He was a Bronx native who appeared in a large number of films and television programs, but he is best known for playing the tense Sonny Corleone.
James Caan passed away on Wednesday. He had a long and successful cinematic career that spanned six decades and many different characters, but he will always be remembered for one of his early roles—the brash, womanizing Sonny Corleone from the first “Godfather” movie. He was 82.
His family posted on Twitter that he had passed away, and his manager Matt DelPiano later confirmed this. Both his boss and family declined to specify the location of his passing or provide an explanation.
Mr. Caan had already established himself as a promising young actor by the time “The Godfather” was released in 1972. He played a substantial part in the 1966 western “El Dorado,” which also starred Robert Mitchum and John Wayne. In between takes of the filming, Wayne, according to Mr. Caan, cheated at chess games.
Acting as a simple-minded former football player, he won accolades from critics in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1969 film “The Rain People,” which was their first collaboration.
He became well-known to a larger audience because of the early made-for-television film “Brian’s Song” (1971). The film, which was based on a real tale, highlighted the camaraderie between Chicago Bears’ Black football hero Gale Sayers and his white colleague Brian Piccolo.
Gale Sayers was portrayed by Billy Dee Williams. At the age of 26, Piccolo passed away from cancer, and Mr. Caan portrayed him in an unapologetically three-hanky movie with vigor and wit.
Next was the “Godfather” by Mr. Coppola. In the end, Mr. Caan portrayed Sonny, who was shot to death on a causeway after being mistakenly cast as the film’s main character, Michael Corleone, which Al Pacino finally played. He claimed that because he embraced the part so wholeheartedly, he received comments from complete strangers like, “Hey, don’t go through that tollbooth again,” for years.
Some people thought he was a genuine mafia. He told Vanity Fair in 2004: “I’ve been accused so many times. Despite not being Italian, I twice took home the title of “Italian of the Year” in New York.
Actually Jewish, his parents were German immigrants who raised him in Sunnyside, Queens. He recalled being turned down once at a country club. “Oh, sure, the guy sits in front of the board and he says, “No, no, he’s a wise guy, gone downtown. The man is successful. I asked myself, “What, are you crazy? “
Both “The Godfather” and “Brian’s Song” earned Mr. Caan nominations for the Academy Award for best-supporting actor and best actor in an Emmy for Mr. Caan’s performance. Robert Duvall, another “Godfather” actor, and Mr. Pacino were his Oscar rivals. In the end, Joel Grey’s performance in “Cabaret” won since the other two were canceled out.
Mr. Caan’s career had already gotten off to a fast start by that point. Following was a particularly productive decade. In addition, he played a self-destructive professor in “The Gambler” (1974), and anti-authority athlete in “Rollerball” (1975), a tough World War II sergeant in “A Bridge Too Far” (1977), and a not-so-smart ex-con in “Thief,” one of his favorite films.
Despite the fact that not all of his movies earned positive reviews, his acting was frequently praised due to his rugged attractive looks and clear intelligence. Vincent Canby said in his review of “Cinderella Liberty” for The New York Times: “Mr. Caan looks to be developing into the Paul Newman of the ’70s. With a low-key but recognizable public demeanor, the actor is bright and flexible.
Mr. Caan made an effort to direct, much like Paul Newman. However, he only did it once, in the 1980 film “Hide in Plain Sight,” in which he also acted as a dad looking for his children after the latter two, along with their mother, were placed in the government’s witness-protection program. He was disappointed since the movie did poorly at the box office.
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He claimed in 1981 that “everyone wants to perform Rocky 9,” “Airport 96,” and “Jaws 7.” And when you pay attention to both the past and the future, your last amount of idealism progressively fades.
Mr. Caan loved the reputation of being a man’s man when he was at his peak. He spread four-letter words around like birdseed during interviews.
His karate black belt is a sixth-degree rank. Jim Murray, a reporter, once quipped, “Jimmy Caan was not born, he was stitched.” Jimmy Caan pulled bulls on the rodeo circuit and oversaw a boxer. Rodeo, especially, left him with so many stitches and screws in his shoulders and arms.
Furthermore, Mr. Caan was known as a bad lad. The four times he was married, he also got divorced. Because, according to him, upright men stick by their friends, he testified as a character witness for an old friend from Queens who was being tried as a mobster. He has also run into legal issues on his own.
After a man died after falling from the fire escape of the Los Angeles apartment where Mr. Caan was residing in 1993, the police questioned him in depth. According to Mr. Caan, he was asleep when it happened; the investigators determined that the death was accidental.
The next year, after he displayed a loaded gun in public, the North Hollywood police detained him. The only reason, he claimed, was to stop a fight. Accusations were dropped.
His cocaine addiction started after his sister Barbara Licker passed away from leukemia in 1981, and he eventually entered a rehab facility for it. She was the president of a film production firm that James and their brother, Ronald, were also a part of, and the two of them had been close, so his loss was very painful.
For the following six years, he did little to no job and racked up a large debt. “I got into the whole lifestyle of females, drugs, and partying,” he admitted to Entertainment Weekly, adding that “you really do get caught up in it, and it’s quite damaging.”
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