James Caan obituary

Superb actor whose defining role of Sonny Corleone in The Godfather found echoes in his colourful personal life

There are some film stars for whom the frisson of fame and the exultation of acting are not enough. James Caan, who has died aged 82, sought satisfaction in extreme sports, drugs and a colourful personal life. However, the many superb portrayals he gave in scores of films and TV episodes will outlive the gossip and sensational headlines.

His defining role came as Sonny Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). Caan, who was nominated for an Oscar, was perfect as the hedonistic and volatile heir apparent to the Corleone family, whose bloody ways end in his own death. The film, which points to the links between the mafia and American capitalism, portrays men such as Don Corleone (Marlon Brando), the godfather of the title, as businessmen. But Sonny, a remorselessly violent hoodlum driven by family loyalty, represented the true nature of the Corleone family.

Soon after The Godfather, Caan was wallowing in violence again as the embittered hero of Rollerball (1975). Although presented as the moral centre of the film, Caan’s character, Jonathan E, is as sadistic as everyone else around him. More violence came his way as the brutal CIA man in Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite and, in contrast, he portrayed Billy Rose, the gambling, philandering husband of Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice in Funny Lady, all in the same year.

James Caan, right, withAl Pacino, as brothers Sonny and Michael Corleone in The Godfather (1972). Caan was perfect as the volatile heir apparent to the Corleone family.
James Caan, right, with Al Pacino, as brothers Sonny and Michael Corleone in The Godfather (1972). Caan was perfect as the volatile heir apparent to the Corleone family. Photograph: Paramount Pictures/Allstar

Caan was well teamed with Geneviève Bujold in Claude Lelouch’s romance set in the US, Another Man, Another Chance (1977), and with Jane Fonda in the western Comes a Horseman (1978). The latter title chimed with Caan, who was once dubbed the Jewish cowboy because of his earlier participation in rodeos and his ownership of a stable of horses.

The film critic Pauline Kael wrote of Caan at that stage in his career that “he’s not all of a piece as a performer: he’s never quite himself – you feel he’s concealing himself rather than revealing a character”. He had then recently emerged from a messy divorce from his second wife, which may have affected his subsequent performances. In 1981, Caan’s sister Barbara, to whom he was very close and who ran his production company, died of leukaemia, aged 38. “She was my best friend, my manager,” he said. “She was the only person I was afraid of.” Then he had a motorcycle accident and his house was nearly destroyed by a landslide.

There were several flops, undeservedly in the case of Michael Mann’s Thief (1981), released as Violent Streets in the UK, and deservedly with the whimsical Kiss Me Goodbye (1982) – Caan’s attempts at comedy were slow to be appreciated. His first and last directorial effort, Hide in Plain Sight (1980), in which he starred as a man in search of his ex-wife and children, was generally given a chilly critical reception. Caan explained that “some jerk at MGM altered the movie”.

On top of this, he walked off the set of The Holcroft Covenant (1985) and was replaced by Michael Caine. A few years earlier, when he was still bankable, Caan had turned down three Oscar winners, M*A*S*H, Kramer vs Kramer (“it was such middle-class, bourgeois baloney”) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

During his fallow period between 1982 and 1987, he spent his days coaching his son Scott’s soccer and basketball teams, and his nights at the Playboy Mansion (“There were tons of girls over there and, call me sick, call me crazy, but I liked ’em!”) and taking cocaine. Although he received professional help and was cured of the addiction, he was unemployable in Hollywood.

“I hardly ever go out,” he told an interviewer in 1986. “I spend most of my time upstairs in my bedroom, wearing out one spot on the bed where I sit when I’m making phone calls.” When he had not appeared in a film for four years, people in Hollywood were beginning to ask, “What ever happened to …?”

James Caan in Rob Reiner’s Misery (1990) bedridden and kept captive by his ‘No 1 fan’, played by Kathy Bates.
James Caan’s comeback became entrenched with his role in Rob Reiner’s Misery (1990), in which he spends most of the movie bedridden and kept captive by his ‘No 1 fan’, played by Kathy Bates. Photograph: Cinetext/Allstar/Columbia

Then his friend Coppola gave him the lead in Gardens of Stone (1987). Finding a new gravitas, Caan was utterly convincing as a stiff-necked but compassionate army sergeant who feels that “there is nothing to win, and no way of winning it” in Vietnam. Caan’s comeback became entrenched with a difficult role in Rob Reiner’s Misery (1990) – he spends most of the movie bedridden and doped as a seriously injured writer kept captive by his “No 1 fan” (Kathy Bates, who won the best actress Oscar).

