James Caan, the tough-guy US actor best known for playing tragic and hot-tempered gangster heir Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather,” has died aged 82, his manager said Thursday.
Caan, who also had roles in “Misery,” “Thief” and “Rollerball,” received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a mafia family’s eldest son in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 classic “The Godfather.”
“It is with great sadness that we inform you of the passing of Jimmy on the evening of July 6,” Caan’s family said in a tweet posted to his account.
Caan’s manager confirmed the news to AFP.
“Jimmy was one of the greatest. Not only was he one of the best actors our business has ever seen, he was funny, loyal, caring and beloved,” wrote Matt DelPiano.
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 his turn as Sonny Corleone, whose slaying in a hail of bullets at a toll booth became one of the defining scenes in Coppola’s “The Godfather,” established him as a major actor.
Briefly the highest grossing film of all time, “The Godfather” won three Oscars including best picture and best actor for Marlon Brando.
Caan was among three cast members nominated for best supporting actor, along with Al Pacino and Robert Duvall.
“Jimmy was someone who stretched through my life longer and closer than any motion picture figure I’ve ever known,” said Coppola in a statement to AFP.
“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.”
– ‘I thank God for it’ –
Caan reprised his role in a small cameo for “The Godfather Part II.”
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.”
He also joked that he “would have refused to die” in the first film had he known that “The Godfather” would receive a sequel.
Later standout roles included a violent athlete in Norman Jewison’s dystopian film “Rollerball” in 1975, a jewel thief in Michael Mann’s “Thief” (1981) and a kidnapped writer in Rob Reiner’s “Misery” (1990).
“So sorry to hear the news,” tweeted Reiner.
“I loved working with him. And the only Jew I knew who could calf rope with the best of them. Love to the family.”
– Macho image –
Occasionally, real life appeared to overlap with Caan’s most famous roles.
In 1992, Caan testified as a character witness in the drug-trafficking trial of Ronald Lorenzo, a reputed member of New York’s Bonanno crime family, who was later convicted of the charge and sentenced to 11 years in jail.
Caan said at the trial that Lorenzo was his best friend.
The following year, Caan was questioned by police in the accidental death of a friend who plunged eight stories while trying to reach a Los Angeles apartment where the actor was staying.
And in 1994, Caan was arrested for brandishing a semi-automatic handgun during an argument over a vandalized vehicle.
Caan remained prolific in later years, sending up his macho image with a comedic turn as Will Ferrell’s father in Christmas hit “Elf” (2003), and a voice role in animation “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.”
His publicist declined to provide cause of death. Caan was married four times, and had five children. (AFP)