Iconic Hollywood actor, James Caan, who’s best known for playing Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, has died at the age of 82, Rolling Stone is reporting. His family confirmed the news on his official Twitter account early this afternoon, but no cause of death was given.
In the tweet, the Oscar-nominated actor’s family stated: “It is with great sadness that we inform you of the passing of Jimmy on the evening of July 6. The family appreciates the outpouring of love and heartfelt condolences and asks that you continue to respect their privacy during this difficult time.”
Caan began his career starring in off-Broadway plays before he headed to Hollywood to star in movies. He launched his screen career in the 1960s, with roles in such Howard Hawks-directed films as the 1965 auto-racing drama Red Line 7000 and the hit 1966 western El Dorado. The Golden Globe-nominated actor was next cast in the 1969 drama, The Rain People, which was written and helmed by Francis Ford Coppola.
While many of his movies in the 1960s weren’t box office hits, Caan ultimately began to find success in Hollywood with the 1971 ABC television film, Brian’s Song. In the Movie of the Week, the actor portrayed terminally ill Chicago Bears football player Brian Piccolo. Caan was nominated for an Emmy Award for his role, which led to him reuniting with Coppola for The Godfather.
The actor was originally cast in Al Pacino’s role in the classic crime film. However, Caan soon took over the role of Santino “Sonny” Corleone, the eldest son of the infamous Corleone mob family. “The character is a real ballbreaker,” he told Rolling Stone in 1981. Although his character died early on in the movie, his portrayal of Sonny led to him being nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award.
After working together on The Godfather, Coppola later wanted to cast Caan as the lead in the 1979 psychological war movie, Apocalypse Now, which the filmmaker co-wrote, directed and produced. However, the duo couldn’t agree on a fee, and the role of U.S. Army Captain Benjamin Willard ultimately went to Martin Sheen.
The movie was one of dozens of roles that Caan reportedly turned down as he avoided blockbusters for more challenging work. Other hit films he choose not to star in include Kramer vs. Kramer, M*A*S*H and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
“They want me to play Sonny for the rest of my life,” Caan said. After briefly reprising the character in a one-scene cameo flashback in The Godfather Part II, he took on roles that avoided the stereotype.
The actor went on to instead play a self-destructive gambling addict in the 1974 now-cut classic crime drama, The Gambler. He also starred played a superstar athlete-turned-revolutionary in the 1974 sci-fi sports movie, Rollerball, and starred alongside Barbra Streisand in the Funny Girl sequel, Funny Lady.
However, Caan’s output slowed in the 1980s as he dealt with personal problems, addiction and burnout. But the decade did see the release of one of his most enduring and acclaimed performances – safecracker Frank – in director Michael Mann’s 1981 cult heist action thriller, Thief. Like Sonny in The Godfather, the actor turned an otherwise despicable character into a beloved antihero.
“I got so into the character, I could see people backing away from me,” Caan told Rolling Stone at the time of the drama’s release about the project’s arduous shoot. “I was like a maniac. And I had to work very hard to make Frank human, because the guy is…a killer.”
In a statement he gave to Rolling Stone today about Caan, Mann stated: “What a terrible and tragic loss. Jimmy was not just a great actor with total commitment and a venturesome spirit, but he had a vitality in the core of his being that drove everything from his art and friendship to athletics and very good times.
“There was a core of values within him about how people should be, more or less. It might be variable, the corners could be rounded with urban irony, but there was a line and it was non-fungible. And it produced many outrageous and hilarious anecdotes,” the filmmaker continued.
Mann added, “I loved him and I loved working with him. 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. Unique. What a loss.”
In the early 1990s, Caan went on to garner acclaim for his portrayal of Paul Sheldon, a bedridden author who’s tormented by his self-proclaimed biggest fan, Annie Wilkes, in the psychological thriller, Misery. The latter character was played by Kathy Bates, who won the Academy and Golden Globe Awards for Best Actress.
Rob Reiner, who directed Caan in Misery, said in a statement to Deadline today: “I was so saddened to hear about Jimmy leaving us. I loved working with him…Sending my love to his family.”
Caan went on to appeal to younger generation, and showcase his comedic acting ability, by playing the biological father of Will Ferrell’s titular character in the classic 2003 Christmas movie, Elf.
“The thing with Caan is, he’s got a great sense of humor,” the film’s director, Jon Favreau, told Rolling Stone in 2020. “So if you could make him laugh, all the tension disappears. We kept him laughing, and he kept us laughing.”
The filmmaker added, “We ended up hanging out a lot off-set. Whenever we’d go into an Italian restaurant, they’d put on The Godfather soundtrack. Everywhere he goes, The Godfather theme.”
Caan worked steadily up until the end of his life. His last movie roles include the 2018 crime drama, Out of Blue, and last year’s romantic comedy, Queen Bees. He also appeared on the 2000s comedy-drama television series, Las Vegas, and also voiced a version of himself on The Simpsons and Family Guy.