The actor’s family announced Caan’s death Thursday on social media. “It is with great sadness that we inform you of the passing of Jimmy on the evening of July 6,” the family tweeted.
“The family appreciates the outpouring of love and heartfelt condolences and asks that you continue to respect their privacy during this difficult time. End of tweet.” (Caan, a habitual Twitter user, would often write “End of tweet” on his own messages.) No cause of death was provided.
The Oscar-nominated icon of Seventies cinema first appeared on the big screen in the mid-Sixties with roles in Howard Hawks-directed films like the auto-racing drama Red Line 7000 and the hit 1966 western El Dorado, where he starred alongside John Wayne and Robert Mitchum.
A stage veteran before heading to Hollywood, the Bronx-born actor was next cast in 1969’s The Rain People — directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who he would soon collaborate with again — and the lead role in the 1970 adaptation of John Updike’s Run, Rabbit.
While his Sixties films weren’t box office successes, Caan’s return to television — he guest-often starred on TV shows before making it on the big screen — in 1971’s Brian’s Song catapulted Caan to stardom: In that Movie of the Week, Caan portrayed terminally ill Chicago Bears football player Brian Piccolo. Caan was nominated for an Emmy for his role, which led to his reuniting with Coppola for The Godfather.
Caan was originally cast in Al Pacino’s role in the mob classic, but he soon took over as Santino “Sonny” Corleone, the hair-trigged eldest son of a mob family. “The character is a real ballbreaker,” Caan told Rolling Stone in 1981. Although his character was dispatched early in the saga, Caan’s volcanic portrayal of Sonny resulted in an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
As Caan told Rolling Stone, Coppola later wanted to cast him as the lead in Apocalypse Now (ultimately played by Martin Sheen), but he and the director couldn’t agree on a fee. The instance was one of dozens of roles that Caan reportedly turned down as he eschewed blockbusters for more challenging work.
“They want me to play Sonny for the rest of my life,” Caan said, and after briefly returning to the character in a one-scene cameo flashback in The Godfather Part II, he took on roles that avoided the stereotype. He appeared in off-beat fare like 1973’s Slither and Cinderella Liberty. He starred as a self-destructive gambling addict in the 1974’s now-cut classic The Gambler, the foil to Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice in the Funny Girl sequel Funny Lady and as a superstar athlete-turned-revolutionary in the 1974 sci-fi sports film Rollerball.
Caan spent the remainder of the Seventies as a leading man, headlining films like Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite, Richard Attenborough’s war epic A Bridge Too Far and the adaptation of Neil Simon’s Chapter Two.
His output slowed in the Eighties as the actor dealt with personal problems, addiction and burnout. However, the decade produced one of Caan’s most enduring and acclaimed roles as safecracker Frank in director Michael Mann’s cult favorite Thief, with Caan – like Sonny a decade earlier – turning an otherwise despicable person into an audience-beloved antihero.
“I got so into the character, I could see people backing away from me,” Caan told Rolling Stone in 1981 of the arduous Thief shoot. “I was like a maniac. And I had to work very hard to make Frank human, because the guy is really a prick, a killer.”
“What a terrible and tragic loss,” Thief director Michael Mann said in a statement to Rolling Stone Thursday. “Jimmy was not just a great actor with total commitment and a venturesome spirit, but he had a vitality in the core of his being that drove everything from his art and friendship to athletics and very good times. There was a core of values within him about how people should be, more or less. It might be variable, the corners could be rounded with urban irony, but there was a line and it was non-fungible. And it produced many outrageous and hilarious anecdotes.”
Mann continued, I loved him and I loved working with him. He reached into the core of his being during difficult personal times to be the rebellious, half wild child, institutionalized outsider Frank, in my first film, Thief. Frank is half Frank, half Jimmy. The character and the man – like his Sonny in The Godfather – were made for each other. Unique. What a loss.”
Following his celebrated turn as a bedridden author tormented by a psychotic Kathy Bates in Misery, Caan returned to Hollywood in the Nineties as a prolific character actor, often playing roles that tapped into the macho bravado he utilized as Sonny decades earlier: He starred as a win-at-all-costs college football coach in The Program, a duplicitous federal agent in the Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick The Eraser, a low-level crime boss in Wes Anderson’s directorial debut Bottle Rocket and, in a nod to The Godfather, the patriarch of a crime family in the mob comedy Mickey Blue Eyes.
Rob Reiner, who directed Caan in Misery, said in a statement to Deadline Thursday, “I was so saddened to hear about Jimmy leaving us. I loved working with him. Besides being a talented instinctive actor, he was the only Jew I knew who could rope a calf with the best of them. Sending my love to his family.”
In 2003, Caan would endear himself to a younger generation — and get to showcase his comedic chops — by playing the biological father of Will Ferrell’s character in the now-Christmas classic Elf.
“The thing with Caan is, he’s got a great sense of humor,” director Jon Favreau told Rolling Stone in 2020. “So if you could make him laugh, all the tension disappears. We kept him laughing, and he kept us laughing.”
Favreau added, “We ended up hanging out a lot off-set. Whenever we’d go into an Italian restaurant, they’d put on The Godfather soundtrack. Everywhere he goes, The Godfather theme.”
“James Caan. Loved him very much,” Adam Sandler, who co-starred with Caan in the 1996 action film Bulletproof and the 2012 comedy That’s My Boy, tweeted; Sandler’s character in Uncut Gems was likely informed by Caan’s turn in The Gambler decades earlier. “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.”
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. pic.twitter.com/a0q8rCP1Yl
— Adam Sandler (@AdamSandler) July 7, 2022