How James Caan went from Bronx butcher’s son to Hollywood legend with 137 credits to his name

James Caan, the curly-haired tough guy known to movie fans as the hotheaded Sonny Corleone of The Godfather, passed away at age 82 after having built a storied acting career with 137 credits to his name.

The American actor, whose portrayal of Corleone secured him an Academy Awards nomination in 1973, died on Wednesday. No cause was given.  

Caan, the son of a German-Jewish butcher, grew up in New York City and played football at Michigan State University, before discovering his passion for acting.

He managed a long career despite drug problems, outbursts of temper and minor brushes with the law. He was known for his handsome looks, constant grin and muscular build, as well as being a practical joker on production sets.

‘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,’ his manager Matt DelPiano said. ‘Our relationship was always friendship before business. I will miss him dearly and am proud to have worked with him all these years.’ 

He was married four times and is survived by his five children – Tara, 57; Scott, 45; Alexander James, 31; James Arthur, 26; and Jacob Nicholas Caan, 23.

Scott followed in his father’s footsteps, appearing in Ocean’s Eleven, Gone In 60 Seconds and the Hawaii Five-0 reboot.

James Caan, the curly-haired tough guy known to movie fans as the hotheaded Sonny Corleone of The Godfather, passed away at age 82. He is pictured in December 2010

James Caan, the curly-haired tough guy known to movie fans as the hotheaded Sonny Corleone of The Godfather, passed away at age 82. He is pictured in December 2010

The American actor, whose portrayal of Sonny Corleone secured him an Academy Awards nomination in 1973, died on Wednesday. No cause was given. Caan is pictured in 1968

The American actor, whose portrayal of Sonny Corleone secured him an Academy Awards nomination in 1973, died on Wednesday. No cause was given. Caan is pictured in 1968

James Caan holds his career tribute at the 10th Marrakesh Film Festival in 2010

James Caan holds his career tribute at the 10th Marrakesh Film Festival in 2010

James Caan and Al Pacino are pictured in a film still from The Godfather

James Caan and Al Pacino are pictured in a film still from The Godfather

Caan’s loved ones confirmed his death in a statement on Twitter Thursday: ‘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.’

The veteran actor is best known for his breakout role in The Godfather, which also saw him nominated for best supporting actor at the Golden Globes.

His character – Sonny Corleone, a violent and reckless man who conducted many killings – met his own end in one of the most jarring movie scenes in history. On his way to another job, Corleone stops at a toll booth that he discovers is unnervingly empty of customers. Before he can escape he is cut down by a seemingly endless fusillade of machine-gun fire. 

For decades after, Caan once said, strangers would approach him on the street and jokingly warn him to stay clear of toll roads.

The 1972 classic crime saga, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, also stars Al Pacino and Diane Keaton. 

Caan had been a favorite of Coppola since the 1960s, when the director cast him for the lead in Rain People, which primed him for the role of Corleone.

He was primed for a featured role in ‘The Godfather’ as Sonny, the No. 1 enforcer and eldest son of Mafia boss Vito Corleone. 

Caan bonded with Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall and other The Godfather cast members and made it a point to get everyone laughing during an otherwise tense production, sometimes dropping his pants and ‘mooning’ a fellow actor or crew member. 

Despite Coppola’s fears he had made a flop, the 1972 release was an enormous critical and commercial success and brought supporting actor Oscar nominations for Caan, Duvall and Pacino.

James Caan attends the 2016 Summer TCA Hallmark Event on July 27, 2016, in Beverly Hills, California

James Caan attends the 2016 Summer TCA Hallmark Event on July 27, 2016, in Beverly Hills, California

Caan is best known for his breakout role as Sonny Corleone in 1972 crime film The Godfather. He is pictured with co-stars Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and John Cazale

Caan is best known for his breakout role as Sonny Corleone in 1972 crime film The Godfather. He is pictured with co-stars Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and John Cazale

Caan is pictured alongside his wife Linda Stokes and sons James and Jacob at the Young Hollywood Awards in April 2007

Caan is pictured alongside his wife Linda Stokes and sons James and Jacob at the Young Hollywood Awards in April 2007

Before starring in The Godfather, Caan was already a star on television, breaking through in the 1971 TV movie Brian’s Song – an emotional drama about Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo, who had died of cancer the year before at age 26. 

