James Caan, the curly-haired tough guy from Queens known to movie fans as the hotheaded Sonny Corleone of “The Godfather” franchise, has died at the age of 82.
His manager Matt DelPiano said he died on Wednesday. No cause was given.
“Jimmy was one of the greatest. Not only was he one of the best actors our business has ever seen, he was funny, loyal, caring and beloved,” DelPiano said. “Our relationship was always friendship before business. I will miss him dearly and am proud to have worked with him all these years.”
The son of Jewish immigrants who immigrated from German, Caan was born in the Bronx in 1940. His family later relocated to the Queens neighborhood of Sunnyside, where he spent his formative years.
“I really believe that you grow up a certain way in New York,” Caan was quoted in a story from the Greater Astoria Historical Society, published in the TimesLedger in 2015. “There’s a New York morality, a sense of loyalty. You know how to win and lose. There are a thousand kids outside; you know who to push and who not to push. There’s a sixth sense you develop just because it’s New York.”
Caan would later attend Hofstra University for a time before transferring to Michigan State University, where he briefly played football. But during his Hofstra days, Caan took an interest in acting and joined Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse off Broadway.
His work eventually caught the attention of a fellow Hofstra student name Francis Ford Coppola, who cast him in the lead of “Rain People.” Years later, the director gave Caan his most memorable role, as Santino “Sonny” Corleone in the 1972 mafia classic, “The Godfather.”
The role endeared to millions of Godfather fans as the enforcer and eldest son of Mafia boss Vito Corleone, quick with a smile but also swift to defend the family — as he proved in responding to an assassination attempt on his father and retaliating against his brother-in-law for abusing his sister.
In many ways, Caan shared many of Sonny’s famous traits: athletic, charming and headstrong. Off-screen, Caan had suffered outbursts of temper as well as drug problems and minor brushes with the law.
Sonny’s brutal murder, filmed near Mitchel Field on Long Island, became one of the most jarring movie scenes in history, but Caan took it in stride. For decades after, he once said, strangers would approach him on the street and jokingly warn him to stay clear of toll roads.
“The Godfather” would become one of the greatest movie franchises in history, and Caan earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Sonny in the first film, which debuted in 1972. Two years later, he appeared in a flashback scene in “The Godfather: Part II.” Both films would earn Best Picture Oscars.
Caan was already a star on television, breaking through in the 1971 TV movie “Brian’s Song,” an emotional drama about Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo, also a Queens native, who had died of cancer the year before at age 26.
After “Brian’s Song” and “The Godfather,” Caan was one of Hollywood’s busiest actors, appearing in “Hide in Plain Sight” (which he also directed), “Funny Lady” (opposite Barbra Streisand), “The Killer Elite” and Neil Simon’s “Chapter Two,” among others.
But by the early 1980s, he began to sour on films. He had begun to struggle with drug use and was devastated by the 1981 leukemia death of his sister, Barbara, who until then had been a guiding force in his career.
He returned to full-fledged stardom opposite Kathy Bates in “Misery” in 1990 in what was arguably his second-most memorable role behind Sonny Corleone — playing the bed-ridden, brutally-tortured writer Paul Sheldon in the film adaptation of the Stephen King novel.
Once again in demand, Caan starred in “For the Boys” with Bette Midler in 1991 as part of a song-and-dance team entertaining U.S. soldiers during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. The following year he played a tongue-in-cheek version of Sonny Corleone in the comedy “Honeymoon in Vegas.”
Other later films included “Flesh and Bone,” “Bottle Rocket” and “Mickey Blue Eyes.” He introduced himself to a new generation playing Walter, the workaholic, stone-faced father of Buddy’s Will Ferrell in “Elf.”
Married and divorced four times, Caan had a daughter, Tara, and sons Scott, Alexander, James and Jacob.
With reporting by Robert Pozarycki; source information courtesy of the Greater Astoria Historical Society.