put my mouth on her breasts. I think Michael liked both of those things. He didn’t comment, he just said, “Uh-huh.” I read and then he introduced me to James Caan, who was doing pushups. And next thing you know, I’ve got the part.
Ordinary People, The Blues Brothers, Thief, and The Hunter were the first movies that were made after the moratorium that Mayor Daley put on Chicago. Chicago was never filmed because Mayor Daley didn’t like the way movies portrayed Chicago as a gangster-town. Because of the Al Capone stuff. And Thief, ironically, is a goddamn gangster movie. So it was a big deal.
Police and Thieves
Striving to give his film a sense of authenticity, Mann insisted his actors be trained to handle weapons and equipment used in real-life heists. To achieve this, the director enlisted a crew of real policemen and thieves from the streets of Chicago to serve as technical advisors. This included master thieves John Santucci and W.R. (Bill) Brown, top-cop Chuck Adamson, and a cop-turned-actor named Dennis Farina.
CAAN: We went to Gunsite, Arizona when I decided to do this. And there’s a guy named Jeff Cooper. And he has this place in Gunsite, Arizona of all places where a lot of the CIA and federal guys go there to learn how to shoot and how to cover a house and shoot any kind of thing. And you learn how to case a house. I had a great 45. But I thought I was in Germany or something. I don’t know. It was wild. He made us look at these pictures he had in his basement. All his heroes were Nazis, I think. It was unbelievable.
BELUSHI: I hung out with the criminals because Michael wanted it that way. He wanted them to rub off on me. John Santucci, what a character that guy was. And Bill Brown. I would sit in the trailer and they would play this gambling game called spit. We’d sit in these trailers and they were fucking gambling. It was all these fucking cowboy stuntmen and all the thieves, and me, the kid. And I kept losing. They kept saying, “Jimmy, you don’t have to play this hand.” They were sweet to me. I was a kid.
CAAN: What really attracted me was the idea of these guys that we met in Chicago. They’re great. They’re unbelievable. These guys were geniuses. If they had gone anywhere else, they would’ve been geniuses. If they became scientists, they would’ve invented the vaccine. I mean, anything that man made, that man could get in, they would. And I got friendly with that crew.
Mike [Mann] and I got there a month early. We hung around with them for quite a while. They never had taken a bust, these guys. Ever. None of them. And they were big. It was a big crew. But they never took anything. It was all like insurance stuff. They would take cash, but they would never take Touchstones or anything that was marked in any way.
BELUSHI: [The real cops and thieves on set] all knew each other. They would make fun of each other. John Santucci would sit across from [Dennis] Farina and they would go back and forth: “You missed me on this gig. The jewelry store robbery on Michigan, you missed me, man. I was the one.” And Dennis would go, “I let you go on that one.” And they would go back and forth about old crimes. These guys used to chase each other. These guys were from the same neighborhood — one guy wanted to be a cop and one guy wanted to be a thief.
I remember Farina saying to me, “Bill Brown, he’s one of the good ones. He’s a gentleman thief. He didn’t kill nobody, he didn’t hurt nobody. He just went in there and got the shit.” And then there was Chuck Adamson, who was the head of the IBI (Illinois Bureau of Investigations). Crime Story was based on Chuck Adamson. Chuck had great stories. He told some stories that I can’t even tell you. They were so high-end, I could never tell them.
CAAN: [John Santucci] was a nut. A freaking nut. He looks at your forehead when he talks to you. I love that. And then when he stopped me with the car and all that, they gave me some beating. Walter Scott and him, when they take me to the back of the office, hit me with the garbage can and all that. I mean, Mike was on the floor with the camera. There was no way I could see it. They beat the shit out of me. I said “I’ll get you, you bastards.” Boom. Oh God, it was great.
BELUSHI: Farina was the nicest man to me. After the scene where he shoots and kills me, Farina says to me, “Hey, Jimmy. This acting thing. How do I do this thing?” And I say. “Well, there is an agency downtown called Shirley Hamilton. And then there are some theaters along Lincoln Boulevard, like Steppenwolf and Organic Theater, they have acting classes. You should start taking some of those classes.” Next thing I know, I come to Chicago, I go to St. Nicholas Theater and there’s Dennis-fucking-Farina in Streamers. I go, “Dennis, you were fucking awesome in this.” And he goes, “Yeah, I started taking the classes.”
