James Caan: ‘The Godfather’ star creates Hollywood legacy with signature movie roles across the decades

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James Caan earned his stripes in the entertainment industry decades ago, starring in one of the most iconic film franchises — “The Godfather.” 

He portrayed Sonny Corleone, the eldest son of mafia don Vito Corleone, played by Marlon Brando, who was known as much for his fiery temper as he was for his violent, bullet-ridden death scene in the classic 1972 Francis Ford Coppola movie.

But Caan’s work with Coppola, and in front of the camera, began years before. Caan, who died at the age of 82 Wednesday, had more than 130 acting credits on IMDb, in addition to directing, singing and a lone stunt credit for Steven Spielberg’s “1941” with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. 


His family confirmed his death on Thursday in a statement released on Twitter. 

“It is with great sadness that we inform you of the passing of Jimmy on the evening of July 6,” the post said. “The family appreciates the outpouring of love and heartfelt condolences and asks that you continue to respect their privacy during this difficult time.”

James Caan died at the age of 82 on Wednesday. The legendary actor was known for his role as Sonny Corleone in ‘The Godfather.’

(Getty Images)


Born to Jewish immigrants in The Bronx, New York on March 26, 1940, Caan grew up in Queens and later played football for Michigan State University under Hall of Fame coach Duff Daugherty. His heart wasn’t in the game, though, and he transferred to Hofstra University in Long Island, New York, and studied alongside classmate Francis Ford Coppola and actress Lainie Kazan.

Caan left Hofstra before graduating to pursue acting at New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre with legendary method acting teacher Sanford Meisner. He made his Broadway debut alongside Peter Fonda in the 1961 play, “Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole.”

He began picking up small television roles, starting with an episode of “Naked City,” and his first film role went uncredited in 1963 in “Irma la Douce.” 

But his momentum gained speed with the 1964 thriller “Lady in a Cage” with Olivia de Havilland, and he soon had the lead in a western film, “Journey to Shiloh,” before reconnecting with his school buddy, Coppola, for “The Rain People” with Robert Duvall and Shirley Knight in 1969.

James Caan publicity portrait for the film "The Rain People," 1969.

James Caan publicity portrait for the film “The Rain People,” 1969.
(Warner Brothers-Seven Arts/Getty Images)

“Jimmy was someone who stretched through my life longer and closer than any motion picture figure I’ve ever known,” Coppola told Fox News Digital. “From those earlier times working together on ‘The Rain People’ and throughout all the milestones of my life, his films and the many great roles he played will never be forgotten. He will always be my old friend from Sunnyside, my collaborator and one of the funniest people I’ve ever known.” 

Caan started the ‘70s on the small screen with the TV movie “Brian’s Song,” in which he played a dying football player opposite Billy Dee Williams. The role, which he had turned down multiple times before finally agreeing to after reading the script, earned him an Emmy nomination and was a massive critical success. 

The following year, Caan embarked on what would be his most notorious portrayal as the hotheaded Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather.” He initially was cast as Sonny’s youngest brother, Michael, a role which ultimately went to Al Pacino. Caan received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in the film and competed against his fellow co-stars Robert Duvall and Al Pacino, who all lost out to Joel Grey of “Cabaret.”

“Jimmy was my fictional brother and my lifelong friend. It’s hard to believe that he won’t be in the world anymore because he was so alive and daring,” Pacino told Fox News Digital. “A great actor, a brilliant director and my dear friend. I loved him, gonna miss him.”

James Caan as Santino "Sonny" Corleone in "The Godfather," the movie based on the novel by Mario Puzo and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. 

James Caan as Santino “Sonny” Corleone in “The Godfather,” the movie based on the novel by Mario Puzo and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. 
(CBS via Getty Images)

Added Robert De Niro: “I’m very, very sad to hear about Jimmy’s passing.”


Star Power

He went on to star in “The Gambler” with Paul Sorvino, Lauren Hutton and Burt Young, and he earned a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of professor Axel Freed, whose gambling addiction spiraled out of control.

Caan found a niche within the crime drama realm and starred in “Freebie and the Bean” with Alan Arkin in 1974, “The Killer Elite” and “Thief.”

He showed his vocal range and theatrical background starring alongside Barbra Streisand and Omar Sharif in the 1975 classic “Funny Lady” and proved his penchant for westerns with “Another Man, Another Chance,” and “Comes a Horseman” with Jane Fonda and Mark Harmon.

He also sat in the director’s chair and starred in the 1980 film “Hide in Plain Sight,” which was based on a true story of a Buffalo, New York, man who sued to recover contact with his children after his ex-wife and her new husband entered the federal government’s witness protection program, only for the mob to come looking for him when he started asking questions. 

The film, based on the 1978 novel by Leslie Waller, was Caan’s passion project and reportedly took him two years to make.

James Caan and Barbra Streisand in "Funny Lady" in 1975.

James Caan and Barbra Streisand in “Funny Lady” in 1975.
(Getty Images )

Following his sister Barbara’s death due to leukemia in November 1981, Caan stepped away from acting.   

“Barbara was like my best friend,” he told The Independent in 2021 of the depression that followed her death.

“When she died, passion became this whole thing with me. That’s what I loved about my sister. She was just so passionate about whatever she did.”

