James Caan, Oscar-nominated actor of ‘The Godfather,’ ‘Misery’ and ‘Elf,’ dies at 82
(CNN) — James Caan, the veteran screen actor known for his work in such films as “The Godfather,” “Misery” and “Elf,” has died, his family said in a statement on his verified Twitter account. He was 82.
“It is with great sadness that we inform you of the passing of Jimmy on the evening of July 6,” the statement read. “The family appreciates the outpouring of love and heartfelt condolences and asks that you continue to respect their privacy during this difficult time.”
They did not disclose a cause of death.
Caan first found fame playing Chicago Bears halfback Brian Piccolo in “Brian’s Song,” a widely seen 1971 TV movie. The tear-jerking film chronicled Piccolo’s real-life battle with terminal cancer and drew praise for its treatment of the interracial friendship between Piccolo and a Black teammate, Gale Sayers.
His next film, 1972’s “The Godfather,” made Caan a star. Although he was not Italian, Caan was cast as hotheaded Sonny Corleone, oldest of mobster Vito Corleone’s three sons, who is memorably gunned down by rival gangsters in an ambush at a tollbooth.
In a 2021 interview for “CBS Sunday Morning,” Caan said he based Sonny’s persona on the late comedian Don Rickles.
“It wasn’t imitating Don Rickles. It was having that drive, that thing, you know? I was just locked into that,” he said of his performance.
The role earned him an Oscar nomination. Caan also appeared in a flashback in “The Godfather, Part II.”
The curly-haired actor was known for playing tough-guy characters in such films as “Thief” and “Rollerball.” But he was a versatile actor who also exuded vulnerability in movies like “Misery,” the 1990 Stephen King adaptation about a mild-mannered romance novelist held captive by an obsessive fan.
He is probably best known to younger audiences for his role in 2003’s “Elf,” the Christmas tale in which he played Will Ferrell’s Scrooge-like father, a workaholic children’s book publisher unhappy to learn he has an abnormally cheerful grown son who wears an elf costume and pours maple syrup on his spaghetti.
It was not a cuddly role, but Caan, playing the straight man to Ferrell’s exuberant manchild, brought a welcome dash of cynicism — and many tight-lipped looks of exasperation — that tempered the movie’s sweetness.
In the same CBS interview, Caan said he almost turned down the “Elf” role over the film’s title alone but Ferrell convinced him to join the project.
Caan was born in 1940 in the Bronx borough of New York City to Jewish immigrants. His father was a butcher. He played football at Michigan State and later began studying acting as a student at Hofstra University, where one of his classmates was “Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola.
After appearing in a few plays on and off-Broadway, Caan moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s to launch a film career. Coppola gave him one of his first roles, as a drifter in the 1969 drama “The Rain People.”
Caan’s other memorable movies included the Howard Hawks Western “El Dorado,” James Toback’s “The Gambler” and “A Bridge Too Far” (1977), Richard Attenborough’s ensemble World War II epic.
Later in his career, he appeared on TV in the drama “Las Vegas” and in the rebooted “Hawaii Five-0” series, alongside his son Scott Caan.
More recently, actor Damian Conrad-Davis played Caan in “The Offer,” the 2022 Paramount+ miniseries about the making of “The Godfather.”
Entertainers in Hollywood and beyond paid tribute to Caan on Thursday.
“James Caan. 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. We all will miss him terribly. Thinking of his family and sending my love,” said Adam Sandler, who worked with Caan on the 2012 movie comedy “That’s My Boy.”
“Losing Ray Liotta and James Caan within months of each other just tells me God is up there making one helluva mobster movie,” tweeted comedian Johnny Taylor Jr.
“Very sad to hear the news that James Caan has died. Heartbroken for his family & his friends. Wonderful to know him & call him a pal,” actor Gary Sinise said on Twitter. “Jimmy was so supportive of Gary Sinise Foundation & my work w/ our veterans. He will be missed. Thank you my friend. Rest In Peace. God bless you.”
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