It was among the most popular and wrenching TV movies in history and Caan and co-star Billy Dee Williams, who played Piccolo’s teammate and best friend Gale Sayers, were nominated for best actor Emmys.

After Brian’s Song and The Godfather, he was one of Hollywood’s busiest actors, appearing in Hide in Plain Sight (which he also directed), Funny Lady (opposite Barbra Streisand), The Killer Elite and Neil Simon’s Chapter Two, among others. 

He also made a brief appearance in a flashback sequence in The Godfather, Part II.

But by the early 1980s he began to sour on films, though Michael Mann’s 1981 neo-noir heist film Thief, in which he played a professional safecracker looking for a way out, is among his most admired films.

‘The fun of it was taken away,’ he told an interviewer in 1981. ‘I’ve done pictures where I’d rather do time. I just walked out of a picture at Paramount. I said you haven’t got enough money to make me go to work every day with a director I don’t like.’

He had begun to struggle with drug use and was devastated by the 1981 leukemia death of his sister, Barbara, who until then had been a guiding force in his career. For much of the 1980s he made no films, telling people he preferred to coach his son Scott’s Little League games.

Diane Keaton, James Caan, Francis Ford Coppola, Al Pacino and Talia Shire take a bow onstage during the panel for The Godfather 45th Anniversary Screening during 2017 Tribeca Film Festival

Diane Keaton, James Caan, Francis Ford Coppola, Al Pacino and Talia Shire take a bow onstage during the panel for The Godfather 45th Anniversary Screening during 2017 Tribeca Film Festival

Left: James Caan Jr and James Caan attend 'The Godfather' 50th Anniversary Celebration at Paramount Theatre on February 22 in LA. Right: James and Scott

James and Scott in 2010

Left: James Caan Jr and James Caan attend ‘The Godfather’ 50th Anniversary Celebration at Paramount Theatre on February 22 in LA. Right: James and Scott in 2010

James Caan is pictured in a still from the 1975 film Rollerball

James Caan is pictured in a still from the 1975 film Rollerball

Short on cash, Caan was hired by Coppola for the leading role in the 1987 film Gardens of Stone. The movie, about life at Arlington National Cemetery, proved too grim for most audiences, but it renewed Caan’s acting career.

He returned to full-fledged stardom opposite Kathy Bates in Misery in 1990. In the film, based on Stephen King’s novel, Caan is an author taken captive by an obsessed fan who breaks his ankles to keep him from leaving. Bates won an Oscar for the role.

Once again in demand, Caan starred in For the Boys with Bette Midler in 1991 as part of a song-and-dance team entertaining U.S. soldiers during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. 

The following year he played a tongue-in-cheek version of Sonny Corleone in the comedy Honeymoon in Vegas, tricking Nicolas Cage into betting his girlfriend, Sarah Jessica Parker, in a high-stakes poker game so he can spirit her away and try to persuade her to marry him.

Other later films included Flesh and Bone, Bottle Rocket and Mickey Blue Eyes. He introduced himself to a new generation playing Walter, the workaholic, stone-faced father of Buddy’s Will Ferrell in Elf.

The famed actor was grateful for his career and the lasting impact his hits, such as Misery and The Godfather, had on fans. 

‘Look, you only pray when you start in this business that you get to the point where people recognize you,’ he once told Cigar Aficionado magazine. ‘I’ve got a lot of people who are, like, “Hey, your ankle OK?” 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. 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?”‘

He added: ‘I hope they never stop.’ 

