James Caan, the curly-haired tough guy known to movie fans as the hot-headed Sonny Corleone from “The Godfather” and to television audiences as the dying football player in the whiny classic “Brian’s Song” and the casino boss in “Las Vegas”. “He has died. He was 82 years old.
His manager Matt DelPiano said he died Wednesday. No cause was given and Caan’s family, requesting privacy, said no further details would be released at this time.
Al Pacino wrote in an emailed statement that “Jimmy was my fictional brother and lifelong friend. It is hard to believe that he will no longer be in the world because he was so alive and bold. A great actor, a brilliant director and my dear friend. He loved him, I will miss him.” Robert De Niro also wrote that he was “very, very saddened by the news of Jimmy’s passing.”
“The roughness and the tenderness that he seemed to be able to encapsulate in one character,” says Hollywood Reporter screenwriter Rebecca Keegan of James Caan.
A football player at Michigan State University and a practical prankster on production sets, Caan was a handsome, smiling actor with the swagger and muscular build of an athlete. He managed a long career despite drug problems, temper outbursts and minor brushes with the law.
Caan had been a favorite of Francis Ford Coppola since the 1960s, when Coppola cast him in the title role in “Rain People.” He was up for a lead role in “The Godfather” as Sonny, number one enforcer and eldest son of mob boss Vito Corleone.
Sonny Corleone, a violent and reckless man who carried out many murders, met his own end in one of the most jarring cinematic scenes in history. Corleone rushes to find his sister’s husband, stopping at a toll booth that he discovers is eerily empty of customers. Before he can escape, he is cut down by a seemingly endless barrage of machine gun fire. For decades, he once said, strangers would approach him on the street and jokingly warn him to stay off toll roads.
Caan bonded with Brando, Robert Duvall, and other cast members and made sure to keep everyone laughing during an otherwise tense production, sometimes dropping his pants and “shocking” a fellow actor or crew member. Despite Coppola’s fears that it had flopped, the 1972 release was a huge critical and commercial success, bringing in supporting actor Oscar nominations for Caan, Duvall and Pacino.
Caan was already a star on television, breaking through in the 1971 TV movie “Brian’s Song,” an emotional drama about Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo, who had died of cancer the year before at age 26. . It was one of the most popular and successful. heartbreaking TV movies in history and Caan and his co-star Billy Dee Williams, who played Piccolo’s teammate and best friend Gale Sayers, were nominated for best actor Emmys.
James Caan, left, and Barbra Streisand appear at a press conference for their movie “Funny Lady” in New York on March 11, 1975. ( Associated Press Photo/Dave Pickoff, File)
After “Brian’s Song” and “The Godfather,” he was one of the busiest actors in Hollywood, 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 sour on movies, though Michael Mann’s 1981 neo-noir heist film “Thief,” in which he played a professional safecracker looking for a way out, is one of his most admired films.
Mann said that “Jimmy was not only a great actor with total commitment and an entrepreneurial spirit, but he had a vitality at the core of his being that drove everything from his art and friendship to athletics and good times.”
Caan 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 make movies, telling people he’d rather coach Little League games than his son Scott’s. Scott Caan also grew up to be an actor.
“It took the fun out of me,” he told an interviewer in 1981. “I’ve taken pictures where I’d rather take time. I just got off a movie at Paramount. I said you don’t have enough money to make me go to work every day with a director I don’t like.
With little money, Coppola signed Caan for the title role in the 1987 film “Gardens of Stone.” The film, about life in Arlington National Cemetery, was too bleak for most audiences, but it renewed Caan’s acting career.
He returned to full-fledged stardom opposite Kathy Bates in 1990’s “Misery.” In the film, based on the Stephen King novel, Caan is an author captivated by an obsessed fan who breaks his ankles to keep him from leaving. Bates won an Oscar for her role.
Scott Caan, right, writer/producer/star of the film “Mercy,” poses with his father, fellow cast member James Caan, at the film’s premiere in Los Angeles in 2010. ( Associated Press Photo/Chris Pizzello, File)
Once again in demand, Caan starred in “For the Boys” with Bette Midler in 1991 as part of a song and dance team that entertained 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 Las Vegas, tricking Nicolas Cage into betting his girlfriend, Sarah Jessica Parker, on a high-stakes poker game so he can take her away. and try to persuade her to marry him.
Other later films include “Flesh and Bone”, “Bottle Rocket” and “Mickey Blue Eyes”. He introduced himself to a new generation playing Walter, the stone-faced, workaholic father of Buddy’s Will Ferrell in “Elf.”
Adam Sandler, who starred with him in “Bulletproof” and “That’s My Boy,” tweeted that he “loved him so much. I always wanted to be like him. So happy to have met him. I never stopped laughing when he was around that man. His movies were the best of the best.”
Caan didn’t land a leading role in a television series until 2003, but his first effort, “Las Vegas,” was an immediate hit. When the series premiered, he was a casino watchdog chief dealing with cheaters and competitors at the fictional Montecito Resort and Casino.
His character rose to become the boss of the Montecito, but he remained the tough guy who had learned judo in a covert division of the United States government. Caan left the show during the fourth season and was later cancelled.
Born on March 26, 1939, in New York City, 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 University and Hofstra, studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse Theater School with Sanford Meisner.
Pedestrians walk past a wreath at the late actor James Caan’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame ( Associated Press Photo/Chris Pizzello)
After a brief theatrical career, he moved to Hollywood. He made his film debut in a brief uncredited role in 1963 in Billy Wilder’s “Irma La Douce,” then landed a role as a young thug who terrorizes 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.
James Caan, Oscar nominee for ‘The Godfather’, dies at 82