Before a relatively unknown Al Pacino was cast as Michael Corleone, the shy young man who will eventually take the reins of his embattled mob family in The Godfather, there were other names bandied about for that crucial role. Warren Beatty. Dustin Hoffman. Jack Nicholson. Robert Redford. Martin Sheen. And one other person: James Caan, although he hadn’t put himself forward for the gig. “One night,” Caan later recalled, “I got a call from Francis…and I could tell in his voice that this was not his idea: ‘Jimmy, want you to come in and test…they want you to play Michael.'”
You can see Caan’s audition footage online, his Michael alongside Diane Keaton’s Kay. They’re two fine actors who are all wrong together in a movie considered among the greatest of the last 50 years. Caan and Francis Ford Coppola’s instinct was right: Caan shouldn’t play Michael. He had to be Santino “Sonny” Corleone.
James Caan died on Wednesday at the age of 82, leaving behind a legacy of screen tough guys. Sometimes, that reputation annoyed him. “I just lost a couple of movies,” he said in a 2011 interview. “They said we don’t want a tough guy. I said excuse me, I am an actor. That is what I do for a living. You know it’s frustrating. I said to my agent, if I am the last guy on the list they could possibly think for a particular role, those are the ones I want to go after. That’s the fun.”
But in his finest role, he demonstrated the dimensions you could bring to a character who seems like little more than a hothead. As Sonny, Caan expanded the canvas for what a tough guy could be on screen. The movie doesn’t work without a perfect Sonny, the older, more emotional brother who acts before he thinks, nearly destroying the family in the process. It’s Sonny’s failings that will bring out Michael’s strengths. It’s Sonny’s death that serves as the film’s emotional low point. It’s a performance that needed James Caan.
Caan had the advantage of working with Coppola before, on 1969’s The Rain People. Immediately, he tapped into Sonny’s pride and rage, giving audiences the prototypical eldest child who thinks he knows better than his siblings. Belittling his kid brother Michael, a little too eager to call the shots after Vito is gunned down by his enemies, Sonny flashes a phony sense of confidence that reads as pure bluster. He was scarier because he seemed so sure of himself, his bada-bing gusto what weak people confuse as strength. That Caan based Sonny on beloved insult comic Don Rickles makes the performance even more remarkable. (“It wasn’t imitating Don Rickles,” he insisted last year. “It was having that drive, that thing, you know? I was just locked into that.”)
But if Sonny’s brashness is what hits you first — his aggressive manner as striking as the sleeveless T-shirts he favors — Caan figured out how to hint at the man’s vulnerability as well. Deep down, Sonny suspects he’s not as smart or levelheaded as Michael or Corleone consigliere Tom (Robert Duvall), so he resorts to violence as a way to mask his weaknesses. Even more than his siblings, Sonny has a big heart, letting his love of his family drive him. Caan illustrated that tough guys often blow up because they don’t know what else to do with their emotions — those big, scary things that tough guys aren’t supposed to have. Sonny wants to strike back because of what his dad’s enemies did to him. And when the piece-of-shit husband Carlo (Gianni Russo) of Sonny’s sister, Connie (Talia Shire), is physically abusive to her, Sonny reacts impulsively, beating the hell out of the guy: a wild animal unleashed. Such brazen behavior is what someone like Sonny does to protect his family — he’s not sophisticated enough to know any other way.
For years, there were rumors that that fight scene was personal, inspired by Caan’s animosity toward Russo. In fact, the recent Paramount+ series The Offer suggested that Russo had been a little too rough on Shire during the married couple’s onscreen altercation, prompting Caan to get back at Russo. Like much about the making of The Godfather, such stories are now so legendary that it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. (For what it’s worth, Caan swore he never had an issue with Russo.)
But those rumors do speak to what was so beautiful, and ultimately tragic, about Caan’s portrayal of Santino. He’s a loyal, funny guy. He’s also a philanderer and an arrogant prick, someone so desperate to prove to his dad that he has what it takes to be a leader, unaware that everyone around him can tell that he lacks the constitution for the job. There’s a poignancy to Sonny’s pathetic delusions of grandeur that’s unique in The Godfather, a fractured fairy tale about the American dream. This country teaches us that everyone can reach their potential if they just apply themselves — even a bunch of mobsters. But that dream’s a lie, and Sonny is living proof. He can’t overcome his shortcomings. He can’t outrun himself.
The Godfather is so enshrined that nearly every scene has become iconic, endlessly quotable, memed to death. And yet, Sonny’s violent execution, no matter how many times it’s referenced and parodied in the culture, never loses its shock. You can close your eyes and see it vividly. He’s going out to avenge his sister yet again — that’s when the ambush happens. Sonny’s body riddled with bullets at a tollbooth. The most macho and seemingly indestructible of the Corleones is felled. But watch how Caan gives you a brief flicker of terror is incredible. Caan’s greatness came from playing a seemingly one-dimensional blowhard whose hidden depths we only saw in glimpses, because Sonny never risks letting them out. Even Sonny can get scared.
For the film’s 50th anniversary, Caan was asked which Godfather character he most identified with. “I feel myself more like Kay,” he replied, which might seem surprising: Kay is an innocent, a sweetheart. She’s someone who doesn’t fully appreciate the insidiousness of the family she’s entered into. Few would be able to immediately detect such innocence in the characters James Caan played, and certainly not in his best role. But his answer may change how you view Sonny the next time you watch The Godfather. Kay isn’t suited to lead the Corleones, and neither is Sonny — it takes something special, something extraordinarily dark in one’s character, to take on such a position. Perhaps Caan knew he didn’t possess that quality. And that’s why he’s is so brilliant in The Godfather: Maybe one of our finest tough-guy actors was telling us that some tough guys are only fooling themselves.