Before starring in The Godfather, Caan was already a star on television, breaking through in the 1971 TV movie Brian's Song. Caan is pictured in an undated photo

 Before starring in The Godfather, Caan was already a star on television, breaking through in the 1971 TV movie Brian’s Song. Caan is pictured in an undated photo

Caan begun to struggle with drug use and was devastated by the 1981 leukemia death of his sister, Barbara, who until then had been a guiding force in his career. For much of the 1980s he made no films. He is pictured in a still from the 1981 film Thief

Caan begun to struggle with drug use and was devastated by the 1981 leukemia death of his sister, Barbara, who until then had been a guiding force in his career. For much of the 1980s he made no films. He is pictured in a still from the 1981 film Thief

Caan returned to full-fledged stardom opposite Kathy Bates in Misery in 1990. The pair are pictured together in the film

Caan returned to full-fledged stardom opposite Kathy Bates in Misery in 1990. The pair are pictured together in the film

Caan (pictured in Mickey Blue Eyes) was born on March 26, 1939 in The Bronx and was the son of a kosher meat wholesaler. He was was raised in a part of Queen he once referred to as 'a neighborhood not conducive to the arts'

Caan (pictured in Mickey Blue Eyes) was born on March 26, 1939 in The Bronx and was the son of a kosher meat wholesaler. He was was raised in a part of Queen he once referred to as ‘a neighborhood not conducive to the arts’

Born March 26, 1939, in New York City, Caan was the son of a kosher meat wholesaler. He was born in the Bronx but raised in a part of Queen he once referred to as ‘a neighborhood not conducive to the arts.’

He was a star athlete and class president at Rhodes High School, where he graduated at age 16 after having been kicked out by several public schools for ‘disruptive behavior.’ According to The Washington Post, Caan would joke that his teachers accelerated him ‘just to be done with him.’

He later attended Michigan State – intending to play on its praised football team – but instead wound up being a ‘tackling dummy.’ 

He transferred to Hofstra University but dropped out after getting kicked out of the ROTC program following a fistfight with a superior. 

Caan couldn’t afford college on his own so he served in many odd jobs including as a bouncer and lifeguard. He also worked for godfather unpacking meat along the docks of the Hudson River.

Shortly thereafter, he enrolled at New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, where he studied for five years. 

Caan was a star athlete and class president at Rhodes High School, where he graduated at age 16 after having been kicked out by several public schools for 'disruptive behavior.' He is pictured in 1955 in his junior yearbook photo

Caan is pictured in 1956, during his senior year

Caan was a star athlete and class president at Rhodes High School, where he graduated at age 16 after having been kicked out by several public schools for ‘disruptive behavior.’ His junior yearbook photo, taken in 1955, is pictured on left and his senior year photo, taken in 1956, is pictured right

Caan is pictured with his high school basketball team in 1955. He is in the back row on the left

Caan is pictured with his high school basketball team in 1955. He is in the back row on the left

Caan discovered his passion for acting while in college, prompting him to enroll at New York City's Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, where he studied for five years. He is pictured alongside Marion Brando in The Godfather

Caan discovered his passion for acting while in college, prompting him to enroll at New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, where he studied for five years. He is pictured alongside Marion Brando in The Godfather

Following a brief stage career that saw him appear in several off-Broadway plays and included a Broadway debut in the play Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole, Caan moved to Hollywood. 

He made his movie debut in a brief uncredited role in 1963 in Billy Wilder’s Irma La Douche, then landed a role as young thug who terrorizes Olivia de Havilland in Lady in a Cage. 

He also appeared opposite John Wayne and Robert Mitchum in the 1966 Western El Dorado and Harrison Ford in the 1968 Western Journey to Shiloh.

Off-screen Caan and Wayne had a ‘contentious and playful relationship.’ Wayne played pranks of Caan, including once filling his dressing room with trash,

Wayne allegedly cheated during games of chess the pair would play in between takes, with Caan once telling The Guardian: ‘He was so lame. He’d say, “Hey, Jimmy, what’s that over there,” and shove the rook around while I gazed yonder like a schmuck.’

