James Caan, Oscar-nominated actor of ‘The Godfather’, ‘Misery’ and ‘Eleven’, dies aged 82

“It is with great sadness that we inform you on the evening of July 6 of Jimmy’s passing,” 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 rose to fame when he played Chicago Bears halfback Brian Piccolo in “Brian’s Song,” a widely-seen TV movie from 1971. The tear-jerking film chronicled Piccolo’s real-life battle with terminal cancer and was praised for his treatment of the interracial friendship between Piccolo and a black teammate, Gale Sayers.

His next film, ‘The Godfather’ from 1972, made Caan a star. Although not Italian, Caan was cast as hot-headed Sonny Corleone, the eldest of three sons of mobster Vito Corleone, who is memorably shot by rival mobsters in an ambush at a toll booth.

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 in there,” 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 characters in films like “Thief” and “Rollerball.” But he was a versatile actor who also radiated vulnerability in films like “Misery,” Stephen King’s 1990 adaptation of a mild-mannered novelist held captive by an obsessive fan.

He is probably best known to younger audiences for his role in 2003’s “Elf,” the Christmas story in which he played the Scrooge-esque father of Will Ferrell, a workaholic children’s book publisher who is unhappy to learn that he has an abnormally cheerful grown son who carries an elf. costume and pours maple syrup on his spaghetti.

James Caan, right, in a scene from "eleven."

It wasn’t a cuddly role, but Caan, who played the straight man to Ferrell’s lavish mankind, brought a welcome dash of cynicism—and lots of squeezed looks of annoyance—that tempered the film’s sweetness.

In the same CBS interview, Caan said he almost turned down the part of Elf because of the film’s title, 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 starring in a few plays on and off Broadway, Caan moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s to pursue a film career. Coppola gave him one of his first roles, as a bum in the 1969 drama ‘The Rain People’.

Caan with Billy Dee Williams in the tearjerker

Caan’s other memorable films included the Howard Hawks Western “El Dorado”, James Toback’s “The Gambler” and “A Bridge Too Far” (1977), Richard Attenborough’s WWII ensemble.

Later in his career, he appeared on TV in the rebooted “Hawaii Five-0” series, along with his son Scott Caan.

More recently, actor Damian Conrad-Davis Caan starred in “The Offer,” Paramount+’s 2022 miniseries about the making of “The Godfather.”

“Losing Ray Liotta and James Caan within months of each other just tells me God up there is making a great gangster movie,” said comedian Johnny Taylor Jr. on Twitter.
“Very sad to hear the news that James Caan has passed away. Heartbroken for his family and his friends. Great to know him and call him a friend,” actor Gary Sinise said on Twitter† “Jimmy was so supportive of the Gary Sinise Foundation and my work with our veterans. He will be missed. Thank you, my friend. Rest in peace. God bless you.”

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