Actor James Caan, known for 'The Godfather,' 'Misery,' 'Elf,' dies at 82

The actor, who also had notable performances in the films 'The Yards,' 'Dogville' and 'Elf,' died at the age of 82.

ByMeredith Deliso via ABCNews logo
Thursday, July 7, 2022
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Caan may be best known for his role as Sonny Corleone in the 1972 classic "The Godfather," which earned him an Oscar nomination.

LOS ANGELES -- James Caan, the prolific actor known for his roles in "The Godfather" films, has died, his family said Thursday.

Caan died at the age of 82 on Wednesday, his family announced on Twitter.

"The family appreciates the outpouring of love and heartfelt condolences and asks that you continue to respect their privacy during this difficult time," they wrote.

His manager Matt DelPiano said he died Wednesday. No cause was given, and Caan's family, who requested privacy, said that no further details would be released at this time.

Caan may be best known for his role as Sonny Corleone in the 1972 classic "The Godfather," which earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor and the Golden Globe for best supporting actor. He reprised the role in "The Godfather Part II" in 1974.

Al Pacino wrote in an emailed statement that, "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. A great actor, a brilliant director and my dear friend. I'm gonna miss him."

Born March 26, 1939, in New York City, Caan was the son of a kosher meat wholesaler. He was a star athlete and class president at Rhodes High School and, after attending Michigan State and Hofstra University, he studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater under Sanford Meisner.

Following a brief stage career, he moved to Hollywood. He made his movie debut in a brief uncredited role in 1963 in Billy Wilder's "Irma La Douce," then landed a role as young thug who terrorizes Olivia de Havilland in "Lady in a Cage." He also appeared opposite John Wayne and Robert Mitchum in the 1966 Western "El Dorado" and Harrison Ford in the 1968 Western "Journey to Shiloh."

Caan's turn as a dying football player in the 1971 TV movie "Brian's Song" earned him an Emmy nomination. He worked steadily in film throughout the 1970s, including in the films "A Bridge Too Far," "The Gambler" and "Funny Lady," the latter two earning him Golden Globe nominations.

After a break from acting for several years in the 1980s, Caan had a memorable turn as a bedridden writer opposite Kathy Bates' obsessed fan in the 1990 thriller, "Misery."

Michael Mann, who directed Caan in "Thief," said "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."

Caan also had notable performances in the films "The Yards," "Dogville" and "Elf."

Robert De Niro also wrote that he was, "very very sad to hear about Jimmy's passing."

He most recently appeared in the 2021 romantic comedy, "Queen Bees."

Sandy Kenyon has more on James Caan's life and legacy

Adam Sandler, who acted with him in "Bulletproof" and "That's My Boy" tweeted that he, "Loved him very much. Always wanted to be like him. So happy I got to know him. Never ever stopped laughing when I was around that man. His movies were best of the best."

Caan was married four times and is survived by five children, including the actor Scott Caan.

A football player at Michigan State University and a practical joker on production sets, 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 Francis Ford Coppola since the 1960s, when Coppola 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. Racing to find his sister's husband, Corleone stops at a toll booth that he discovers is unnervingly empty of customers. Before he can escape he is cut down by a seemingly endless fusillade of machine-gun fire. For decades after, he once said, strangers would approach him on the street and jokingly warn him to stay clear of toll roads.

Caan bonded with Brando, Robert Duvall and other cast members and made it a point to get everyone laughing during an otherwise tense production, sometimes dropping his pants and "mooning" a fellow actor or crew member. 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, Duvall and Pacino.

"Was lucky enough, after a lifetime of loving his work, to get to work with him and I loved him as a person even more," comedian Andy Richter said. "Funny, warm, self-deprecating, and effortlessly talented. They say never meet your heroes, but he proved that to be very very wrong."

Many shared their favorite performances and scenes by Caan.

"James Caan swooping in during the flashback scene at the end of The Godfather Part II is one of the all-time great star reveals," actor James Urbaniak said. "You can practically hear the audience cheering. RIP to a real one."

"Goodbye to James Caan, who was rugged but sensitive, able to convey vulnerability in the same frame as barely contained rage, and never better than in Karel Reisz's 1974 Dostoevsky adaptation The Gambler, one of the best films ever made about that particular addiction," Slate film critic Dana Stevens said.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)