James Caan, the Hollywood actor known for imbuing his loose-cannon characters of The Godfather and Rollerball with empathy, sensitivity, and humanity, has died. He was 82.
The actor’s death was announced on his popular Twitter page, where he was known for throwing character-count concerns out the window by capping each post “end of Tweet.”
“It is with great sadness that we inform you of the passing of Jimmy on the evening of July 6,” the Tweet read. “The family appreciates the outpouring of love and heartfelt condolences and asks that you continue to respect their privacy during this difficult time. End of tweet.”
Despite making his name playing Italian characters, James Caan was born on March 26, 1940, in the Bronx, New York, to Jewish immigrants from Germany. His father was in the meat industry, and Caan turned to acting to escape it.
“My fear of going into the meat market,” Caan told The A.V. Club last month. “That was my family’s business, and I didn’t want to go there. I couldn’t see myself lugging meat around for a living. I tried a lot of things. Well, not really a lot of things. I mean, I played ball at Michigan State for a while, and then I transferred to Hofstra, having no idea what I was going to do. But I guess I enjoyed being a clown.”
Caan’s on-screen career began on the small one, television. In 1961, he appeared opposite the late Jean Stapleton and Dick York in an episode of the police procedural Naked City, playing, what else, a short-fused crook, simmering with internal conflict and fear. The archetype would be a fixture of his career.
After several years on television, Caan found himself working among the greats, appearing alongside John Wayne and Robert Mitchum in Howard Hawks’ El Dorado—Caan’s second time working with Hawks. But Caan quickly found his footing with a new batch of filmmakers, appearing in Robert Altman’s second feature, Countdown, and The Rain People, directed by a young Francis Ford Coppola.
The 1970s saw an explosion of success for Caan, beginning with the made-for-TV movie Brian’s Song, which saw Caan breaking his mold a bit, playing a dying football player who forged a strong bond with his teammate played by Billy Dee Williams. Caan would earn an Emmy nomination for the role, but the project he wrapped just before Brian’s Song would define his career: Sonny Corleone from The Godfather.
A far showier performance than the understated lead Al Pacino, Caan’s Sonny rocked theaters with his unpredictable rage, smoldering good looks, and undeniable cool. His performance would essentially rewrite the book for how to play gangsters in the modern age: A suave, sexy time bomb that’s impossible to turn away from. He may have been left out of the sequels following an unambiguous end against a hail fire of bullets, but Caan still nabbed a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the 1973 Academy Awards, criminally his only nomination for the statue.
The role opened many opportunities for the actor, with offers to star in Superman, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and Kramer Vs. Kramer, which he called “such middle-class, bourgeois baloney.”
The success of The Godfather launched a string of classic roles that helped redefine the Hollywood leading man by leaning into the unsavory characters that populate the edges of society. However, whether playing a gambling addict on the slow descent into ruin in The Gambler or the violent Rollerball captain Jonathan E., Caan found ways to allow these traditionally emotionally unavailable figures to breathe.
Caan’s schedule slowed significantly in the 1980s following his sister Barbara’s death. While he starred in more groundbreaking works, including Michael Mann’s first feature, Thief, he chose to turn from his career and focus on family.
“There are pictures I made that I still haven’t seen,” Caan told The New York Times in 1991. “I was depressed when I was making them. In the middle of some of these pictures, I kept thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’ It’s like you’re in a hallway, and you can’t get out.”
“After Barbara died, I realized passion is such an important thing to have in life because it ends so soon, and my passion was to grow up with my son.”
Nevertheless, the late ’80s and early ’90s brought about a career revival, the first of several in his filmography. First, he appeared opposite Kathy Bates in Rob Reiner’s Misery, turning in one of Hollywood’s most suspenseful bedridden performances.
Caan’s gravely voice and no-nonsense disposition would continue to delight and charm audiences of all stripes over the next few decades. Pulling a favor for his buddy James L. Brooks, Caan popped up in karate gee for a hilarious role in Wes Anderson’s debut Bottle Rocket in 1996. Less than a decade later, he became part of a holiday tradition as the grumpy father to Will Ferrell in the seasonal classic Elf.
Throughout his career, Caan electrified audiences by keeping a steady rolling boil of emotion. He could be quiet, understated, and explosive in the same scene, sometimes at the drop of a hat, a technique that would find its way to performances on The Sopranos and in Uncut Gems.
Caan liked to let his emotions lead, allowing him to remain an unpredictable livelier, always on the cusp of surprising his audience and fellow performers, eliciting real human emotion to overwhelm the frame.
I don’t like music or scenery or whatever to lead my emotions, you know what I mean? I don’t like to be led, like they look at each other, the tears are coming out and all the sudden the orchestra starts. No shit they’re gonna kiss! You know what I mean? Who needs that? So I’m more of somebody who really wants to be involved. And I know I’m involved when I don’t know what I’ve done in the scene when they say “cut.” And by the way, you have to have the right director to have that kind of faith—“Is that good for you?” you know, whatever. And then I can walk away happy.