Actor James Caan, Oscar-nominated as Sonny Corleone in 'The Godfather,' dies at 82

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James Caan, the actor known for his Oscar-nominated turn as Sonny Corleone in 1972’s "The Godfather," along with a host of other tough-guy roles starting in the 1960s, died Wednesday. He was 82.

"It is with great sadness that we inform you of the passing of Jimmy on the evening of July 6," Caan's account tweeted Thursday.

The actor's publicist confirmed his death, saying in a statement to The Times, "Mr. Caan’s family appreciates the outpouring of condolences from his friends and fans from around the world, and respectfully request privacy in this time of great mourning. No further details will be released at this time."

As an actor, Caan wasn't always as tough as many people thought he was onscreen. Apart from his role as Corleone, he sang and danced in 1982’s “Kiss Me Goodbye" and in 1975’s “Funny Lady,” where he played Billy Rose to Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice and wound up nominated for a Golden Globe. As an author in 1990's "Misery,” he found himself at the mercy of Kathy Bates' obsessed fan Annie Wilkes.

And sure, he was on Santa's Naughty List as Walter in 2003's "Elf," but Will Ferrell's giddy character, Buddy, (Walter's long-lost son) eventually fixed that.

James Edmund Caan was born to German immigrants Sophie and Arthur Caan on March 26, 1940, in the Bronx, New York.

He grew up in the Queens neighborhood of Sunnyside with sister Barbara and brother Ronnie, all children of a kosher Jewish butcher who fled Nazi Germany. Caan told The Times in 2004 that his father was a never-cry-in-public sort who "would have broke my nose" if his son didn't show up for friends when they needed him. Meanwhile, Caan's mom sent him to summer camp in the Poconos, where he learned to box.

Later, he would distinguish himself as the captain of his high school basketball team, but he said he picked up survival lessons on the neighborhood's blacktops, where kids would crowd in to play three-on-three and would keep the court only when they won.

“You learn who to push, you learn who not to push ... and you develop the sixth sense, so to speak...,' Caan said. "I can shake hands with somebody to this day, you know, ‘How do you do?,’ and know somehow instinctively that this is not going to be a great friend of mine.”

Caan attended Michigan State University for two years before transferring to Hofstra University on Long Island. He didn't graduate. Instead, he turned to acting, winning roles in the 1960s in TV shows including "Dr. Kildare," "Ben Casey," "Death Valley Days" and "The Untouchables." Caan's first credited movie role was co-starring with Olivia de Havilland in the 1964 thriller "Lady in a Cage."

As hot-tempered Sonny in the first two "Godfather" pictures and as Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo in the 1971 television biopic "Brian's Song," Caan established himself as a top acting talent.

On Thursday, his "Godfather" family stepped up to remember the actor.

"Jimmy was someone who stretched through my life longer and closer than any motion picture figure I’ve ever known," director Francis Ford Coppola said in a statement. "From those earlier times working together on 'The Rain People' and throughout all the milestones of my life, his films and the many great roles he played will never be forgotten. He will always be my old friend from Sunnyside, my collaborator and one of the funniest people I’ve ever known.”

A man in a uniform, talks to a man in a tuxedo in a scene from the film "The Godfather."
Al Pacino, left, and James Caan have a conversation in a scene from the 1972 film "The Godfather." (Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

“Jimmy was my fictional brother and my lifelong friend," his co-star Al Pacino, who played Michael Corleone in the "Godfather" movies, said in a statement Thursday. "It’s hard to believe that he won’t be in the world anymore because he was so alive and daring. A great actor, a brilliant director and my dear friend. I loved him, I’m gonna miss him.”

Robert De Niro, who played a young Vito Corleone in the second of those mafia movies, said in a statement Thursday that he was "very very sad to hear about Jimmy’s passing."

And Talia Shire, who played Sonny's sister, Connie, said in a statement: “James was a good man, a kind man, a family man, and a wildly gifted man — whose great talent will always be loved and remembered. My prayers are with his family that he treasured so dearly.”

Caan's turn in Coppola's 1972 classic also cemented him as a Hollywood wise guy in many casting directors' eyes.

“I just lost a couple of movies,” the actor told The Times in 2011. “They said we don’t want a tough guy. I said excuse me, I am an actor. That is what I do for a living. You know it’s frustrating. I said to my agent, if I am the last guy on the list they could possibly think for a particular role, those are the ones I want to go after. That’s the fun.“

And he would go on to play all sorts of roles, but his personal life, and his career, had significant ups and downs. The downs included a "self-destructive period" in the 1980s and early ’90s — highlights of which Caan shared with The Times in 2004.

