James Caan, Macho Leading Man of Hollywood, Dies at 82

James Caan, Macho Leading Man of Hollywood, Dies at 82

James Caan, the brawny star who played Sonny Corleone in The Godfather and a rough-and-tumble athlete in Rollerball but had the self-assurance to showcase a sensitive side during his long career, has died. He was 82.

Caan died Wednesday night, his rep told The Hollywood Reporter, confirming a tweet sent from the actor’s Twitter account.

Caan will best be remembered for his explosive performance as Sonny in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). Mesmerizing as the volatile and confrontational eldest son and heir apparent to his family’s criminal empire, he earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.

Caan almost didn’t get to play the part that would become his signature role. Paramount originally cast him as younger brother Michael and Carmine Caridi as Sonny. But Coppola, who had directed Caan in The Rain People (1969), insisted that only he could do justice to the character.

Once the studio agreed, the Bronx-born actor embraced the opportunity. “What f—ing transformation? Obviously, I grew up in the neighborhood. I didn’t have to work on an accent or anything,” he told Vanity Fair in a 2009 interview.

Caan admitted that the tone of a particular scene where Sonny confronted the family about its decision to get into the drug business was giving him trouble. The solution came to him out of the blue. “I was shaving to go to dinner or something, and for some reason I started thinking of Don Rickles,” he said. “I knew Rickles. Somebody was watching over me and gave me this thing: being Rickles, kind of say-anything, do-anything.”

Riffing off this newly found, insult-comic persona, Caan improvised a line during the scene that solidified the edgy gangster character. “What do you think this is, the army, where you shoot ’em a mile away?” Sonny yelled at his brother Michael (Al Pacino). “You gotta get up close, like this — and bada bing! You blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit.” (He appeared in flashback scenes in part two.)

Another performance that proved to be among his more popular came in Brian’s Song, a 1971 ABC Movie of the Week. Caan portrayed real-life Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly after turning pro.

The story centered on the friendship between Piccolo and his teammate, future Pro Football Hall of Famer Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams). Despite vastly different temperaments and racial backgrounds, the pair formed a deep bond and became the first interracial roommates in NFL history.

Fueled by the stars’ sincere portrayals, Brian’s Song made it OK for tough guys to shed a tear over a football movie. Many critics consider it among the finest telefilms ever made, and both lead actors scored Emmy nominations.

Caan showed great versatility during his six-decade career. He was the angst-ridden title character in the 1970 adaptation of John Updike’s Rabbit Run; a lonely, lovelorn sailor in Cinderella Liberty (1973); a self-destructive college professor whose betting addiction was ruining his life in The Gambler (1974); the aging star athlete of the ultra-violent, futuristic sports game Rollerball (1975); and a smooth-as-silk robber in Thief (1981).

One thing Caan never lacked was confidence. At the height of his popularity in the 1970s, he seemingly could have had just about any role he wanted, but he surprised Hollywood by turning down some big ones, including the leads in The French Connection, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Kramer vs. Kramer. (Each brought an Oscar to its respective star.)

He also said no to playing Hans Solo in Star Wars, Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now and a part in Superman.

“If there’s any one thing I could attribute my success to, it’s that I said ‘no,’ ” he told Roger Ebert in 1988. “You’d go to an audition and they were always very cordial and nice and, ‘How do you do, sir?’ And if I didn’t like the job, I’d turn it down. And then when you walked out, they’d say, ‘Who the hell does that punk think he is? He’ll work for me! I’ll damn show him! He can’t say no to me!’ “

Determined not to play the same role over and over again, Caan gamely took on challenges that went against type. He portrayed song-and-dance man Billy Rose opposite Barbra Streisand in Funny Lady (1975), mugged it up with Mel Brooks in Silent Movie (1976), dueted with Bette Midler as a 1940s USO entertainer in For the Boys (1991), clowned with Nicolas Cage for the affections of Sarah Jessica Parker in Honeymoon in Vegas (1992) and served as straight man to Will Ferrell in Elf (2003).

And as the tormented writer held captive by a crazed fan, he was the anchor that gave Kathy Bates the freedom to go creepily crazy in her Oscar-winning performance in Misery (1990).