Caan essentially left Hollywood for years and battled an addiction to cocaine until making a comeback with Coppola in the 1987 film “Gardens of Stone.”


Back in Action

Coppola, once again, opened many doors for Caan, and he was back on the big screen in no time with help from Rob Reiner’s Castle Rock production company, which cast him in “Misery” with Kathy Bates and the comedy “Honeymoon in Vegas” alongside Nicolas Cage and Sarah Jessica Parker.

“I can’t believe Jimmy’s gone. Working with him on ‘Misery’ was one of the most profound experiences of my career,” Bates told Fox News Digital. “When you watch his performance, his terror, it’s as though he’s watching a snake. Brilliant. So many memories flooding back today. Jimmy saying, ‘Let’s get the most hyper guy in Hollywood and make him stay in bed for 15 weeks.’ We were so excited when we got to shoot in the dining room. He was kind. Hilarious. He would have something insightfully funny to say right now. I’m bereft. Sending all my love to the Caan family.”

James Caan and son Scott Caan during a Fernando Vargas-Fitz Vanderpool fight at The Grand Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles.

James Caan and son Scott Caan during a Fernando Vargas-Fitz Vanderpool fight at The Grand Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles.
(Chris Polk/Getty Images)

He worked on “Dick Tracy” with Warren Beatty, “Flesh and Bone” with Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan and took a risk on an unknown director’s first film — “Bottle Rocket,” starring Luke and Owen Wilson in their first acting roles for Wes Anderson’s directorial debut.

“Anderson has chosen the right actors,” The New York Times said at the time. “And his biggest leap, the casting of James Caan as the party-boy criminal who is Didgnan’s hero, gives the film a third-act burst of the manic energy it needed all along. Caan presides over several festive scenes with a lunatic bonhomie that lights a welcome spark.”

Caan worked with Hugh Grant in “Mickey Blue Eyes,” Matt Dillon in “City of Ghosts” and Nicole Kidman in “Dogville.”

He signed on to star as ED Deline, the head of security at a casino in the TV series “Las Vegas” which ran for five seasons from 2003-08. When Caan stepped away from the series in 2007 to pursue film roles, he was replaced by Tom Selleck.


Families fell in love with Caan in what has since become a Christmas classic as he worked alongside Will Ferrell, Zooey Deschanel, Mary Steenburgen and Bob Newhart in the 2003 comedy “Elf,” directed by Jon Favreau.

The movie was made on a $33 million budget and has since earned $225 million worldwide at the box office and inspired a Broadway musical adaptation.

James Caan during the "Open Range" Premiere at El Capitan in Hollywood. 

James Caan during the “Open Range” Premiere at El Capitan in Hollywood. 

Caan lent his voice to multiple “The Godfather” video games, in addition to vocal work on “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy” and “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2” 

He worked with his son, Scott, on an episode of the television series “Hawaii Five-O,” and had recurring roles on “Back in the Game” and “Magic City.”

One of Caan’s last films before his death was “Queen Bees” with Ellen Burstyn, Jane Curtin, Loretta Devine and Christopher Lloyd.

He’s also set to star in “Fast Charlie” with Pierce Brosnan and Morena Baccarin, based on the crime novel “Gun Monkeys.” The movie is listed in post-production.

Family First

Though Caan had a long career in Hollywood, he did step away from the limelight once during the ‘80s. The pause in his career came after substance abuse issues, and he spent the time off coaching youth baseball.

“I had great, great times as a Little League coach,” he told Esquire in 2003. “People were talking about me quitting acting, and they would say, ‘What about your creative juices?’ Coaching is creative, because you could take a kid who thought he wasn’t any good and, within four minutes, change his mind. And I didn’t have to wait six months for them to put music to it.”

During his five-year break, Caan also coached his son Scott’s teams. In the same interview, Caan shared that to get over one of his heartbreaks, he “got a prescription to live at the Playboy Mansion for a while” and Scott spent some time with him at the coveted LA estate.

Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall and Talia Shire April 29, 2017

Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall and Talia Shire April 29, 2017
(Nathan Congleton/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal )


Caan, who was married four times, is also survived by daughter, Tara A. Caan, and sons James, Jacob and Alexander.

Of his multiple marriages, Caan once joked, “I have four wives and five kids. I apparently don’t know the difference [between sex and love].”

Caan married Dee Jay Mathis in 1961 and divorced five years later. They had daughter Tara. He then married Sheila Marie Ryan in 1976, but divorced the following year. They had a son, actor Scott Caan.

Scott told The Fall magazine in 2017 that he was inspired to follow in his father’s footsteps and pursue a career in the entertainment industry

He’s starred in “Entourage,” “Ocean’s Twelve,” “Varsity Blues” and “Gone in 60 Seconds.”

James Caan

James Caan
(Getty Images )

My dad is probably one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met,” Scott said. “When you’re young, you don’t see your father as a legend, you just know that he’s an interesting, colorful, wild kinda cat, and you think, ‘I want to be like that guy.’ If you come from creative people, it’s just in you.”


James Caan was married to Ingrid Hajek from 1990-94, and they had son Alexander James in 1991. 

He married Linda Stokes in 1995, and the couple had two sons — James Arthur in 1995 and Jacob Nicholas in 1998. Caan filed for divorce in 2017, citing irreconcilable differences. 

Fox News’ Larry Fink contributed to this report.

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