James Caan, ‘Godfather’ and ‘Thief’ Actor, Dies at 82

The Oscar-nominated performer’s other memorable roles include “Misery,” “Brian’s Song” and “Elf”

James Caan (Getty Images)
James Caan (Getty Images)

James Caan, best known for playing tough-guy roles like Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather” and Frank in “Thief,” has died, according to a tweet from Caan’s family. Caan was 82.

The Oscar-nominated performer’s other memorable roles include “Misery,” “Brian’s Song” and “Elf.”

“It is with great sadness that we inform you of the passing of Jimmy on the evening of July 6. The family appreciates the outpouring of love and heartfelt condolences and asks that you continue to respect their privacy during this difficult time,” the actor’s Twitter page said.

Caan was born in the Bronx in 1940, the son of Jewish immigrants from Germany. Caan grew up in Sunnyside, Queens and would attend Michigan State University to play college football.

Afterward, Caan got bit by the acting bug and attended New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre to study acting for the next five years under Sanford Meisner.

Caan would break out playing Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo in 1971’s “Brians Song” opposite Billy Dee Williams, who starred as fellow Bears running back Gale Sayers. Caan would garner his first Emmy nomination for his portrayal of the cancer-stricken athlete.

Caan would then go on to play hot-headed Sonny Corleone in 1972’s “The Godfather” for director Francis Ford Coppola. Caan initially auditioned for the role of Michael, which went to Al Pacino. Caan and Coppola previously worked together on 1969’s “The Rain People” where Caan played a brain-damaged football player.

Caan would get nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in “The Godfather.” Caan would cameo as Sonny in a flashback scene in 1974’s “The Godfather Part II.”

After the success of “The Godfather” films, Caan would go on a tear in the 70s and star in such films as 1973’s “Slither,” 1974’s “The Gambler,” 1975’s “Rollerball,” “The Killer Elite” and “Funny Lady” opposite Barbara Streisand.

In 1981, Caan would star in Michael Mann’s crime epic “Thief” playing master safe cracker Frank. The film gained a cult following over the years and along with “The Godfather,” Caan would claim “Thief” is his best performance.

At the height of his stardom, Caan would also become notorious for passing on starring roles that would bring success to other actors. The films include “MAS*H,” “The French Connection,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Blade Runner,” “Love Story” and “Superman.”

Caan would take a sabbatical in the 80s after 1982 flop “Kiss Me Goodbye” and returned to the big screen in 1987 for Francis Ford Coppola’s “Gardens of Stone.” Caan also played a cop partnered with an alien in 1988’s “Alien Nation” and starred as Spaldoni in 1990’s “Dick Tracy” for director Warren Beatty.

Caan would star in 1990’s “Misery” for Rob Reiner and star opposite Bette Midler in 1991’s “For the Boys.” Other prominent roles in the 90s for Caan would include playing a Vegas gangster in 1992’s “Honeymoon in Vegas,” Coach Winters in 1993’s “The Program,” Abe in the 1996 directorial debut of Wes Anderson’s “Bottle Rocket,” and 1999s’ “Mickey Blue Eyes” opposite Hugh Grant.

In the 2000s, Caan would star in one of his most popular roles in 2003’s “Elf” opposite Will Ferrell. On television, Caan would play Montecito Hotel/Casino president “Big Ed” Deline for four seasons on 2003’s “Las Vegas.” In 2012, Caan guest-starred on “Hawaii Five-O,” which starred his son Scott Caan.

Caan’s most recent roles include 2015’s “The Wrong Boyfriend,” and “Sicilian Vampire.” 2016’s “JL Ranch,” “Good Enough,” “The Good Neighbor,” and “The Red Maple Leaf” and “Undercover Grandpa” in 2017.

Caan is survived by his 5 children.