CAAN: There were some badass cops, man. Their methods of getting somebody to talk was pretty tough, but they knew they couldn’t rough them up. That’s where I went with my character.
So, when they got those guys in their station, behind every sergeant’s office, there was one chair facing against the wall. Behind the chair, right where the head would be, it was always that the plaster was falling off, because they were just banging their heads against that.
They also had a gym upstairs, and they had those old concrete steps, with a metal thing across the front of it — all the way up to the top. They had potato sacks there. And they’d put these poor son of a bitches in these potato sacks and roll ‘em down those stairs to get [answers] …
Oh man. That was pretty brutal.
BELUSHI: The only thing that was wrong was when we did the Richmond safe, when we did the burn, you can see James foam up the fire alarm on the ceiling. But the truth of the matter is that caused so much smoke that the fire department would have been there in five minutes. But for the theatrics of it, we did that big burn. By the way, that was John Santucci in the other suit. Not Jimmy [Caan]. It was me and John Santucci. But we had to stop because we had to get all the smoke out. Then we would burn more and get the smoke out. That was a little bit more of a dramatic choice, opposed to how they would really do it. Otherwise, it was all done the way those guys would do it.
I was like, “Why are we not picking up [the tools from the robbery] and walking out with it?” And they said, “The amount of money you spent on those tools, the amount of money you’re getting on these diamonds, it’s nothing. It’s the price of doing business.” So they would leave all those tools. You don’t want to get caught in the car with those tools anywhere. It’s a lot of tools.
CAAN: [During filming], I came into work at Paramount, and they had a 230-pound magnetic drill, and I had to bust this Richmond safe. A big one. And they all stood around and watched me. I mean, they hoisted this thing on me. I had a chain. I threw it over the top of one of the doors, I clamped it onto one of the doors, and I drew the dissection that I was supposed to, to hit the copper drop. The drop is what goes between two other pieces of steel in the door, and that locks the door. In other words, there’s a big piece of copper.
And if you dissected the turn handle to the big door handle, if you made a cross mark right there, that point was usually where they put it. So, I drilled through there, and everybody watched me. I went from nothing, and, sure enough, I hit it, it dropped. I dropped this big thing. I mean, it’s 230 pounds. But it was chained up. I put that down, opened the door, and then I looked, and they had those other doors. You know, the smaller doors with those round locks on them? And I looked and I went, “Holy shit!”, and everybody shut up.
I had to go through this whole thing. So, I just reached over, I got this chisel and hammer, and — boom! — I popped them out. I got a big cheer. So, that was my biggest accomplishment that I had right there. They were unbelievable, those guys.
Mann at Work
Though this was Michael Mann’s first feature film as a director, the filmmaker’s extreme attention to detail and forceful vision guided much of the shoot. The director was very hands-on with his actors and demanded perfection from his crew. Nothing would get in the way of Mann making the movie he wanted.
BELUSHI: Michael [Mann] was just a gentleman with me. The thing about Michael is that he has a super genius, a Mensa kind of brilliance. I’m just an actor, but he always talked to me with great regard and respect. He was so beautiful with me.
CAAN: Michael, of all things, he’s a little Napoleonic. Maybe it’s size or whatever. He was really, really hard. But I love him because he’s really good. I can put up with shit. The bad thing is if you act like that and then be bad, then that’s bad. But he was very good. Knew what he wanted.
BELUSHI: I’ve worked with Michael, Walter Hill, Oliver Stone, David Lynch, Roman Polanski, and Woody Allen. There’s a phrase that Danny [Aykroyd] uses that describes what you need to do when you work with auteurs like that: They expect you to have your suitcase packed. Which means, you have to be so fucking studied when you walk on that set. You’ve got to know your lines, you’ve got to know your character, and you’ve got to own the costume you’re in. You’ve got to walk on that set with a fully realized character and understanding of the script. Then, they will tell you what to do. But if you come with a full suitcase, they don’t tell you shit.
