James Caan, the curly-haired tough guy known to movie fans as the hotheaded Sonny Corleone of “The Godfather” and to television audiences as both the dying football player in the classic weeper “Brian’s Song” and the casino boss in “Las Vegas,” has died. He was 82.
His manager Matt DelPiano said he died on Wednesday. No cause was given.
Bronx-born Caan was the child of Jewish immigrants from Germany — Sophie Falkenstein and Arthur Caan, a kosher butcher. He was raised in Sunnyside, Queens, where he said he developed some of his tough guy mojo.
He played football for two years at Michigan State University, where he was a member of the Jewish Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity. He transferred to Hofstra University on Long Island, where he became friends with fellow undergraduate Francis Ford Coppola.
“Jimmy was one of the greatest. Not only was he one of the best actors our business has ever seen, he was funny, loyal, caring and beloved,” DelPiano said. “Our relationship was always friendship before business. I will miss him dearly and am proud to have worked with him all these years.”
Caan was a grinning, handsome performer with an athlete’s swagger and muscular build. He managed a long career despite drug problems, outbursts of temper and minor brushes with the law.
Caan had been a favorite of Coppola since the 1960s, when the director cast him for the lead in “Rain People.” He was primed for a featured role in “The Godfather” as Sonny, the No. 1 enforcer and eldest son of Mafia boss Vito Corleone.
Sonny Corleone, a violent and reckless man who conducted many killings, met his own end in one of the most jarring movie scenes in history. For decades after, he once said, strangers would approach him on the street and jokingly warn him to stay clear of toll roads.
Despite Coppola’s fears he had made a flop, the 1972 release was an enormous critical and commercial success and brought supporting actor Oscar nominations for Caan, Robert Duvall and Al Pacino.
“They called me a wiseguy,” he said later. “I won Italian of the Year twice in New York, and I’m Jewish, not Italian… I was denied in a country club once.”
Caan was already a star on television, breaking through in the 1971 TV movie “Brian’s Song,” an emotional drama about Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo, who had died of cancer the year before at age 26.
Caan, who played a cowboy in 1967’s “El Dorado,” told an interviewer in 2008 that he’d “rodeoed professionally for nine years. As a matter of fact, I started in Las Vegas. All the cowboys used to come there. [Entrepreneur] Steve Wynn used to come around on his little paint horse at the roping arena. To this day he still introduces me as ‘The Best Jewish Cowboy‘ he’s ever met.”
After “Brian’s Song” and “The Godfather,” he was one of Hollywood’s busiest actors, appearing in “Hide in Plain Sight” (which he also directed), “Funny Lady” (opposite Barbra Streisand), “The Killer Elite” and Neil Simon’s “Chapter Two,” among others. He also made a brief appearance in a flashback sequence in “The Godfather: Part II.”
But by the early 1980s, he began to sour on films. He had begun to struggle with drug use and was devastated by the 1981 leukemia death of his sister, Barbara, who until then had been a guiding force in his career.
He returned to full-fledged stardom opposite Kathy Bates in “Misery” in 1990.
Once again in demand, Caan starred in “For the Boys” with Bette Midler in 1991 as part of a song-and-dance team entertaining US soldiers during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. The following year he played a tongue-in-cheek version of Sonny Corleone in the comedy “Honeymoon in Vegas.”
Other later films included “Flesh and Bone,” “Bottle Rocket” and “Mickey Blue Eyes.” He introduced himself to a new generation by playing Walter, the workaholic, stone-faced father of Buddy’s Will Ferrell in “Elf.”
On a 2016 visit to Israel, Caan toured Jewish settlements in the West Bank and urged Israel not to return to its pre-1967 lines. “The European and American demands to return to the 1967 borders — aren’t sensible, and I object strongly to those demands,” he said.
During that trip, Caan reportedly said, when asked by The Media Line, that no one had ever questioned his support of Israel. “I don’t hang around with antisemites if that’s what you mean, and I don’t know any,” he said, “and if I did, I’d punch them in the face.”
He returned to Israel to film 2019’s “Holy Lands,” in which he played a retired Jewish cardiologist who moves to Israel to raise pigs in Nazareth.
In his 2021 memoir “Yearbook,” Seth Rogen calls Caan “a scary Jew, which is almost unheard of.”
“He’s in his own lane, Jew-wise,” Rogen wrote.
Married and divorced four times, Caan had a daughter, Tara, and sons Scott, Alexander, James and Jacob.