But Caan hit the headlines again in the 90s for the wrong reasons. When his brother Ronnie was held at gunpoint by gangsters, Caan enlisted the help of his mafia pal Anthony “the Animal” Fiato. Caan arranged to meet and pay the kidnappers, then arrived with Fiato and his crew with guns and baseball bats. On another occasion, the FBI intercepted a phone conversation between Fiato and Caan concerning the actor Joe Pesci. Caan asked his friend to “take care” of Pesci after learning about an unpaid $8,000 bill from Pesci’s stay at a friend’s Miami hotel.

When Ronnie Lorenzo, an LA mobster, was arrested for drug trafficking, kidnap and extortion, Caan offered his home as collateral toward the $2m bail and appeared as a character witness for his “best friend”. Caan was also the first significant film star to admit to being friends with the “Hollywood madam” Heidi Fleiss, although he said the relationship was platonic.

He was sued by a woman who claimed he had tried to strangle her. (The matter was settled out of court.) Then came the morning when he woke up in a friend’s flat to find 10 Los Angeles policemen standing over him with guns drawn. Outside, they had discovered a body of an aspiring actor, Mark Alan Schwartz, on the pavement eight storeys below. Caan was questioned for nearly 10 hours before they released him, having concluded that Schwartz had fallen while trying to break into the flat. “It was a nightmare,” Caan said. “I mean, I woke up and this whole thing had happened while I was asleep. But it sure looked really bad. I looked guilty.”

Caan survived all this to rebuild his career. Seldom unemployed, he traded happily on his 70s persona, particularly playing older and wiser versions of Sonny Corleone, either as mafia bosses, louche gamblers or businessmen with mafia connections in films such as Honeymoon in Vegas (1992), Mickey Blue Eyes (1999), with Hugh Grant’s British art auctioneer getting mixed up with the mob, City of Ghosts (2002) and Dogville (2003).

Although Caan had all the right Italian gestures as Sonny, he was the son of Jewish parents, Sophie (nee Falkenstein) and Arthur Caan, who were refugees from Nazi Germany. He was born in the Bronx, New York, and raised in Queens, where his father was a kosher butcher. After attending various schools, he entered two universities, Michigan State University, at which he was a football hero, and Hofstra University, Long Island, but failed to graduate from either.

While studying at Hofstra, he became interested in acting and was soon taken on by the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York, where he studied under Sanford Meisner, whose technique was allied to the method. One of Caan’s fellow students was Robert Duvall, with whom he was to co-star in The Godfather, as well as in Robert Altman’s moon-landing drama, Countdown (1967), Coppola’s The Rain People (1969) and The Killer Elite.

James Caan as Billy Rose with Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice in Funny Lady (1975).
James Caan as Billy Rose, the gambling, philandering husband of Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice in Funny Lady (1975). Photograph: Ronald Grant

In the early 60s, Caan made his off-Broadway debut in Schnitzler’s La Ronde and started to appear on television, mostly as juvenile delinquents, in series including Naked City, Route 66, The Untouchables and Dr Kildare. After an uncredited bit as a sailor with a radio in Billy Wilder’s Irma la Douce (1963), he rose to stardom remarkably quickly.

His first role was as a young thug terrorising Olivia de Havilland in Lady in a Cage (1964). Tough insouciance was his style, well suited to handsome but rather emotionless features. This cool and calculating facet of Caan’s was exploited by Howard Hawks in two movies, as a daredevil racing driver in Red Line 7000 (1965) and as the laid-back “Mississippi”, John Wayne’s gunslinging sidekick in El Dorado (1967).

In The Rain People, the first of the three films Caan made with Coppola, a certain vulnerability and warmth surfaced as he played a soft-hearted drifter. He also showed a tender side as a naive sailor who falls for a prostitute in Cinderella Liberty (1973) and in Karel Reisz’s The Gambler (1974), in which Caan, intense and sympathetic, gives one of his finest performances as a university professor addicted to gambling.

In later years, Caan was content to have the security of a popular TV series, Las Vegas (2003-07), appearing as a former CIA agent now the head of security at the fictional Montecito resort and casino. He was also willing to take supporting roles in movies such as Get Smart (2008), Mercy (2009), which was written by and starred his son Scott, Middle Men (2009), The Outsider (2014) and The Good Neighbor (2016). In Carol Morley’s Out of Blue (2018), an adaptation of Martin Amis’s 1997 novel Night Train, he was the intimidating father of a murdered astrophysicist daughter, and his movie work continued up to the time of his death.

Caan was divorced four times. He is survived by a daughter, Tara, from his first marriage, to Dee Jay Mathis; a son, Scott, from his second, to Sheila Ryan; a son, Alexander, from his third marriage, to Ingrid Hajek; and two sons, James and Jacob, from his fourth, to Linda Stokes.

• James Edmund Caan, actor, born 26 March 1940; died 6 July 2022

Ronald Bergan died in 2020


Ronald Bergan

The GuardianTramp

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