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James Caan, who played Sonny Corleone in ‘The Godfather,’ dies at 82

He proved, beyond his tough-guy exterior, a versatile performer of wry expressiveness and unexpected vulnerability

Al Pacino, left, and James Caan starred together as brothers in the 1972 crime drama “The Godfather.” (Michael Ochs/Getty Images)
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James Caan, a Hollywood leading man of the 1970s who memorably displayed his tough-guy screen presence as the trigger-happy Mafioso Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather” but who also proved, beyond his macho exterior, a versatile performer of wry expressiveness and unexpected vulnerability, died July 6 at 82.

His death was announced in a message on his official Twitter account. His publicist, Arnold Robinson, said no further details would immediately be released.

The son of a butcher who had fled Nazi Germany, Mr. Caan grew up in the 1940s and 1950s on the knockabout streets of the outer boroughs of New York. A wiry boy, he was dubbed “Killer Caan” for his use of his fists in self-defense, and he prided himself on never losing his streetwise edge or raspy Queens accent. He remained, he said, just a “punk from Sunnyside,” even as his enigmatic smile and aura of danger propelled a Hollywood career lasting six decades and spanning more than 130 credits.

He maintained his strut and bravado off-screen, earning a black belt in karate and pursuing hobbies such as powerboat racing and roping steers. “I think I can safely say,” he observed, “I was the only Jewish cowboy from New York on the professional rodeo cowboy circuit.” Admittedly headstrong and at times self-destructive, he endured the tumult of cocaine addiction and four divorces.

Film critic Roger Ebert admiringly called him “the most wound-up guy in the movies,” a description Mr. Caan did not dispute. Shortly after the box office success of “Misery” (1990), in which Mr. Caan played a novelist held captive by a hammer-wielding fan, he joked that director Rob Reiner had indulged in a sadistic game by forcing him, “the most hyper guy in Hollywood,” to perform the role tied to a bed over 15 weeks of filming.

Mr. Caan had gone into acting on an impulse, desperate to avoid “humping sides of meat from trucks to restaurants” with his father in the bitter chill of dawn. He had a talent for making people laugh, a skill he honed one summer as a Catskills resort social director, and bluffed his way into a prestigious theater training program in Manhattan, the Neighborhood Playhouse.

With his brooding good looks and coiled unpredictability, Mr. Caan won a long string of guest parts on television before entering movies. He was initially cast in action roles in the saddle, the racecar, the conning tower and the spaceship. But he showed, when given the chance, understated intelligence and sensitivity as a performer.

Reviewers praised him as a brain-damaged former jock in “The Rain People” (1969), directed by Francis Ford Coppola but little seen because studio executives lost faith in its commercial appeal. His breakout role was the terminally ill Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo in the television film “Brian’s Song” (1971).

The movie, which touched on interracial friendship, attracted 55 million viewers and earned Mr. Caan an Emmy nomination for best actor. The next year, Coppola tapped him to play Sonny Corleone, the eldest son of the mafia kingpin in “The Godfather.”

In a cast that included Marlon Brando as his aging father, Vito, and Al Pacino as his somber younger brother, Michael, Mr. Caan more than held his own as the coarsely sexy and hot-tempered Sonny. To get into character, Mr. Caan said he found unlikely inspiration in comedian Don Rickles and his unnerving style of “busting everybody’s chops” in vicious takedowns.

Advising Michael on how to kill a rival mobster and a corrupt police captain, he declares that “you gotta get up close, like this, and bada bing! You blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit.” The phrase “bada bing” was improvised by Mr. Caan and “became a mantra for mobsters and aspiring mobsters,” Vanity Fair reported in 2009, and served as the name of the strip club on the HBO show “The Sopranos.”

Sonny gets his comeuppance when he is bloodied in a battlefield’s worth of machine-gun fire while trapped in his car at a tollbooth. In a scene that took three days to film, Mr. Caan wore nearly 150 tiny explosive charges called squibs. “When they went off, it felt like I was being punched all over,” he told the London Observer. “If my hand had got in front of one, it would have blown a hole clean through. “I wouldn’t have done it,” he added, “if there hadn’t been so many girls around the set to impress.”

“The Godfather” was a commercial juggernaut, won Academy Awards including best picture, helped reinvigorate the gangster genre and was ranked behind only “Citizen Kane” on the American Film Institute list of greatest films of all time in 2007. Mr. Caan, who was nominated for best supporting actor, was inundated for decades with tollbooth jokes.

After “The Godfather,” Mr. Caan said he was rarely given a script that did not feature a pile of corpses in the first 10 minutes. Determined to avoid typecasting, he ventured into offbeat comedy with “Slither” (1973), played a sailor who winds up looking after the interracial son of a prostitute in “Cinderella Liberty” (1973), was a college English professor in debt to bookies in “The Gambler” (1974) and showed off a pleasant singing voice as theatrical showman Billy Rose in “Funny Lady” (1975), which starred Barbra Streisand as entertainer Fanny Brice.

He was an athlete in a nightmarish game of state-sponsored murder in “Rollerball” (1975), a heroic Army sergeant in the all-star World War II drama “A Bridge Too Far” (1977) and a master safecracker in “Thief” (1981). For the last, which he regarded as his finest performance, he learned proper technique from former crooks who had been hired as technical advisers.

In his quest for variety, he ended up with several misfires and mediocrities, including “Freebie and the Bean” (1974). He turned down leading parts in era-defining dramas such as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Kramer vs. Kramer,” which he dismissed with an epithet as “middle-class bourgeois,” and Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.”