There was a first AD I knew from rehearsals. I came to the set and a gentleman comes up to me and says, “Hello, I’m your new first AD.” I go, “Oh, what happened to the other guy?” “I don’t know. All I know is I’m here today.” Three days later, a gentleman comes up to me, “Hello, I’m your new first AD.” He fired people immediately if they didn’t do their job. Never messed with it. He was just tough.
[Michael] said to me one time, because Jimmy was having a hard time in his personal life at that time, “I don’t care what happens to people in their lives. I mean, I do care. All I care about is capturing what is in their eyes and what goes on between the eyes of the actors. I need to capture that on film. Because that’s what lasts forever. Not the problems of your day.” Michael wanted what was in Jimmy’s eyes, and he would not move until he got it.
He was very tough on his crew. Not mean, don’t get me wrong. Please don’t say that. He was not a mean person. He was very, very tough, but he adored his actors. He treated us with great respect and patience — he was slow, and calm, and would listen. He’s a beautiful man.
CAAN: We’d start on Monday morning at six o’clock. So, you know, a healthy day is 15 hours or 14 hours, and the whole picture was [night shoots]. Well, it was day and night. We had plenty of each. We’d go Monday, and we’d go til, let’s say, 9 o’clock. Well, you couldn’t call anybody back. You couldn’t call back the artists for 12 hours. So, that was 9 o’clock in the morning, and the crew had, I think, an 11-hour turnaround. So, they would come in on Tuesday, starting at 10 or 11. We would start at 11. And that would go on til the end of the week. Two to three hours a day. By Friday, we were working nights.
Basically it’d kill our day off. You’d get home Saturday, and what kind of weekend you got? Saturday you’ve gotta go to sleep. And if you had to work Saturday, there was no sleep. You didn’t get a chance to go play tennis or anything. You had to go to sleep. And I was kind of co-producing it — well my brother was — and I called a wrap one night. The crew was dying. They were coming to me and saying, “Jimmy, come on. Can you help us?” They were dying. And they were. You know that scene where I blow up my house one night? We were doing it there that night, and I called a wrap after we blew it up. Mike went, “What??” I said, “It’s English, bro. Fucking wrap.” We put in 10 to 12 hours. The guys were so happy, you know?
They were going to go ‘til four in the morning.
BELUSHI: [Michael] is so well researched. He is so detailed. I mean, his confidence comes from his wealth of retained knowledge about any subject. There was a Hawaiian shirt I wore [in a rooftop scene] — a black Hawaiian shirt with white flowers on it. I can’t tell you how many times the costumer presented Hawaiian shirts to Michael, in front of me, and he kept saying, “No. Not what I want. No. Not what I want.” Finally the girl went and found material, raw material: “No, no, no.” Finally they found the right material and they built me a shirt for that one scene.
CAAN: As an actor you get a chance to do some real character stuff and that’s the thing that I wanted to have fun with, and a lot of people didn’t notice it. Michael didn’t notice it for a little while. I don’t use one contraction in the movie. There was not an isn’t, wasn’t. “I am the last guy on Earth.” And Michael caught that one day. He said, “What are you doing?” I said, “What do you mean?” And the whole idea was that I lost 11 years for $40. I don’t really have time. So he said, “What are you doing? Why are you talking so slowly and distinctly?” And I said, “Because I never have to repeat myself. And haste makes waste.” [Laughs.] Then Michael looked at me and went, “Okay.”
The other thing that I pulled on him … this is my favorite though … is when I go down to the old man’s basement after the first big takedown. I go, “You are short.” He says, “That’s okay. I’ll put you in with my other partners…” So I said, “The yield of my labor is in your pocket. But that is okay because I electeded it to do that…” So, where I come from, these guys always had what I’d call four dollar words that they’d completely mispronounce. So I was saying this line and I thought, This is the guy. He’s perfect. Well, Michael never heard that until I got in the thing. I said it five times. He said “Electeded? There’s no such word as electeded. What the fuck did you do?” I said “That’s one of my four dollar words. I like it.”
