James Caan, the curly-haired tough guy known to movie fans as the hotheaded Sonny Corleone of The Godfather, passed away at age 82 after having built a storied acting career with 137 credits to his name.
The American actor, whose portrayal of Corleone secured him an Academy Awards nomination in 1973, died on Wednesday. No cause was given.
He managed a long career despite drug problems, outbursts of temper and minor brushes with the law. He was known for his handsome looks, constant grin and muscular build, as well as being a practical joker on production sets.
‘Jimmy was one of the greatest. Not only was he one of the best actors our business has ever seen, he was funny, loyal, caring and beloved,’ his manager Matt DelPiano said. ‘Our relationship was always friendship before business. I will miss him dearly and am proud to have worked with him all these years.’
He was married four times and is survived by his five children – Tara, 57; Scott, 45; Alexander James, 31; James Arthur, 26; and Jacob Nicholas Caan, 23.
Scott followed in his father’s footsteps, appearing in Ocean’s Eleven, Gone In 60 Seconds and the Hawaii Five-0 reboot.
James Caan, the curly-haired tough guy known to movie fans as the hotheaded Sonny Corleone of The Godfather, passed away at age 82. He is pictured in 1968
James Caan holds his career tribute at the 10th Marrakesh Film Festival in 2010
James Caan and Al Pacino are pictured in a film still from The Godfather
Caan’s loved ones confirmed his death in a statement on Twitter Thursday: ‘It is with great sadness that we inform you of the passing of Jimmy on the evening of July 6.
‘The family appreciates the outpouring of love and heartfelt condolences and asks that you continue to respect their privacy during this difficult time.’
The veteran actor is best known for his breakout role in The Godfather, which also saw him nominated for best supporting actor at the Golden Globes.
His character – Sonny Corleone, a violent and reckless man who conducted many killings – met his own end in one of the most jarring movie scenes in history. On his way to another job, Corleone stops at a toll booth that he discovers is unnervingly empty of customers. Before he can escape he is cut down by a seemingly endless fusillade of machine-gun fire.
For decades after, Caan once said, strangers would approach him on the street and jokingly warn him to stay clear of toll roads.
The 1972 classic crime saga, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, also stars Al Pacino and Diane Keaton.
Caan had been a favorite of Coppola since the 1960s, when the director cast him for the lead in Rain People, which primed him for the role of Corleone.
He was primed for a featured role in ‘The Godfather’ as Sonny, the No. 1 enforcer and eldest son of Mafia boss Vito Corleone.
Caan bonded with Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall and other The Godfather cast members and made it a point to get everyone laughing during an otherwise tense production, sometimes dropping his pants and ‘mooning’ a fellow actor or crew member.
Despite Coppola’s fears he had made a flop, the 1972 release was an enormous critical and commercial success and brought supporting actor Oscar nominations for Caan, Duvall and Pacino.
James Caan attends the 2016 Summer TCA Hallmark Event on July 27, 2016, in Beverly Hills, California
Caan is best known for his breakout role as Sonny Corleone in 1972 crime film The Godfather. He is pictured with co-stars Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and John Cazale
Left: James Caan Jr and James Caan attend ‘The Godfather’ 50th Anniversary Celebration at Paramount Theatre on February 22 in LA. Right: James and Scott in 2010
Before the Godfather, 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 among the most popular and wrenching TV movies in history and Caan and co-star Billy Dee Williams, who played Piccolo’s teammate and best friend Gale Sayers, were nominated for best actor Emmys.
After Brian’s Song and The Godfather, he was one of Hollywood’s busiest actors, appearing in Hide in Plain Sight (which he also directed), Funny Lady (opposite Barbra Streisand), The Killer Elite and Neil Simon’s Chapter Two, among others.
He also made a brief appearance in a flashback sequence in The Godfather, Part II.
But by the early 1980s he began to sour on films, though Michael Mann’s 1981 neo-noir heist film Thief, in which he played a professional safecracker looking for a way out, is among his most admired films.
