James Caan, star of The Godfather and Elf, dies aged 82

james_caan_the_godfatherParamount Pictures

James Caan – star of The Godfather, Rollerball, Misery, and Elf – has died at the age of 82. 

James Caan – best known for his performance as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, as well as numerous other hard-man roles over the last 50 years – has passed away.

His family made the announcement via a Tweet from the actor’s account.

The Tweet reads: “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.”

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James Caan’s early years

Born in The Bronx in 1940, Caan grew up in Queens, and had a successful American Football career at Michigan State. But he soon became interested in acting, and joined the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater, where he was taught by the legendary Sanford Meisner.

Caan then acted in plays off-Broadway, and appeared in TV shows like The Untouchables, Naked City, Combat!, and Wild Country. Thanks to his broad shoulders and tough demeanour, he was often cast as a heavy.

But Caan’s big break came when he was landed a role in The Rain People. Not because the film was a success, but rather because it was directed by a former classmate – Francis Ford Coppola.

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Starring in The Godfather

Just three years later, Coppola was making The Godfather, and he cast Caan as Don Corleone’s eldest son and heir, Sonny. Though Caan initially auditioned to play the film’s lead, Michael, with Italian-American actor Carmine Caridi cast as Sonny.

But it was like musical chairs behind-the-scenes of The Godfather, and Al Pacino was ultimately cast as Michael, with Caan switching over to play his big brother Sonny.

Caan relished playing the character, bringing a physicality to Sonny that was utterly terrifying. The film was both a critical and commercial smash, and launched his career as a movie star.

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James Caan’s greatest roles

Caan was soon headlining movies of his own, playing a rebellious athlete in futuristic sports movie Rollerball, and the title character in Michael Mann’s debut feature Thief.

His co-star Kathy Bates won an Academy Award for her work in Misery in 1990, but Caan’s performance as captive writer Paul Sheldon was just as compelling.

And Caan continued to play gangsters and tough guys, popping up in the acclaimed likes of Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, The Yards, and The Way of The Gun.

Caan does comedy

He also sent up his image in films like Dick Tracy, Mickey Blue Eyes, and Honeymoon in Vegas.

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Indeed comedy became something of a go-to genre for Caan in his later years, appearing in Get Smart and That’s My Boy, and voicing characters in animated fare like Family Guy, The Simpsons, and both Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs movies.

But Godfather aside, the role he is probably best-know for now is as Buddy’s Dad in Elf. Caan masterfully plays off a truly ridiculous Will Ferrell, and the pathos he brought to that character helped make Elf a Christmas classic.