There were the years partying on coke and Quaaludes, he said; the pattern of his four marriages and five children, “pregnant-married, pregnant-married, pregnant-married ...”; the years, after the 1981 death of his sister from leukemia, when he quit making films for a while to become this “mad coach,” teaching baseball and other sports to boys, including his oldest son, Scott, who would also become an actor.

The last movie Caan did before that acting break was Michael Mann’s 1981 directorial debut, “Thief.”

“I loved him and I loved working with him,” Mann said in a statement Thursday. “He reached into the core of his being during difficult personal times to be the rebellious, half wild child, institutionalized outsider Frank, in my first film, ‘Thief.’ Frank is half Frank, half Jimmy. The character and the man — like his Sonny in ‘The Godfather’ — were made for each other.”

Too often, Caan said, he found himself at the wrong place at the wrong time, whether it was the Wilshire Boulevard apartment where in 1993 a wannabe actor fell from the balcony to his death or in North Hollywood in 1994 when he pulled a gun on a rapper and was arrested, then released.

“Just destructive, stupid stuff,” said the actor, who apparently had a concealed-carry permit back then.

Caan credited Rob Reiner's Castle Rock production company with helping to rescue him from that void. "Alan Horn, Rob Reiner, those guys at Castle Rock were really great to me," he said. Reiner cast him in "Misery," an adaptation of Stephen King's novel, as the bestselling writer taken prisoner by Bates. Then he played the shady, cigar-smoking gambler in Andrew Bergman's 1992 comedy "Honeymoon in Vegas."

"So sorry to hear the news," Reiner tweeted Thursday. "I loved working with him. And the only Jew I knew who could calf rope with the best of them."

Caan also teamed with Bette Midler to play a duo that entertained U.S. troops through World War II, the Korean War and, ultimately, Vietnam in 1991's "For the Boys," a movie that was not a favorite of then-Times film critic Kenneth Turan.

Caan popped up in director Wes Anderson's breakout 1996 film, "Bottle Rocket," and acted with funnymen Damon Wayans and Adam Sandler in the comedy "Bulletproof" that same year.

"James Caan. Loved him very much. Always wanted to be like him," Sandler tweeted Thursday. "So happy I got to know him. Never ever stopped laughing when I was around that man. His movies were best of the best. We all will miss him terribly."

That old Sin City vibe would rear its head again, as Caan took on the role of a casino security chief in the NBC series "Las Vegas" from 2003 to 2007. Then, he voiced a role in the animated 2009 movie "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs," written, produced and directed by "The Lego Movie" writer Christopher Miller.

"He brought a pathos and authenticity to the role of Tim Lockwood that held the film together. RIP to a legend," Miller tweeted Thursday. "Once he said a line in his low gravelly voice & we said 'try one with a little more projection, you and Flint will be outside on opposite ends of the backyard' So he said 'Flint c’mere I don’t wanna yell' and then the rest of the line at the same volume. Absolute king."

In 2009, Caan appeared in the movie "Mercy" with his son, "Hawaii Five-0" actor Scott Caan, who also wrote the screenplay. The two played father and son.

"I had two scenes in it. It’s different if you have a whole project and you can develop it," James Caan told The Times in 2010. " The budget was what it was. And I was more nervous. You don’t want to fail for your kid. United Artists or Warner Bros. or Coppola, I can mess up. I don’t want to do it, but for your kid, that’s the worst thing."

"He was great," his son added.

Later films included "Undercover Grandpa" in 2017 and "Queen Bees" with Ellen Burstyn, Jane Curtin, Loretta Devine, Ann-Margret and Christopher Lloyd in 2021. At the time of his death, Caan still had a film in post-production and two roles that had been announced, according to the website IMDb.

"He has an incredible sense of comedy, which I appreciated," Malcolm Venville, Caan's director on the 2010 film "Henry's Crime," told The Times in 2011, further belying that tough-guy myth. "He elevated the scenes and the script and that’s what you look for in an actor. What I am really grateful to Jimmy for is that he never gives you the same take twice.”

The actor is survived by his children, sons Scott, Alexander, James and Jacob Caan and daughter Tara A. Caan.

Times staff writer Nardine Saad contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.