James Caan, the American actor renowned for his role as Sonny Corleone in the mafia epic The Godfather, as well as a string of key films in the 1970s, has died aged 82.
The news was released by his Twitter account on Thursday. a statement read:
“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.”
Notorious for a hell-raising party lifestyle, Caan cut a swathe through Hollywood in the 1970s and early 80s, before abruptly quitting acting and for what the actor described a “pretty scary period” disappearing from public view, before engineering a comeback in the late 1980s, winning acclaim for films such as Misery, The Yards and Elf.
Caan was born in 1940 in the Bronx, New York City, the son of a kosher butcher. Keen not to follow his father into the meat trade, Caan initially aimed for a career as a football player, but got interested in acting after studying at Hofstra University in New York state – where he met future collaborator Francis Ford Coppola. Caan then joined the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater; his first significant acting credit was a small role in the 1961 Broadway production of Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole, a second world war play by William Goldman and his brother James.
After a string of minor film and TV appearances, Caan achieved leading man status in 1965 in Howard Hawks’ stock car racing drama Red Line 7000, following it up with a role alongside John Wayne and Robert Mitchum in Hawks’ 1966 western El Dorado. Caan was cast by a then-little-regarded Robert Altman in the 1967 space movie Countdown, but his first significant association with the Hollywood new wave came with the 1969 movie The Rain People, directed by Coppola, in which Caan played a hitchhiking former college football star who is picked up by Shirley Knight’s dissatisfied middle class housewife.
After playing the lead in a disappointing 1970 adaptation of John Updike’s novel Caan Rabbit, Run, achieved a major breakthrough with Coppola’s The Godfather. Caan originally audited for the role of Michael Corleone that eventually went to Al Pacino, and was favored by the studio executives, but after Coppola insisted on Pacino, Caan was given another plum role, Corleone’s older brother Sonny. Caan received his only Oscar nomination, for best supporting actor, for the film, and his work remains notable for Sonny’s gruesome death scene, for which Caan said he was fitted with over 140 “squibs”, or explosive blood pellets, to simulate gunshot wounds .
Caan then went on to star in string of high-profile films in the 1970s that bracketed him firmly in the new generation of American acting talent, including The Gambler (directed by Karel Reisz), buddy cop comedy Freebie and the Bean alongside Alan Arkin, and dystopian sci-fi parable Rollerball. He also appeared in more traditional vehicles, such as the Barbra Streisand musical Funny Lady and the second world war epic A Bridge Too Far. Caan also became famous for the roles he turned down, including One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Apocalypse Now, and Kramer Vs Kramer
Thief, released in 1981 and directed by Michael Mann, in which Caan played a safecracker who takes on the mob, boded well for his ability to reinvent himself for the new decade, but Caan’s career would swiftly derail. Affected by the death of his sister as well as his copious drug use, Caan’s career imploded after he walked out of the Robert Ludlum thriller The Holcroft Covenant (he was replaced by Michael Caine). Caan would not appear in another Hollywood movie until 1987, when Coppola cast him in his Vietnam war drama Gardens of Stone. He followed it up with the popular Alien Nation but fully re-established himself with the Stephen King adaptation Misery, directed by Rob Reiner, in which Caan played the bedbound author subject to the attentions of obsessive nurse/fan Kathy Bates.
Caan worked steadily thereafter, often trading on his abrasive manner and hard-living reputation. He appearing in comedies, such as Honeymoon in Vegas, Bulletproof and Mickey Blue Eyes, Hollywood thrillers, such as Flesh and Bone, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead and Eraser, and occasional prestige dramas, including The Yards, a sprawling crime epic directed by James Gray, and Lars von Trier’s Brechtian parable Dogville. Caan also had a role in the successful animation Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and in the fondly-remembered Christmas comedy Elf, as Will Ferrell’s businessman father. In 2018 he appeared in Carol Morley’s Martin Amis adaptation Out of Blue, as the father of murder victim Jennifer Rockwell.
Caan was married four times: between 1961 and 1966 to Dee Jay Mathis, to Sheila Marie Ryan from 1975-76, to Ingrid Hajek from 1990-94, and to Linda Stokes from 1995 to 2017. He had five children, one of whom, Scott, followed him into acting, appearing in Gone in 60 Seconds, Ocean’s Eleven and the Hawaii Five-0 reboot.
Tributes have started to arrive from social media, including Rob Reiner, who directed Caan in Misery. “So sorry to hear the news,” he tweeted. “I loved working with him. And the only Jew I knew who could calf rope with the best of them. Love to the family.”
Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn also tweeted: “Rest In Peace James Caan. There are so many movies of his I love ”along with a collection of posters.