“When Francis called me up about ‘Apocalypse Now,’ all I heard him say was 16 weeks in the Philippine jungle,” Mr. Caan told The Washington Post, explaining his rejection. In the same interview, he added that Brando was incredulous when Mr. Caan refused the title role of “Superman” (1978) despite being offered, like Brando, who played Jor-El, millions of dollars for what was literally a cartoonish role. “Yeah, Marlon,” he replied, “but you don’t have to wear the suit.” The film launched a hit franchise, with Christopher Reeve in the title role.

As his career teetered, Mr. Caan increasingly developed a reputation for wayward personal and professional behavior. In interviews, he seemed unable to control his badmouthing of movies by powerful directors, in particular the Hollywood infatuation with special effects over character-driven plot.

He starred in and directed a critically lauded low-budget drama, “Hide in Plain Sight” (1980), based on the true story of a man’s battle to find his children when his ex-wife and her mob-informant husband go into the witness-protection program. But Mr. Caan said the studio buried it. “There were no sharks in it, so these two idiots over at MGM didn’t know what to do with it,” he told the London Independent.

Meanwhile, he pursued a decadent lifestyle as an habitue of the Playboy Mansion. He spiraled into cocaine addiction after the death of Barbara Caan, his younger sister and closest confidant, from leukemia in 1981. Around that time, he lost his life savings and his home after it was discovered that he owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes. He blamed incompetent business managers but also himself for being too addled by drugs at the time to notice.

Mr. Caan entered drug rehabilitation at least twice in the 1980s and 1990s, and he continued to be pulled into headlines during those years, once for allegedly slapping and choking a girlfriend and once for brandishing a gun during an argument over a parking space. He also acknowledged his friendship with reputed mobsters. “I know he’s not a carpenter, okay?” he said of one close associate from his New York days.

He was all but unemployable when Coppola fought for him to star as an Army sergeant in the Vietnam-era military drama “Gardens of Stone” (1987). Critics lauded his subdued and affecting performance as a loner who loves the Army but hates the war, but the film faded quickly from attention.

Mr. Caan cursed the very mention of “Alien Nation” (1988), a science-fiction police-buddy film about extraterrestrials living among Angelenos, and he suffered a massive bomb with “For the Boys” (1991), a Bette Midler musical about a U.S.O. troupe.

Grayer and weathered, but still with a menacing charisma, Mr. Caan began his return to prominence with a run of intimidating character roles. Channeling the spirit of Sonny Corleone, he appeared in the crime comedies “Honeymoon in Vegas” (1992), “Bottle Rocket” (1996) and “Mickey Blue Eyes” (1999). He also was an former CIA man working casino security for four seasons in the hit NBC series “Las Vegas” (2003).

From ‘tackling dummy’ to actor

James Edmund Caan was born in the Bronx on March 26, 1940, and grew up in a section of Queens that he later called “a neighborhood not conducive to the arts.” After being kicked out of several public schools for disruptive behavior, he managed to graduate at 16 from the Rhodes School, a prep academy in Manhattan, half joking that teachers accelerated him just to be done with him.

He entered Michigan State University with the hope of playing on its vaunted football team, but he said he wound up as “tackling dummy.” At Hofstra College in New York, he dropped out after getting into a fistfight with an ROTC superior. He was a lifeguard and a bouncer, among other odd jobs, before entering the Neighborhood Playhouse in Manhattan on a whim.

After brief theater experience as a spear carrier, he moved to California. In one of his earliest screen parts, he was a sadistic hood who torments Olivia de Havilland while she is trapped in her home elevator in “Lady in a Cage” (1964). Director Howard Hawks, known as a spotter of new talent, cast him in the lead role of the racecar drama “Red Line 7000” (1965) and then in a major supporting role as a rebellious knife-fighter opposite John Wayne in “El Dorado” (1966).

Off-screen, Mr. Caan and Wayne had a contentious and playful relationship, with Wayne going out of his way to help the young actor who seemed completely unintimidated working with the legendary western star. Wayne pulled pranks, like filling Mr. Caan’s dressing room with trash. And Mr. Caan said he called out Wayne for cheating at chess between takes. “He was so lame,” he told the Guardian. “He’d say, ‘Hey, Jimmy, what’s that over there?’ and shove the rook around while I gazed yonder like a schmuck.”

His marriages to dancer Dee Jay Mattis, Sheila Ryan (a Playboy model and onetime girlfriend of Elvis Presley), Ingrid Hajek and costume designer Linda Stokes ended in divorce. Survivors include five children, including actor Scott Caan from his second marriage.

Mr. Caan later played Arnold Schwarzenegger’s deceitful boss in “Eraser” (1996), a mobster in Lars von Trier’s disturbing avant-garde drama “Dogville” (2003), man-child Will Ferrell’s irritable father in “Elf” (2003) and a physically “ripped” priest with a temper in the Adam Sandler comedy “That’s My Boy” (2012).

In a career and private life marked by vicissitudes, he was grateful for his association with a popular hit in “Misery” and a cinematic landmark in “The Godfather.”

“Look, you only pray when you start in this business that you get to the point where people recognize you,” he told Cigar Aficionado magazine. “I’ve got a lot of people who are, like, ‘Hey, your ankle okay?’ from ‘Misery.’ Or they’ll say, ‘Hey, don’t go through that toll booth again’ or ‘Have the right change.’”

“It means that they remember the picture,” he added. “There’s nothing not to like about it. The only thing that I get a little upset about is when I’m in a restaurant” and people “beckon me with their finger. I get a little sideways. I go, ‘No, you come here! What, am I a taxi or something?’” On the other hand, he said, “I hope they never stop.”

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