James Caan, the curly-haired tough guy known to movie fans as the hotheaded Sonny Corleone of “The Godfather” and to television audiences as both the dying football player in the classic weeper “Brian’s Song” and the casino boss in “Las Vegas,” has died. He was 82.
Matt DelPiano, his manager said that he had died Wednesday. The cause of his death was not given.
“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,” 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.”
Learn More This is the True Story Behind This is the OfferThe Making of – A Series The Godfather
A football player at Michigan State University and a practical joker on production sets, Caan was a grinning, handsome performer with an athlete’s swagger and muscular build. Caan managed to have a successful career, despite his drug addictions, temper tantrums and occasional encounters with the law.
Caan had been a favorite of Francis Ford Coppola since the 1960s, when Coppola cast him for the lead in “Rain People.” He was primed for a featured role in “The Godfather” as Sonny, the No. Caan is the Mafia’s enforcer, and the eldest child of Vito Corleone.
Sonny Corleone was a reckless and violent man who committed many murders. He died in the most shocking movie scene in film history. He once stated that strangers approached him in the streets and warned him not to use toll roads for decades.
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 Al 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.
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.”
He began to lose interest in films by the 1980s. After struggling with drug addiction, he was devastated when Barbara, his sister, died from leukemia in 1981. Barbara had been his guiding force throughout his career.
He returned to full-fledged stardom opposite Kathy Bates in “Misery” in 1990.
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.”
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.”
Caan, who was divorced and married four times, had a daughter Tara as well as sons Scott Alexander, James, Jacob.
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