It was the part of the hot-headed gangster Sonny Corleone in the classic Mafia film The Godfather that turned James Caan into one of Hollywood’s biggest box-office stars of the mid-1970s, though initially he had tested for it and been told No.
He auditioned for the roles of both Sonny and his brother Michael Corleone. Another actor called Carmine Caridi was hired as Sonny. And, unlike Caridi and co-stars Al Pacino and Marlon Brando, Caan could not even claim Italian heritage. He was the son of Jewish refugees from Germany. But there was furious, and somewhat convoluted to-ing and fro-ing over the casting. Paramount wanted Robert Redford or Warren Beatty as Michael, the brother who inherits the Corleone empire after Sonny’s death. Producer Robert Evans wanted Ryan O’Neal, the star of Love Story, as Michael and Caan as Sonny.
Director Francis Ford Coppola got his way with the casting of the then-little known Pacino as Michael. And in a reshuffle worthy of the final days of Boris Johnson, Caridi was out and the role of Sonny went to Caan, who had starred in Coppola’s drama The Rain People a couple of years earlier.
No one remembers The Rain People, while The Godfather became a huge hit, won a slew of Oscars and is regarded as one of the greatest films of all time.
Caan got an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor for his performance, but was up against co-stars Al Pacino and Robert Duvall and the award went to Joel Grey for Cabaret. But over the next few years Caan went on to star in Freebie and the Bean, the Funny Girl sequel Funny Lady and the original version of Rollerball.
However, he struggled with drugs and aspects of his personal life, including several brushes with the law and four divorces. He described his politics as “ultra-conservative” and supported Donald Trump, not something that plays well in liberal Hollywood.
His drug abuse worsened after the death in 1981 of his sister Barbara, to whom he was very close and who worked with him in his production company. “I got into the whole lifestyle of girls and drugs and partying,” he said. He did little work during the first half of the decade and spent a lot of time at the Playboy Mansion .
He retrieved his career in 1987 after Coppola gave him a lead role in Gardens of Stone, he co-starred with Mandy Patinkin in Alien Nation and he had a big hit with Misery, playing a writer held captive by a deranged Kathy Bates. Meanwhile, Caridi was fobbed off with two different supporting roles in The Godfather Parts II and III.
Caan’s parents were refugees from the Nazis. He was born James Edmund Caan in the New York City borough of The Bronx and grew up largely in the neighbouring borough of Queens, where his father ran a kosher butcher’s shop.
He attended universities in Michigan and New York State, but never graduated. While at university he began acting and he subsequently studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York, under Sanford Meisner, whose technique was similar to The Method. One of his contemporaries was Robert Duvall, with whom he would later appear in several films.
In the early 1960s Caan appeared in plays on and off Broadway and began getting small roles on television, including Route 66, The Untouchables, Combat and Wagon Train, often playing young thugs.
He got early breaks on the big screen in the mid-1960s when the legendary director Howard Hawks cast him firstly as a racing driver in Red Line 7000 and then, more significantly, as John Wayne’s laid-back buddy Mississippi in the western El Dorado.
A lead role in The Rain People may not have turned him into a star but it put him on Coppola’s radar, even if it was Evans who was seemingly arguing for him most strongly to be cast as Sonny at the end of the day.
Shortly before the release of The Godfather he reached a wide audience, and secured an Emmy nomination, with a starring role in Brian’s Song, the true story of an interracial bromance between two American footballers, one of whom, the eponymous Brian, ultimately dies of cancer.
For The Godfather Caan immersed himself in the role of Sonny. “I’m not even Italian, but I went to Brooklyn for several weeks and hung around with Italian guys, picking up their language and mannerisms,” said Caan. “One guy always talked to everyone like you were across the room from him – even when he was sitting beside you. I used him as a model.” Caan got so into the character that he found himself going home and saying things like “Hey Ma, pass the f***ing salt”.
Caan was so successful in his portrayal of Sonny Corleone that he even got turned away from a country club once because of his supposed Mafia connections. Caan recalled: “The guy sat in front of the board and he says, ‘No, no, he’s a wiseguy, been downtown, he’s a made guy,’ I thought, ‘What? Are you out of your mind?’ ”
However, Caan’s links to gangsters were not restricted to the big screen. He appeared as a character witness at the trial of one notorious mobster. On other occasions he was arrested for brandishing a gun in public and he was questioned for hours by police after a body was found outside the flat where he was staying. Police concluded that the man had died in an accidental fall.
Caan was a black belt in karate and took part in rodeo and other extreme sports, resulting in a string of serious injuries.
Later films included Honeymoon in Vegas, Mickey Blue Eyes and Elf, in which he had a significant supporting role. In the 2000s he had a regular role as a casino executive in the television series Las Vegas. He is survived by five children, including the actor Scott Caan.
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