James Caan's 15 best performances

From The Godfather to Misery to Elf, a look at the legacy of one of Hollywood's most complex leading men

James Caan's 15 best performances
(from left) James Caan as Sonny Corleone (The Godfather); Walter Hobbs (Elf); Paul Sheldon (Misery); and Jonathan E. (Rollerball). Image: Paramount Pictures; New Line Pictures; Columbia Pictures; MGM Pictures

Everybody’s got a favorite James Caan performance. You could fill a pool with the tears spilled over Brian’s Song, especially when Brian Piccolo succumbs to cancer. He earned—and never lost—his tough-guy reputation as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather. You hated him, but still feared for his Paul Sheldon in Misery. And you just knew he’d come around in time to boost the Santa-meter in Elf. Caan could—and did—do it all in his long and varied career. The actor, who died on the evening of July 6, according to a statement from his family, was 82 years old. His 137 acting credits date back to 1961, when he guest starred, credited as Jimmy Caan, on the TV shows Naked City and Route 66, and continued to the 2021 release Queen Bees (it includes a couple of upcoming films as well). In Caan’s honor, The A.V. Club takes a look back at 15 of his finest performances, listed in chronological order.

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El Dorado (1966) Trailer

Caan was 25 years old when director Howard Hawks tapped him for a supporting role in , a Western starring John Wayne and Robert Mitchum. His character, Alan Bourdillon Traherne, better known as Mississippi, is out for vengeance, a quest that catches the attention of Cole Thornton (Wayne) Sheriff Harrah (Mitchum). Thornton takes a liking to Mississippi, and they form a bond, though it’s not quite father-son. That’s made clear when Mississippi snaps, “I am NOT your son!” Caan more than holds his own with the veteran actors and there’s no better scene with Wayne than the dialogue-free moment when Mississippi helps a wounded Thornton onto his horse. It’s hard to distinguish whether that’s Mississippi respecting Thornton or Caan respecting Wayne. Maybe it’s both.

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