By Terrance Turner
July 7, 2022
Legendary actor James Caan has died at 82.
The actor’s family announced the news today in a statement that concludes with Caan’s signature sign-off. “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. End of tweet.”
James Edmund Caan was born on March 26, 1940, in the Bronx, New York, and raised by working-class German Jewish immigrant parents. (His father was a meat butcher.) He was tossed out of multiple high schools by age 14 but was later elected class president at a private high school. At 16, he enrolled at Michigan State University, where he played college football and took classes in economics. Homesick, he then left to study at Hofstra University , where he met future film director Francis Ford Coppola.
A small project at a local children’s theater changed the course of Caan’s life. Intrigued by acting, he interviewed for, was accepted to, and then graduated from New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater. “I just fell in love with acting,” he later recalled in an interview with the New York Times.
Caan began appearing in off-Broadway plays before making his Broadway debut in Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole (1961). He then made a string of appearances in television shows like “Route 66” and “The Untouchables”. His first film was an uncredited role in Irma la Douce (1963), but his first substantial role was as a young hoodlum in Lady in a Cage (1964), which starred Olivia de Havilland. He won praise for his portrayal of a brain-damaged football player in The Rain People (1969), directed by Coppola. And one of Caan’s biggest roles to date involved football as well.
Caan starred opposite Billy Dee Williams in a TV movie called Brian’s Song (1971), inspired by a true story about the real-life friendship between Chicago Bears players Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo. Sayers and Piccolo played running back and halfback, respectively, for the Bears in the late 1960s. They became friends — and the first interracial roommates in the history of the National Football League.
Piccolo died at 26 in 1970 from testicular cancer that spread to other organs, including his liver. Just the day before, Sayers had accepted the George Halas Trophy for Courage and told the crowd that he felt the award should go to Piccolo instead for his courageous fight against cancer. That speech was later recreated in the film.
Brian’s Song was critically acclaimed and became the highest-rated TV movie of the year (it briefly became the most-watched television movie ever). Critics lauded the film as one of the most moving of its kind. “‘Brian’s Song’ can melt the hearts of the coldest, most emotionally stunted men in the universe, leaving them sobbing,” wrote a critic from Film Threat. Both Caan and Williams were nominated for best actor Emmys, and “Brian’s Song” won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Special.
Then Caan took what may be his defining role: that of the hot-headed gangster Sonny Corleone in The Godfather (1972). As the No. 1 enforcer and eldest son of Mafia boss Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), Sonny conducts ruthless killings and even beats up his own brother-in-law while Vito trains youngest son Michael (Al Pacino) to take over the family business. Caan was originally supposed to play Michael but wound up cast as Sonny. (Both Caan and director Francis Ford Coppola fought for Pacino to play Michael).
Caan made his mark amid a star-studded production. He later said that in a famous scene where Sonny interrupts Vito while in a meeting with Sollozzo, he improvised the dialogue. While filming the scene, Caan said, he began to recall characteristics of his “say-anything, do-anything” friend, comedian Don Rickles.
Maggie von Ostrand, from Film School Rejects, wrote that Caan nailed the scene with a “rapid-fire, Don-Rickles-meets-the-mob bravado that elevated his character to a whole new level.” Then, after Michael says he wants to kill rival mobster Sollozzo and corrupt-cop McClusky, Sonny mocks him: “What do you think this is, the Army, where you shoot ‘em a mile away? You gotta get up close, like this – and bada-bing! You blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit.”
Caan later admitted that the line was totally improvised: “It just came out of my mouth – I don’t know from where.” That line became one of the film’s most famous, and it even inspired the name of a fictitious mob hangout on the Mafia-themed HBO drama “The Sopranos”.
It would be one of Caan’s most memorable roles, in what is arguably his most memorable film: The Godfather is now hailed as one of the greatest films of all time, and it was a blockbuster at the time of release, becoming the highest-grossing film of 1972. It wound up winning Best Picture at the Oscars; Caan was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Almost as memorable as the roles Caan played, however, were the roles he turned down. He rejected leading roles in films such as The French Connection, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Apocalypse Now — films that earned Best Actor Academy Awards for actors like Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman. Caan also turned down Superman (!). Instead, he chose more offbeat fare like Cinderella Liberty (1973), in which he played a soldier who falls in love with a prostitute and takes care of her mixed-race son. (He acted opposite Marsha Mason, who earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her performance.) He also starred alongside Barbra Streisand in Funny Lady (1975), in which he played composer Billy Rose.
He reunited with Mason in a film adaptation of Neil Simon’s play Chapter Two (1979). Though Caan later admitted he had only done the movie for the money, the romantic comedy was successful at the box office, and Mason was again nominated for Best Actress. But as the 1970s ended and the 1980s began, Caan grew more and more dissatisfied with his work — and more unmoored in his personal life. By 1982, things had spun out of control. Devastated by the loss of his sister and dealing with a spiraling cocaine addiction, Cann did not act in any films between 1982 and 1987. He told Cigar Aficionado:
“I went through some bad times, some very self-destructive stuff, you know, when I was on top. I’d got involved in partying and doing all that and I lost my sister and, basically, I got all screwed up in my head. She was like my best friend and I lost her to leukemia and I was just a mess. I had a lot of money because I’d worked a lot and saved it. I had it in a pension plan and then I lost all my money. My accountant. I just woke up one morning and I didn’t have a dime. We’re talking about tons…I mean, a lot of money, and I was flat broke.”
Things got worse. He wound up losing his home, and the Internal Revenue Service informed him that he owed hundreds of thousands of dollars. Caan felt he’d lost the passion to work and wanted simply to check out of life for a while. He spent time coaching a youth baseball team, on which his son Scott played. Later, when he realized how his addiction was affecting his son, Caan felt compelled to stop:
“I thought I was fooling my son. I was so stupid,” Caan said. “I mean, you’re never consciously hurting people, but when you look back, you go, ‘Oh my God.’ I didn’t think he knew what was going on, you know; you think that kids aren’t bright enough. But that’s what woke me up, pretty much. Scott went after some guy — Scott was 15, 16 — with a baseball bat. He was going to kill him. A dope dealer. My son!” he remembered. “That was like the rude awakening. It was over.” Friends interceded and offered help, including an old-time friend from New York, Andrew Russo. That helped lead to a career resurgence in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
This story will be updated.