James Caan – 1940-2022: a top-tier talent whose greatest roles echoed his own life

Best-known as Sonny Corleone in 'The Godfather', the late actor's mob connections didn't stop there

Many actors who rise to prominence through celebrated gangster films struggle to escape the genre. James Caan, who died yesterday (July 7) aged 82, wasn’t one of them. Though nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather in 1972, and reprising the role in the 1974 sequel, Caan’s craggy vulnerability on screen saw him swiftly expand his repertoire, taking on gamblers, cowboys and futuristic death-sports stars. Fighting for his life in movies such as Rollerball (1975) and Misery (1990) made him the timeless face of the helpless victim-hero, yet this relatable all-rounder was just as comfortable voicing a widowed father in Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs or playing Buddy’s dismissive dad in Elf.

Born in New York City on March 26, 1940, Caan first became interested in acting while studying at Hofstra University alongside The Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola. He went on to attend NYC’s Neighbourhood Playhouse School Of Theatre for five years and performed in on- and off-Broadway productions such as La Ronde and Blood, Sweat And Stanley Poole. TV work on shows such as Naked City, The Untouchables and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour followed, and he landed his first substantial film role as a hoodlum in 1964 thriller Lady In A Cage. Though he turned down starring roles on TV claiming “I want to be an actor, not a millionaire”, he was soon being cast as the lead in a wide variety of ‘60s films: stock car drama Red Line 7000 (1965), Robert Altman’s Countdown (1968), British war film Submarine X-1 (1968) and a western, Journey To Shiloh (1968). He found much acclaim playing brain-damaged or dying football players, first in Coppola’s 1969 drama The Rain People and later in celebrated 1971 TV movie Brian’s Song.

James Caan
James Caan with (L-R) Al Pacino, Marlon Brando and John Cazale on the set of ‘The Godfather’. CREDIT: Getty

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Caan was a key component in the casting of The Godfather, originally slated to play Michael Corleone until both he and Coppola insisted that the part go to Al Pacino so that Caan could play Sonny instead (ousting another actor from that role). Caan would earn some mob connections of his own while playing the mafia don’s short-tempered eldest son. During filming, he spent time with Carmine Persico, later head of New York’s Colombo crime family – and another Colombo boss Andrew Russo would become the actual godfather to Caan’s son Scott.

Following the success of The Godfather Caan branched out, taking on lead roles in crime drama The Gambler (1974) as well as lighter dramas and comedies including Slither (1973), Cinderella Liberty (1973) and Freebie And The Bean (1974). Box office hits with Funny Lady (opposite Barbra Streisand), Rollerball and Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite in 1975 made him a versatile star much in demand – over the coming years he turned down huge roles in M*A*S*H, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Blade Runner, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Apocalypse Now and Superman (“I didn’t want to wear the cape,” he said). He did, however, gain cult acclaim for his role as a safe-cracker in Michael Mann’s 1981 flop Thief. Acting in movies such as A Bridge Too Far (1977) and Chapter Two (1979) during this peak period was, he claimed, a way to raise money for his 1978 directorial debut Hide In Plain Sight, a critical but not a commercial hit which was also his last behind the camera.

Following a dispiriting experience filming comedy flop Kiss Me Goodbye, wracked with depression over his sister’s death from leukaemia and battling cocaine addiction, Caan entered a five-year hiatus in 1982 citing “Hollywood burnout”; in 1985 he even walked out of filming The Holcroft Covenant midway through due to disagreements with the producers, and was replaced by Michael Caine. During this time he coached children’s sports and suffered a car crash.

“Flat-ass broke” by 1987, Caan returned to movies in Coppola’s Gardens Of Stone and soon earned acclaim and success with Alien Nation (1988) and his role as bed-bound writer Paul Sheldon in the Stephen King adaptation Misery in 1990. He soon settled into a less starry firmament for the rest of his career, making supporting appearances in some notable films – 2003’s Dogville and Elf; Mickey Blue Eyes alongside Hugh Grant; Wes Anderson’s 1996 debut Bottle Rocket – and many lesser-watched projects. In his later years he mixed TV work – appearing in the rebooted Hawaii Five-0 and sitcom Back In The Game – with increasingly sporadic movies. There was a three-year gap between 2018’s Out Of Blue and 2021’s Queen Bees.

A martial artist, rodeo rider and Trump supporter who was arrested in 1994 for allegedly brandishing a gun in a confrontation with a rap artist in LA, Caan was a complex character capable of bringing a vast array of emotion to his work and, operating across the spectrum of TV and film, he seemed a near permanent presence on our screens, and will leave them all the poorer by his absence.

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