James Caan: The Movie Gangster America Wept For

James Caan: The Movie Gangster America Wept For

James Caan used to joke that he “would have refused to die” in “The Godfather” had he known that the triple Oscar-winning film would have two sequels and become such a cult hit that would forever define the gangster movie genre for Hollywood.

Caan’s death, as Sonny Corleone, provided one of the most riveting scenes in the original 1972 mob film based on Mario Puzo’s novel. Enraged with his sister’s husband for beating her (again), he drives from his home before his convoy of bodyguards can catch up and ends up at a toll plaza where he gets ambushed by the enemy (not police).

There, in a hail of bullets that throws his body around like a rag doll, Sonny meets his end, emitting a blood-curdling cry just before he hits the ground. The entire scene lasts just over a minute in a film that runs just under three hours. It is without doubt one of — if not the most — gripping scenes of The Godfather trilogy, comparable perhaps only with the slaying of the sole female heir to the Corleone name towards the end of The Godfather III.

James Caan as Sonny Corleone is shot in this scene from The Godfather (Photo by Steve Schapiro/Corbis via Getty Images)

The Godfather itself won three of 11 Oscars it was nominated for, including Best Picture. Caan didn’t win for Best Supporting Actor but managed to land a small part in the 1974 sequel, Godfather II, where he appears in a flashback scene.

And that’s the way it would be. Whether the scene is long or short; whether the role is a leading or supporting one, Caan would always make the characters written for him larger than they were intended to be.

As New York Times’ film critic ​​Manohla Dargis said on July 8, 2022, after it was reported that Caan had died at the age of 82:

“Caan may not be the actor you first think of in relation to The Godfather, with its astonishment of legends, but the film is impossible to imagine without his volatile, kinetic performance.”

“Quick to anger, quick to fight, Sonny embodies his family’s terrifying violence in its purest, most unpredictable form, the kind that churns from inside, boiling up like magma. Sonny’s anger will be the death of him; it’s preordained: He must die so that his youngest brother, the deliberate, mercilessly disciplined Michael, can take over the family’s murder business.”

Dargis adds that Caan brought an energy that was unforgettably perfect — carnal, wild, exciting.

“Not every star finds as perfect a vessel as ‘The Godfather.’ Talent counts, yes, and as an actor, Caan was more gifted and nuanced than suggested by his tough-guy persona. But the vagaries of both life and the movie business mean that few actors and fewer stars have long, creatively unimpeachable runs. Timing also matters as does taste, greed, grit and representation. We can argue about the sweep of his career, but there’s no debating the greatness that he brought to it.”

No one can attest to that more than Francis Ford Coppola, the director of The Godfather trilogy and one of Caan’s closest friends and ardent admirers.

“Jimmy was someone who stretched through my life longer and closer than any motion picture figure I’ve ever known,” Coppola said.

“His films and the many great roles he played will never be forgotten. He will always be my old friend from Sunnyside, my collaborator and one of the funniest people I’ve ever known.”

Tortured by Kathy Bates in ‘Misery’

Film producer Matt DelPiano concurs with Coppola.

“Jimmy was one of the greatest,” says DelPiano. “Not only was he one of the best actors our business has ever seen, he was funny, loyal, caring and beloved.”

Caan started as an actor in 1960s Hollywood, with roles in films by acclaimed directors including Billy Wilder (“Irma La Douce”), Howard Hawks (“El Dorado”) and Coppola (“The Rain People.”)

He had a breakthrough television role in 1970 American football drama “Brian’s Song,” portraying dying gridiron star Brian Piccolo.

But it was “The Godfather” that established him as a major actor. Briefly the highest grossing film of all time, it had a cast that included Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton and Talia Shire — each a Hollywood powerhouse.

In the years after The Godfather, Caan had continuously gripping roles in “Misery,” (as a famous author trapped in the home of a deranged fan); “Thief” (as a burglar and ex-convict); “Rollerball”(where he uses roller skates and motorcycles to play giant pinball fired out of a cannon”; and “Alien Nation” (where he plays a cop with an alien for partner).

Asked in 2010 if he ever gets tired of talking about “The Godfather,” Caan replied: “No. I thank God for it.”

“Unlike actors that hide, or that don’t like to give autographs or be recognized… I’m very thankful that people still remember that I’m alive and all that.”

Caan also wasn’t shy about owning up to the fun he has had, admitting that he once had an extended stay at the Playboy Mansion.

“To get over my divorce, I got a prescription to live at the Playboy Mansion for a while,” he said in a half-joke, half-truth confession.

James was previously married four times: first to Dee Jay Mattis, from 1961 to 1966, then to Sheila Ryan in 1976. He later tied the knot with Ingrid Hajek in 1990. The two divorced in 1995, and he wed Linda Stokes later that year.

The actor filed for divorce from Stokes in 2005, but the two later reconciled. James and Stokes were in the middle of a divorce as of December 2016, according to TMZ.

“I have four wives and five kids. I apparently don’t know the difference [between sex and love],” he said jokingly in a 2003 interview.

* Adapted from The Associated Press, New York Times tributes

James Caan in 1976 ‘Silent Movie’ by Mel Brooks


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