James Caan: Remembering the legendary actor’s top films from The Godfather to Elf

·4-min read
James Caan (right) with Al Pacino in The Godfather  (AP)
James Caan (right) with Al Pacino in The Godfather (AP)

James Caan, the actor best known for his role as Sonny in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 epic The Godfather, died this week aged 82 years old.

A statement posted on his Twitter accounts said: “It is with great sadness that we inform you of the passing of Jimmy on the evening of July 6. The family appreciates the outpouring of love and heartfelt condolences and asks that you continue to respect their privacy during this difficult time.”

Known for his party lifestyle, bawdy behaviour and coarse assertions, Caan had a gigantic screen presence that won him fans throughout the world.

Since the news of his death, actors came out to share their tributes. “Jimmy was my fictional brother and my lifelong friend. It’s hard to believe that he won’t be in the world anymore because he was so alive and daring,” said Al Pacino in a statement.

“Loved him very much. Always wanted to be like him. So happy I got to know him. Never ever stopped laughing when I was around that man,” said Adam Sandler.

The son of Jewish immigrants from Germany, Caan was born in the Bronx, and discovered acting while at university: he joined New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre and started appearing in plays Off-Broadway in the 1960s.

His first major film role was in the 1965 Western The Glory Guys, for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year. Then roles in Coppola’s 1969 film The Rain People, and in the 1971 television film Brian’s Song which won him an Emmy nomination, started to carve out the actor’s place in Hollywood.


Then in 1972, he played Santino ’Sonny’ Corleone in Coppola’s The Godfather, the role that would define his career.

He bowed out of acting in the 1980s but made a comeback – featuring in films such as The Yards, Misery and Elf.

Here is our round-up of his best films, which are absolutely worth (re)watching to celebrate the actor’s life and distinguished career.

Brian’s Song, 1971

This TV film tells the true story of American football players Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers, who became the first interracial roommates in the history of the NFL. The story follows the relationship of the two friends as Caan’s character is diagnosed with cancer.

Reportedly at first Caan wasn’t too keen to take on the role, but it brought him national acclaim and garnered the actor a Primetime Emmy nomination.

The Godfather, 1972

Oh, Sonny Sonny Sonny. Caan plays the hot-headed eldest son of mafia boss Vito Corleone in Coppola’s epic film, a role for which he was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe award.

Not that anyone needs an excuse to watch The Godfather, but this was really Caan in his element, and remains his signature role.

The Gambler, 1974

The Gambler was apparently one of Caan’s favourites from his own back catalogue. It tells the story of an English professor in New York struggling with a gambling addiction. His life starts to spiral out of control when mobsters come to collect his $44,000 debt.

Loosely based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1866 novella of the same name, the film also stars Lauren Hutton and Paul Sorvino. Caan was nominated for a Golden Globe for his role.

Comes a Horseman, 1978

In this Western, Caan stars opposite Jane Fonda. It’s the story of a rancher’s struggle for her livelihood: a local baron has expansionist plans for the land and Fonda’s character faces financial ruin. But by teaming up with rancher Frank, played by Caan, she just might survive the season and face down the dire threats.

The Thief, 1981

Michael Mann’s take on Frank Hohimer’s 1975 novel The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar, this film is as Eighties as it gets. The music, the camera angles, the tempo, the sounds. Caan stars as Frank, a jewel thief looking to build a family.

Misery, 1990

This psychological thriller based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name saw Caan play novelist Paul Sheldon who is kidnapped by a crazed fan. He is presumed dead, but luckily there is an astute policeman on the case. The film also starred Lauren Bacall, Richard Farnsworth, and Kathy Bates, who won an Oscar for her role. No one who has seen it will forget the ‘hobbling’ scene in a hurry.

Elf, 2003

One of Caan’s best-known later roles, Elf introduced the actor to a new generation of viewers.

Elf is a knockabout comedy that tells the story of a man raised as an elf at the North Pole. But, realising that he doesn’t fit in, he travels to New York to try and find his real dad. His real dad (Caan) is a time-short grumpy businessman, making the rekindling of the father-son relationship chaotic, to say the least.

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