James Caan, best remembered for his portrayal of the mercurial “Sonny Corleone” in 1972’s The Godfather has passed away. He was 82. His publicist confirmed his passing and said no further details would be forthcoming.
He was born in the Bronx in 1940. He spent two years attending Michigan State and then transferred to Hofstra University. It was at Hofstra he would meet someone who was influential in changing the arc of his acting career. Francis Ford Coppola attended Hofstra at the same time.
He started out on Broadway and then moved to television. His first appearance on the big screen was an uncredited turn in 1963’s Irma La Douce. His next movie, Lady in a Cage had him playing a thug who terrorizes Olivia de Havilland’s character when she is trapped in an elevator in her mansion.
After more motion pictures, including Westerns El Dorado and Journey to Shiloh, did a highly praised guest role on The F.B.I. He also did two episodes of Get Smart, as a favor to its star Don Adams. In the clip below you can also see a very young Don Rickles.
1971 found him with the lead role in a made for TV movie, Brian’s Song. Caan portrayed Brian Piccolo, a dying football player. He played opposite Billy Dee Williams who played the legendary running back Gayle Sayer. Many used this movie and the demonstration of the real-life friendship between the two as a demonstration of racial harmony. In his autobiography My American Journey, the late Colin Powell described how his commanding general at a base in South Korea did just that. General Henry “Gunfighter” Emerson directed that Brian’s Song be played in the post theater and after each showing there would be a discussion of the relationship between the two friends.
The following year is when James Cann earned his Oscar nomination playing gotopposite the late Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall and Al Pacino in The Godfather. I was then a 13-year-old who had read the novel before seeing the movie. This was the first time I saw actors bring life to the characters in a novel where their portrayals were exactly what the author had written.
The films that followed allowed Caan to demonstrate his range as an actor. Cinderella Liberty, Freebie and the Bean and The Gambler were solid performances. In 1975 Caan starred opposite Barbra Streisand and Omar Sharif in Funny Lady.
1976’s Rollerball got mixed reviews from the critics although Caan’s turn as “Jonathan” was hailed. The 1970s was a time when Cann turned down a number of movies that went on to great success. The list includes M*A*S*H, The French Connection, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kramer vs Kramer and Apocalypse Now.
1981 found him playing the lead in Michael Mann’s directorial debut, Thief. That was followed by Kiss Me Goodbye. The film tanked at the box office and Caan took a five-year break from making movies. He would return in another Francis Ford Coppola picture, Gardens of Stone. The film’s cast included James Earl Jones, Anjelica Huston, D.B. Sweeney and Mary Stuart Masterson. The underrated film was marked by tragedy as Coppola’s eldest son Gian-Carlo Coppola being killed in a speedboating accident.
1990 found director Rob Reiner having difficulty finding someone to play the male lead in the adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery. The film was a hit both commercially and critically and Kathy Bates earned an Oscar for Best Actress for it. Up next was playing a gangster in Honeymoon in Vegas and a crooked governm Poent official in Eraser. 1999 found Caan again playing a gangster in the comedy Mickey Blue Eyes with Hugh Grant, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Burt Young.
Elf in 2003 had Caan working alongside Will Farrell, Mary Steenburgen, Ed Asner and Bob Newhart. His performance as the estranged father was very well received. Then it was time for a return to television and the Las Vegas strip. Playing “Ed Deline” who was both president of operations and head of security at a fictional hotel/casino known as The Montecito, Las Vegas featured drama and comedy all rolled into one.
After four successful seasons, Caan announced he would not be back for season 5 as he was going back to movies. 2008 found him playing the president of the United States in Get Smart.
Caan was working right up until his passing. In addition to his Oscar nomination, he was also nominated for four Golden Globes and one Emmy. RIP