BELUSHI: There was a driving scene on Halsted with Jimmy and I. It was all done in one [shot]. Jimmy would say something before the takes — I’ve never done a movie before, right. Jimmy would say before they said action, “Hey, don’t worry. They’re not paying you enough to play a real character.” Action. And I blew the line because I thought that was funny. We had to drive all the way back around. The next take, right before we start, Jimmy goes, “This time try to sound a little more masculine.” I start to laugh and I blow the take.
Michael comes over to me, I get out of the car, and he says, “Is he talking to you before the take?” I go, “Yeah, he’s really funny.” He goes, “Uh-huh. When he turns to talk to you before this take, just say to him: ‘Hey, man. You trying to rattle me?’’ I go, “Oh, that’s a good one.”
So we go around, we set up the take, Jimmy’s about to turn to say something to me, and I say, “Hey, man. You trying to rattle me?” Jimmy goes, “Woah, hey. The kid! Look at the kid! Ha-ha!” Jimmy never said anything before a take again. Fucking Michael, man. Ever since then, before every take in every movie I’ve even done, I need 10 seconds of silence before action. And that came from Michael.
That scene, the one on Halsted where Jimmy was supposedly rattling me, that was shot on Saturday, May 11th. So, I got my girl pregnant — I sound just like my fucking character. She’s got a belly on her, alright. I’ve got to marry this girl. I’ve got to fucking get married. And she’s like, “Come on, we’ve got to get married.” And we were going to get married on May 11th. It was like the Tuesday or Wednesday [before the wedding date] and Michael says, “We’re shooting on Halsted this Saturday.” And I go, “Um, Michael. I can’t shoot on Saturday.”
He said, “No, no. You’re shooting on Saturday, it’s the only time we get that location.” I said, “Michael, I’m fucking getting married on Saturday to a pregnant woman. She’s fucking pregnant, she’s fucking hormonal. I’ve got to marry the bitch on Saturday.” He goes, “No, we’re shooting on Saturday. Move it.” I go, “Michael, I’m not going to call a pregnant women and tell her I’m moving the fucking wedding! I’m not shooting on Saturday!”
Again, he goes, “You’re shooting on Saturday.” I said, “I’m not fucking telling her!” He says, “Give me the phone. What’s the number?” He dialed the number, “Hi, Sandy. Michael Mann here. Good, good. Jimmy is doing a great job. Listen, I have a location problem and I need Jimmy to shoot on Saturday. I know you’re getting married but can you move it a week? Ok, thank you. Thank you so much.” He hangs up, looks at me and says, “You’re working on Saturday.” I said, “Michael, you are the man. I’m like a little baby because I couldn’t confront a pregnant woman like that. Only you can!”
Lie to No One
Caan and Belushi reflect on some of their amazing co-stars in Thief.
CAAN: That [diner scene] is the thing that I’m proudest of. I found out at the Actor’s Studio that they picked that scene and they give it to some of their advanced students to do. So, that’s kind of a big feather in my cap I think — and Tuesday’s. That’s why I’m glad I had Tuesday. She just reacted, which is what I like. What I like to do is really listen. Even the proposal is kind of weird, isn’t it? Like “Come on. Come on. What’s going on in your life? You’re waiting for a bus that will never come.”
BELUSHI: That scene with James Caan and Tuesday Weld in the Howard Johnson’s over the freeway is a 10 minute scene. Nobody does 10 minute scenes in movies.
CAAN: Willie [Nelson]’s my buddy. He’s the best. I was fortunate enough to get friendly with Willie a few years before, and he’s been so good to me. I lost my sister and I was a mess, and he was the best guy in the world. He’d take me to concerts, just try to get me away from my sorrow and pain. My sister was the greatest. So, I traveled with him on the bus a lot.
Nothing bothers him. I don’t smoke, but it didn’t matter. I was fucking stoned the minute I said “Hello.” You sit on that bus, the fucking ceiling… They had to change the ceiling on the bus because all that oil shit would stick. Oh God. I love Willie. He called one day really early. He said “Jimmy come up here. I need you up here.” I said “Why?” He was doing a picture – [Honeysuckle Rose] – and he was up in Tahoe. He said, “I need you to look at this for me.” It was all bullshit, but he just wanted me out of the house, you know?