Other memorable Caan films include T.R. Baskin (1971), Slither (1973), Freebie and the Bean (1974), Chapter Two (1979), Flesh and Bone (1993), Bottle Rocket (1996), Eraser (1996), The Way of the Gun (2000), Dogville (2003), Middle Men (2009) and That’s My Boy (2012).

On television, Caan spent four seasons as casino owner Ed Deline on the NBC drama Las Vegas, a season as a Miami mob boss on Starz’s Magic City and a year as a boozing ex-baseball star on the ABC sitcom Back in the Game.

Caan also voiced the character of Tim Lockwood in the animated hit Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (2009) and its 2013 sequel.

James Edmund Caan was born on March 26, 1940. The son of Jewish immigrants from Germany — his family was in the “meat business” — he grew up in Sunnyside, Queens and enrolled at Michigan State before transferring to Hofstra University. He didn’t graduate, but his time at the Long Island college fueled his interest in acting. While there, he also became friendly with Coppola, a classmate.

In pursuit of a career, Caan applied to The Neighborhood Playhouse in Manhattan and studied there for five years. Among his instructors was Sanford Meisner.

Caan began to get some breaks in 1961 and appeared in an off-Broadway production of Mandingo. That same year, he made his TV debut on an episode of the gritty Naked City, and roles in Play of the Week, Route 66, Alcoa Premiere and The Untouchables followed.

Caan’s film debut came as an army soldier in the Jack Lemmon/Shirley MacLaine comedy Irma La Douce (1963). It was uncredited. His rugged good looks led to feature parts in Lady in a Cage (1964), Red Line 7000 (1965), Countdown (1967) and Games (1967).

His role in The Glory Guys (1965) earned him a Golden Globe nomination for most promising newcomer. He also made an impression co-starring with John Wayne and Robert Mitchum as the revenge-seeking Mississippi in Howard Hawks’ penultimate film, El Dorado (1967).

During the ‘60s, Caan frequently popped up on the small screen, with guest spots on Dr. Kildare, Ben Casey, Death Valley Days, Combat!, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The F.B.I. and, as Rotten Rupert of Rathskeller, Get Smart.

Caan took his only stab at directing with Hide in Plain Sight (1980). He also starred in the drama, based on the true story of a man who finds his children and ex-wife have gone into hiding with her boyfriend when he is placed into the witness protection program.

Struggling with the loss of his sister to leukemia, a distaste for Hollywood and a growing fondness for cocaine, Caan gave up acting and was absent from the big screen from 1983-86.

“I had enough money, I thought, and I was coaching kids full-time. Soccer, Little League, football, basketball,” Caan told Ebert. “Working with kids, I didn’t have to wait six months for them to cut it and edit it and put music to it. As a coach, right in front of my eyes, this creative thing was happening. I was enjoying it, and I figured if a movie came along that I really felt passionate about, I would do it. And then, quite honestly, I woke up one morning and found I had lost all my money, and I was busted, just like that — overnight.”

Caan’s longtime friend Coppola brought him back, convincing him to play U.S. Army Sgt. Clell Hazard in the Vietnam War drama Gardens of Stone (1987). The production suffered when Coppola’s son Gian-Carlo died in a boating accident, but it paved the way for Caan’s comeback.

He soon scored success with roles in Alien Nation (1988), Dick Tracy (1990) and Misery. Caan remained busy for the next three decades, alternating between film and television work.

Like his career, Caan’s personal life was a bit of a roller-coaster ride. He was married four times.

He wed Dee Jay Mathis in 1961, and they had a daughter, Tara, before divorcing in 1966. His second marriage, to Sheila Marie Ryan, in 1976 lasted only a year but produced their son Scott, who followed his father into acting to star in the rebooted Hawaii-Five-0. (He and his dad appeared together in a 2012 episode).

From 1990-94, Caan was married to Ingrid Hajek, and they had a son, Alexander. The actor then married Linda Stokes in October 1995, and they had two boys, James and Arthur.

Marriage No. 4 was the rockiest of them all. Caan filed for a divorce in 2005 and then again in 2009 and 2015. The last time, he claimed that his estranged wife was spending all his money and forcing him to appear in films such as Sicilian Vampire (2016) simply to make ends meet.

Most recently, he kept busy with respected turns in a string of little-seen films including JL Ranch (2016) and a sequel; The Good Neighbor (2016); Holy Lands (2017); Undercover Grandpa (2017); Out of Blue (2018); and the upcoming Never Too Late.