James Caan, The Godfather Actor, Dies At 82

James Caan, Who Became Famous For His Role In “The Godfather,” Has Died At Age 82.

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He was from the Bronx and was in a lot of movies and TV shows, but the character Sonny Corleone, who was a troublemaker, made him best known.

James Caan died on Wednesday. He had a long and successful film career with many different roles, but he will always be remembered most for playing the short-tempered, skirt-chasing Sonny Corleone in the first “Godfather” movie. He was 82.

His family wrote on Twitter that he had died, and his manager, Matt Delpiano, confirmed the news. His family and manager both refused to say where he died or what caused it.

By the time “The Godfather” came out in 1972, Mr. Caan had already made a name for himself as a young actor to watch. In the 1966 western “El Dorado,” with John Wayne and Robert Mitchum, he had a big part. Mr. Caan said that Wayne cheated at chess during breaks from filming.

In “The Rain People,” a movie he made with Francis Ford Coppola for the first time in 1969, he played a simple-minded former football player, which got him good reviews.

“Brian’s Song” (1971), one of the first movies made for TV, brought him to the attention of more people. It was based on a true story and was about the friendship between Gale Sayers, a black football star for the Chicago Bears who was played by Billy Dee Williams, and Brian Piccolo, a white teammate. Piccolo died of cancer at age 26 in 1970, and Mr. Caan played him with a lot of energy and humor in a film that was not afraid to make you cry.

Then Mr. Coppola made the movie “The Godfather.” At first, Mr. Caan was cast as the main character, Michael Corleone, but Al Pacino ended up playing that part. Instead, Mr. Caan played Sonny, who was quick to get angry and was killed on a causeway. He played the part so well that, he said, for years people would tell him things like, “Hey, don’t go through that tollbooth again.”

Some people even thought he was a real gangster. In 2004, he told Vanity Fair, “I’ve been blamed so many times.” “In New York, I won “Italian of the Year” twice, but I’m not Italian.”

He was raised in Sunnyside, Queens, by parents who were born in Germany. He was a Jew. “Once, I have turned away from a country club,” he said. “Oh, yeah, the guy sat in front of the board, and he said, ‘No, no, he’s a wise guy who’s been downtown. He’s a made guy.’ I thought, “What are you thinking? Are you crazy?”

Mr. Caan was nominated for an Emmy for “Brian’s Song” as the best actor and for an Academy Award for “The Godfather” as the best supporting actor. Robert Duvall, another “Godfather” actor, and Al Pacino were also up for the Oscar. Joel Grey’s “Cabaret” won the award because none of the three could beat it.

By that time, Mr. Caan’s career was really taking off. The decade that followed was especially fertile. Among his roles were a love-struck sailor in “Cinderella Liberty” (1973), a self-destructive professor in “The Gambler” (1974), an anti-authority athlete in “Rollerball” (1975), a fierce World War II sergeant in “A Bridge Too Far” (1977) and a not-too-bright ex-con in “Thief” (1981), a favourite movie of his.

Not all his films received favourable notices, but with his rugged good looks and obvious smarts, his acting usually did. Reviewing “Cinderella Liberty” for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote: “Mr. Caan seems to be shaping up as the Paul Newman of the nineteen-seventies. An intelligent, versatile actor with a low-key but unmistakable public personality.”

Mr. Caan also tried his hand at directing, just like Paul Newman. But he only did it once, for the 1980 movie “Hide in Plain Sight,” in which he also acted and played a father looking for his kids after they and their mother were put into a government programme to protect witnesses. The movie didn’t do well at the box office, which made him sad.

In 1981, he said, “Everyone wants to do “Rocky 9,” “Airport 96,” and “Jaws 7.” “You look and listen, and the little bit of idealism you still have slowly fades away.”

In his prime, Mr. Caan was known as a man’s man, which he liked. In interviews, he strewed four-letter words like birdseed. He got a black belt in karate up to the sixth level. He roped steers on the rodeo circuit and managed a boxer. The rodeo left him with so many stitches and screws in his shoulders and arms that sportswriter Jim Murray once said, “Jimmy Caan wasn’t born, he was embroidered.”

Mr. Caan was also known as a bad boy. He had four marriages and four divorces. He testified as a character witness for an old friend from Queens who was on trial for being in the mob. He did this because, as he put it, good guys stick by their friends. And he had some trouble with the law himself.

In 1993, when a man died after falling from the fire escape of a Los Angeles apartment where Mr. Caan was staying, the police questioned him for a long time. The police said the death was an accident, and Mr. Caan said he was asleep when it happened.

The police in North Hollywood arrested him the next year after he showed a loaded gun in public. He said that he had only done it to stop a fight. Charges against him were dropped.

Along the way, he went to a treatment centre for his cocaine addiction, which started when his sister Barbara Licker died of leukaemia in 1981. She was president of a movie production company where James and his brother, Ronald, worked, so they were close. Her death hurt him a lot.

He didn’t work much over the next six years, and he ended up with a lot of debt. He told Entertainment Weekly, “I got into the whole lifestyle of girls, drugs, and parties.” He also said, “You really do get caught up in it, and it’s very destructive.”

But he came back, starting with “Gardens of Stone,” a drama about the Vietnam War that he made with Mr. Coppola in 1987. In that movie, he played a tough sergeant. Then, he played a writer who was held captive by a crazy fan (played by Kathy Bates) in “Misery” (1990), which was a big hit at the box office and was based on a Stephen King novel. He also played a tough but romantic mobster in “Honeymoon in Vegas” (1992), another mobster in the comedy “Mickey Blue Eyes” (1999), and a grumpy book editor in “Elf” (2003).

He also became a TV star, especially on the show “Las Vegas,” where he played the president of operations and security chief for a casino from 2003 to 2007. Still, even though he worked hard, his later years didn’t shine like they did in the beginning.

James Caan
James Caan

James Edmund Caan was born on March 26, 1940, in the Bronx. He grew up in Queens. His father, Arthur Caan, was a wholesaler of kosher meat, and his mother, Sophie (Falkenstein) Caan, was a housewife.

He was more interested in life on the street than in school. He quit a few schools before settling at Rhodes Preparatory School in Manhattan, where he stayed until he graduated at age 16 in 1956.

At Michigan State, he tried out for the football team but didn’t make it. He went to Hofstra University on Long Island, where Mr. Coppola was also a student, but he didn’t stay there for long. Still, it was there that he became interested in acting. He then went to the well-known Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater in Manhattan and studied there for five years.

During this time, he met Dee Jay Mathis, an actress who would become the first of his four wives (the lengths of his marriages ranged from 12 years to barely a year). Ronald, his brother, and his five children, actor Scott Caan, Tara, Alexander, James, and Jacob Caan, as well as four grandchildren, will carry on after him.

In the 1960s, Mr. Caan played parts in TV shows like “Route 66,” “Dr. Kildare,” and “Wagon Train.” “The Godfather” was the most popular movie at the time.

He said that some of his lines and actions in that movie were made up on the spot, as were two words that he didn’t make up but helped become common.

Michael asks Sonny how hard it will be to kill the family’s enemies, and Sonny tells him: “You have to stand up this way, and when you do, they’ll blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit.”

“Bada bing? Bada boom? “Didn’t I say that?” Vanity Fair talked to Mr. Caan about what he had to say. “Or did I just say bada bing? It just popped into my head. I don’t know where it came from.”

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