Anyway, when I read the part of David Burton, I thought, Oh my God. This would be so great for Willie. But his agent Jim – I can understand it; I don’t hold anything – said “No, no. He’s been starring in these movies. This is a little part.” I said, “Look, Willie, he’s got two scenes, but you’re omnipresent. You’re there all the time.” I mean, David Burton, he’s my guy. He’s my hero. He’s my mentor. And you’re just omnipresent all the time.
He said, “Jimmy, you want me to, I’ll do it.” I said, “No, no. I’m not going for that. I’m not going to sing for you on the fucking stage. And you’re not going to do this because you’re my friend. I think it’ll be wonderful. You haven’t got a fucking guitar in your hand. You’ve got nothing in your hand.” And his agent got very mad at me, because Willie said, “I’ll do it.” And I thought he was great. And I worried more about his reviews than I did mine. [Laughs.] But he was great.
BELUSHI: To this date, the best bad guy performance in all of film is Robert Prosky. He was so fucking good in it. He came from the Arena Stage in D.C. — and he came with his bags packed.
Thief features some incredibly impressive scenes of pyrotechnics: the torching of a used car lot, the bombing of a Chicago landmark (The Green Mill), and the inadvertently realistic destruction of an upscale suburban home.
CAAN: I remember the cars when I blew them up. We had an old guy that I worked with many times. He was the special effects guy. He came in and showed me the path to walk. Michael had the cameras [at a certain spot], and I just threw a match on this car. This is after they put a gel on all the cars. So, I throw a match on the gel and it lights up and blows up. But what blew up was a pan underneath each car with about 30 pounds of dynamite in it — and it literally lifted the cars up off of the ground when it blew.
In other words, I came in, lit the match, and threw it onto this car, and then walked to my left. So, I go to the second car, and I get this wave across my right ear. It was like somebody put a torch right across the top of my ear, and it just knocked me back. And, I’ll tell ya what, I kept walking because I didn’t want to do that shit again, but I was in some pain. This was towards the end of the show, and this was a problem, and I forgot all about it.
But, I started getting these migraines really, really bad. So, they got me Percodan. “Give him that!” I did a lot of that during the scene with Tuesday in that condition. I used to take my thumbs, put them in the temples on either side of my head, and I’d push as hard as I could, Like I wanted them to meet in the middle of my brain. Then I’d take them away, and it’d subside for a minute from that extreme pressure that I put on.
I got mad at my producer because they kept sending a nurse in with a B-12 shot, right? I mean, I like him, but I got so mad. I felt so abused. They don’t give a shit. They care about their movie, which I guess I would, too. But [Jerry] Bruckheimer had this nurse come in to give me a B-12 shot. But what the fuck is a B-12 shot gonna do?! So, I was in really bad pain. I would take the Percodan — sometimes I had to take two — and luckily I didn’t get goofy because the pain was real and it went to where it was supposed to go.
Anyways, I came home, we were on the streets of Paramount outside the studio, and I was in my trailer. That day I had gone to a legitimate doctor and they told me that I had ruptured something in my right ear and I was in a constant state of migraines for four to five weeks. Constant state of migraines for four or five weeks. This was a long shoot, and when I heard that, I got on the phone, and they gave me this report. Then Jerry came in with this nurse, and I went, “You fuck.” I mean, I just lost my mind. I picked Jerry up to my shoulders, opened the door, and threw him onto the sidewalk out of my trailer. Over two steps. He bounced onto the sidewalk. I was so upset. So me and Jerry didn’t part as friends. [Laughs.] We used to be friends.
I took it out on Jerry. But still, nobody sent me to a doctor. It’s like a little kid. When you’re an actor, you’re like a child. You’re a 12-year-old kid. I’m putting my life in their hands. It’s your job to take care of me. I know when I direct, if somebody gets hurt, it’s my job to take care of them. They’re working for me. And that never happened. All they did was give me fucking Percodan.