‘The fun of it was taken away,’ he told an interviewer in 1981. ‘I’ve done pictures where I’d rather do time. I just walked out of a picture at Paramount. I said you haven’t got enough money to make me go to work every day with a director I don’t like.’
He had begun to struggle with drug use and was devastated by the 1981 leukemia death of his sister, Barbara, who until then had been a guiding force in his career. For much of the 1980s he made no films, telling people he preferred to coach his son Scott’s Little League games.
Short on cash, Caan was hired by Coppola for the leading role in the 1987 film Gardens of Stone. The movie, about life at Arlington National Cemetery, proved too grim for most audiences, but it renewed Caan’s acting career.
He returned to full-fledged stardom opposite Kathy Bates in Misery in 1990. In the film, based on Stephen King’s novel, Caan is an author taken captive by an obsessed fan who breaks his ankles to keep him from leaving. 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 U.S. 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 can spirit her 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.
The famed actor was grateful for his career and the lasting impact his hits, such as Misery and The Godfather, had on fans.
‘Look, you only pray when you start in this business that you get to the point where people recognize you,’ he once told Cigar Aficionado magazine. ‘I’ve got a lot of people who are, like, “Hey, your ankle OK?” from Misery. Or they’ll say: “Hey, don’t go through that toll booth again” or “Have the right change?”‘
‘It means that they remember the picture. There’s nothing not to like about it. The only thing that I get a little upset about is when I’m in a restaurant and people… beckon me with their finger. I get a little sideways. I go: “No, you come here! What, am I a taxi or something?”‘
He added: ‘I hope they never stop.’
Caan is pictured with his fourth wife Linda Stokes, who in 2016 was said to be estranged and ‘blowing through savings and ruining his reputation by forcing the legendary actor to take roles instead of retire’
Caan and his ex-wife Ingrid Hajek are pictured attending the screening of ‘So I Married An Axe Murderer’ at the Galaxy Theater in Hollywood in 1993. They stayed together from 1990 until 1995
Caan is pictured with his second wife Sheila during an outing in New York City in 1970
Caan is photographed with his first wife Dee Jay Mathis at the Golden Globes in Los Angeles, California, having stayed together from 1961 to 1966
Born March 26, 1939, in New York City, Caan was the son of a kosher meat wholesaler. He was born in the Bronx but raised in a part of Queen he once referred to as ‘a neighborhood not conducive to the arts.’
He was a star athlete and class president at Rhodes High School, where he graduated at age 16 after having been kicked out by several public schools for ‘disruptive behavior.’ According to The Washington Post, Caan would joke that his teachers accelerated him ‘just to be done with him.’
He later attended Michigan State – intending to play on its praised football team – but instead wound up being a ‘tackling dummy.’
He transferred to Hofstra University but dropped out after getting kicked out of the ROTC program following a fistfight with a superior.
Caan couldn’t afford college on his own so he served in many odd jobs including as a bouncer and lifeguard. He also worked for godfather unpacking meat along the docks of the Hudson River.
Shortly thereafter, he enrolled at New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, where he studied for five years.
Following a brief stage career that saw him appear in several off-Broadway plays and included a Broadway debut in the play Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole, Caan moved to Hollywood.
He made his movie debut in a brief uncredited role in 1963 in Billy Wilder’s Irma La Douche, then landed a role as young thug who terrorizes Olivia de Havilland in Lady in a Cage.
He also appeared opposite John Wayne and Robert Mitchum in the 1966 Western El Dorado and Harrison Ford in the 1968 Western Journey to Shiloh.
Off-screen Caan and Wayne had a ‘contentious and playful relationship.’ Wayne played pranks of Caan, including once filling his dressing room with trash,
Wayne allegedly cheated during games of chess the pair would play in between takes, with Caan once telling The Guardian: ‘He was so lame. He’d say, “Hey, Jimmy, what’s that over there,” and shove the rook around while I gazed yonder like a schmuck.’