James Caan, the curly-haired badass known to moviegoers as the fiery Sonny Corleone of “The Godfather” and to viewers as the dying football player in the classic “Brian’s Song” and the casino boss in “Las Vegas,” is dead. He was 82 years old.
His manager Matt DelPiano said he died on Wednesday. No cause was given and Caan’s family, who are requesting confidentiality, said no further details would be released at this time.
“Jimmy was one of the greatest. Not only was he one of the best actors our company has ever seen, but he was funny, loyal, caring and loved,” DelPiano said. “Our relationship has always been l friendship before business. I will miss him very much and I am proud to have worked with him all these years.
Rob Reiner, who directed Caan in ‘Misery’, tweeted: “Loved working with him. And the only Jew I know who can tug of war with the best of them.
A football player at Michigan State University and a practical prankster on production sets, Caan was a smiling, handsome performer with the swagger of an athlete and his muscular build. He had a long career despite drug problems, temper tantrums and minor run-ins with the law.
Caan had been a favorite of Francis Ford Coppola since the 1960s, when Coppola cast him for the lead role in “Rain People.” He was groomed for a starring role in “The Godfather” as Sonny, the No. 1 enforcer and eldest son of mob boss Vito Corleone.
Sonny Corleone, a violent and reckless man who committed numerous murders, met his own end in one of the most shocking movie scenes in history. On his way to another job, Corleone stops at a tollbooth which he finds disturbingly empty of customers. Before he can escape, he is shot by a seemingly endless barrage of machine guns. For decades afterwards, he once said, strangers would approach him on the street and jokingly warn him to stay off the toll roads.
Caan bonded with Brando, Robert Duvall and other cast members and made a point of making everyone laugh during an otherwise tense production, occasionally dropping his pants and “mooning” another actor or team member. Despite Coppola’s fears it had flopped, the 1972 outing was a huge critical and commercial success and earned supporting actors Oscar nominations for Caan, Duvall and Al Pacino.
Caan was already a TV star, breaking into the 1971 TV movie ‘Brian’s Song,’ a touching drama about Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo, who died of cancer the previous year at age 26. . heartbreaking television films in history and Caan and his co-star Billy Dee Williams, who played Piccolo’s bandmate and best friend Gale Sayers, were nominated for Best Actor Emmys.
After “Brian’s Song” and “The Godfather”, he was one of Hollywood’s most active actors, appearing in “Hide in Plain Sight” (which he also directed), “Funny Lady” (opposite Barbra Streisand), “The Killer Elite” and “Chapter Two” by Neil Simon, among others. He also made a brief appearance in a flashback sequence in “The Godfather, Part II”.
But in the early 1980s he began to falter on films, although Michael Mann’s 1981 neo-noir film “Thief”, in which he played a professional piercer looking for a way out, was among his most admired films.
“The fun was taken away,” he told an interviewer in 1981. “I’ve done pictures where I’d rather be doing time. I just got out of a picture at Paramount. I said that you didn’t have enough money to make me work every day with a director that I don’t like.
He had begun to struggle with drug use and was devastated by the 1981 death from leukemia of his sister, Barbara, who until then had been a guiding force in his career. For much of the 1980s he didn’t do any movies, telling people he’d rather coach his son Scott’s Little League games.
Cash-strapped, Caan was hired by Coppola for the lead role in the 1987 film “Gardens of Stone.” The film, about life at Arlington National Cemetery, proved too dark for most viewers, but it renewed Caan’s acting career.
He returns to stardom in his own right opposite Kathy Bates in 1990’s “Misery.” In the film, based on the Stephen King novel, Caan is an author captured by an obsessed fan who breaks his ankles to stop him leave. Bates won an Oscar for the role.
Once again in demand, Caan starred in “For the Boys” with Bette Midler in 1991 as part of a song and dance team entertaining American soldiers during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. . The following year, he played a tongue-in-cheek version of Sonny Corleone in the comedy “Honeymoon in Vegas,” tricking Nicolas Cage into betting his girlfriend, Sarah Jessica Parker, in a high-stakes poker game so he could l away and try to persuade her to marry him.
Other later films included “Flesh and Bone”, “Bottle Rocket”, and “Mickey Blue Eyes”. He introduced himself to a new generation playing Walter, the workaholic, stone-faced father of Buddy’s Will Ferrell in “Elf.”
Born March 26, 1939 in New York, Caan was the son of a kosher meat wholesaler. He was a star athlete and class president at Rhodes High School, and after attending Michigan State and Hofstra University, he studied at Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater.
After a brief stage career, he moved to Hollywood. He made his film debut in a brief uncredited role in 1963 in Billy Wilder’s “Irma La Douche”, then landed a role as a young thug who terrorized Olivia de Havilland in “Lady in a Cage”. He also appeared alongside John Wayne and Robert Mitchum in the 1966 Western “El Dorado” and Harrison Ford in the 1968 Western “Journey to Shiloh”.
Married and divorced four times, Caan had a daughter, Tara, and sons Scott, Alexander, James and Jacob.