BELUSHI: When we blew up that house, it was like The Wizard of Oz. The special effects team built a false front and they had cans of different gases. I mean, this was one of the biggest fucking explosions. So, firemen were there for safety — a lot of firemen — and they were all wearing these black coats with bright lime-green stripes all over them.
They were beautiful coats, and I’m talking to one of them, and I go, “Wow, these coats are great.” He goes, “Blues Brothers.” I go, “What?” He said, “We made so much money off The Blues Brothers. All the Teamsters, all the firemen, all the police that were hired for that movie got overtime and overtime and overtime.” These guys got new cars, new coats. My brother, John, was a generous man. He made Universal spend a lot of money in Chicago.
When they blew up that house, that gas leaked, and went under the roofing tile. The false front went out about 10 feet out and they blew that up. It all went great when they blew it up. It was gorgeous. But the gases leaked and the fire kept going. So, that blow-up cost $750,000 because it ended up destroying that house.
A Part To Die For
The role of Barry helped Belushi breakout as a film actor and would produced one of the great screen deaths of the 1980s. But this was no accident. Belushi and his collaborators strove to make Barry’s demise a memorable one.
BELUSHI: It was very important to me, in that first meeting, that I get to die [in the film]. And I wanted to do my own stunts. Stunt guys, you don’t fuck with stunt guys. This is their territory. I had to get approval from Walter Scott, who was a 6’5’ cowboy who chewed tobacco. All the stunt guys were cowboys. They don’t like actors doing their own stunts because it takes money away from stunt guys — very tense politics.
Navy Pier was where all the movie trucks were parked. So I walk into Navy Pier and there’s Michael and this tall guy. Michael goes, “This is Jim Belushi. Jim Belushi, this is Walter Scott. He’s our stunt coordinator. Jim will be playing the part of Barry, he wants to do his own stunts.” Michael turned and walked out of the room. He left me there staring at this mother fucking monster.
Walter looked at me, shook his head and spit out his chew. He went, “Shiiiiit.” I go, “I’d really like to get shot, I’d really like to get killed.” He says, “Look, these things are very complicated.” I go, “I’m very athletic. I played football. I work out a little bit. I dance. I’m very athletic. I can do it.” He said, “Shit. Alright, how would you react to a fist in the stomach?” I bend over. He goes, “No, no. That’s not how you do it.” And I’m like, “Then show me how to do it.” And he showed me and I mimicked it. I was just so enthusiastic and I was such a kid. And he goes, “Alright, I guess we could do something.”
Cut to a week later: I come to the same place and he wants to rehearse it with me. So he wants to rehearse me getting shot and rolling off the hood of a car. I go, “Wait a minute. That’s it? That’s my death? I fall over on the hood of a car?” He goes, “You don’t like that?” I say, “Yeah, I like that but I’ve seen that before. I mean, this is like a big death scene. This motivates Jimmy Caan’s character to go out for revenge. It’s got to be a bloody fucking death.” Fucking Walter Scott, man. [He was] half charmed by me and half really fucking mad that an actor is talking back to the stunt coordinator.
We come back a week later [and] he lays out this [new death scene]: I run handcuffed, I get shot in the back, as I run I put my right foot up on a tire, I spin in midair, and I get shot twice in the chest. They had a harness that went around my genitals and back with a wire that is up in the air on a pulley with two giant guys [holding it]. And as I do that turn up in the air and get shot twice, these guys yank that pully, I go upside the van and hit the ground. And so I do it. Walter is like, “Alright.” And I’m like, “Walter, that’s a death, man!” I mean, it was gorgeous. They put hamburger meat and red blood dye in baggies on my back and stomach. They put 27 squibs on my body. They were doctoring me up. This was the biggest deal ever, man.
I do the run, they shoot the gun, I do the turn, I get pulled, and I hit the side of the van. And when my hands [went] up in the air, my coat flips up and a couple squibs burn my neck a little bit, under my chin. James Caan walks over, takes my chin in his hand and looks at the burn. And he is so fucking pissed that he doesn’t even speak, because an actor got hurt. But I wasn’t that hurt. It was just a little scratch. It’s nothing. So I went to special effects and they tied my coat to my belt, so when I reached up the coat would not shift.
I did five takes of [my death scene]. The problem was when I came down on the ground, you could see my feet, and out from my feet were the wires that controlled the squibs. So we had to reshoot it in L.A. All they needed was me coming off the van. So I just ran, turned, bounced off the van like a cartoon character, and hit the ground. The problem was there was blood on the ground from the take before and I slipped. So I hit the van and fell on my back, and I was so pissed off that I slipped. I’m going, These mother fucking assholes, they didn’t clean it between takes. I fucking blew it. Ah, shit. And I just froze. That was the take he used, because you could see me in agony.
Michael and Walter Scott really delivered everything I wanted. At the wrap party in L.A., [Michael] does a little speech. And in the speech, he stops and he presents me with something. He pulled three frames out of the movie of me getting shot, going up against the van and on the floor, frames it and presents it to me. I said, “Well, Michael, it was a good death.”
Now, 40 years after its release, Caan and Belushi look at Thief as one of the highlights of their careers, and life. With the passage of time, it becomes clearer and clearer how special the film really is.
BELUSHI: I enjoyed every minute of it. I didn’t care if it was late. I didn’t care if it was cold. I didn’t care if it was raining. I was on my first movie set, it was 1980, and I was having the time of my life.
CAAN: It’s one of my favorites — if not my favorite — for selfish reasons. I mean, even divorcing myself from what’s good about it or what’s bad about it, I enjoyed it very much after it was put together. It was really, really hard making it. Personally, I was very proud of it, which is a lot to say. Usually, I’m a little picky. But I was very proud of the movie.
BELUSHI: MGM thought it was a blue collar movie, and they sold it to places like Calumet City. They did not market that for what it was, it was like an auteur French film. It was very European. The music was so beautiful: Tangerine Dream and then Mighty Joe Young. [Michael] would talk about when a body would fall [in the film] he would use a minor key. The music had to be in a minor tone, that’s how detailed he was. C’mon, it’s fucking brilliant.
CAAN: I was very friendly with all the kids at Stanford, and the football team. My friend was Steve Bangle, who just passed away. And those guys used to watch it every Thursday night. [Laughs.] They loved it. I’d come down, we’d play three-on-three, and they’d start talking to me. “Is it right if I go?” Then they’d start using this fucking dialogue, talking like the way that I did in the movie. Just laughing and quoting lines. So, that was pretty nice.
BELUSHI: Michael was ahead of everything. He was an auteur, an artist. I think he was ahead by casting me too. I was a comic actor,but he loved my vulnerability, and he wanted to make sure I was vulnerable enough for James to do his revenge.
Michael fought for every inch against the studio. You don’t want to go up against Michael. He really got his vision. He’s beautiful, he did a beautiful job on that movie, and I was so honored to have worked with Michael and to have been part of that movie.
CAAN: I always tell people, “Every story’s been told if you think about it. The Greek’s did it, the Roman’s did it, Shakespeare did it. The good guy wins, the bad guy loses. Good guy gets the girl. That’s what it is.” But the thing that I think now keeps people in the seat are guys like Brando and unpredictability. You cannot predict how he’s going to behave. You’re taking the journey with this actor through this maze of a story that they’re telling.
So, you’re not so much trying to put things together. You’re just letting him take you through the story. And that’s what this picture did. I think the characters drag you through this story. You wonder, but after a while you don’t wonder, you get it. Which is really great. That’s the kind of people they are. You don’t question anything crazy that they do. They’re nuts.
BELUSHI: If someone mentions the word “thief” to me, I stop and turn, and we have a full-on discussion. Because if they’re hip enough to have seen Thief, they’ve got to be cool to speak to.
I’m still mad I wasn’t in Heat, though. You can tell Michael I said so. The Tom Sizemore role was my role and I met with Michael: “C’mon, it’s my role! It’s Barry from Thief!” Same thing happened! Sizemore dies [in the movie], but you didn’t feel anything when Sizemore died. You felt something when Belushi died.