James Caan and Ali MacGraw are pictured at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City in March 1972

James Caan and Ali MacGraw are pictured at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City in March 1972

Actor James Caan accepts the Vegas Icon award onstage during the 2008 CineVegas film festival

Actor James Caan accepts the Vegas Icon award onstage during the 2008 CineVegas film festival

Caan was spotted using a walker at a restaurant with friends in California last year after spending some time in a wheelchair as he recovered from back surgery in 2020

Caan was spotted using a walker at a restaurant with friends in California last year after spending some time in a wheelchair as he recovered from back surgery in 2020

Caan was spotted using a walker at a restaurant with friends in California last year after spending some time in a wheelchair as he recovered from back surgery in 2020

Caan had a checkered relationship history, and has been married four times. His first marriage to Dee Jay Mathis ended in 1966 after five years, and they share daughter Tara, 55.

Ten years later he tied the knot with Sheila Marie Ryan, but they divorced the following year in 1976, the same year they welcomed son Scott, 43.

In 1990, Caan married Ingrid Hajek, they welcomed son Alexander, 28, the following year and divorced in 1994. 

His fourth marriage occurred in 1995, when he tied the knot to Linda Stokes. The couple had sons James, 24, and Jacob, 21, before divorcing in 2009, citing irreconcilable differences.

In 2016 he claimed his estranged wife Stokes was blowing through his savings and is forced to keep working in order to pay the bills according to legal documents found by TMZ.

The gossip site claimed he was currently paying $13,000 a month in child support for their two boys but it appeared she was asking for more money.

Caan is photographed with his first wife Dee Jay Mathis at the Golden Globes in Los Angeles, California, having stayed together from 1961 to 1966

Caan is photographed with his first wife Dee Jay Mathis at the Golden Globes in Los Angeles, California, having stayed together from 1961 to 1966

James Caan and Linda Stokes attend the 41st Annual Chaplin Award Gala at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City

The pair are also pictured in 2003

Caan is pictured with his fourth wife Linda Stokes, who in 2016 was said to be estranged and ‘blowing through savings and ruining his reputation by forcing the legendary actor to take roles instead of retire’

Caan and his ex-wife Ingrid Hajek are pictured attending the screening of 'So I Married An Axe Murderer' at the Galaxy Theater in Hollywood in 1993. They stayed together from 1990 until 1995

Caan and his ex-wife Ingrid Hajek are pictured attending the screening of ‘So I Married An Axe Murderer’ at the Galaxy Theater in Hollywood in 1993. They stayed together from 1990 until 1995

Caan is pictured with his second wife Sheila during an outing in New York City in 1970

Caan is pictured with his second wife Sheila during an outing in New York City in 1970

Perhaps the most striking claim in the documents was Caan felt the money issues were forcing him to take sub-par roles in order to keep up financially.

The documents read: ‘I am no longer willing to take parts in films and/or television shows which detract from the 50 years I have spent building my reputation.’

He goes on to say he had to do a drama named Sicilian Vampire, released in the summer of 2015, which was ‘humiliating’ as the New York City premiere only had 50 people show up.

In 1961, he married Dee Jay Mathis and had daughter Tara; they divorced in 1966. Caan’s second marriage to Sheila Marie Ryan – a former girlfriend of Elvis Presley – in 1976 was short-lived as they divorced the following year.

Their son, Scott Caan, who also is an actor, was born in 1976. Caan was married to Ingrid Hajek from September 1990 to March 1994; they had a son, Alexander, born 1991.

Actor James Caan poses on the set of the NBC series Las Vegas in Culver City, California on December 10, 2003

Actor James Caan poses on the set of the NBC series Las Vegas in Culver City, California on December 10, 2003

Craig Sheffer and James Caan are pictured in the 1993 film The Program

Craig Sheffer and James Caan are pictured in the 1993 film The Program

In the 1980s Caan pursued a decadent lifestyle filled with drug use and frequent visits to the Playboy Mansion.

He became addicted to cocaine after his younger sister Barbara lost her battle with cancer in 1981.

During his downward spiral, Caan lost his life savings and his home. He also owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes. He blamed his ‘incompetent business managers’ for the financial struggle, as well as himself for being too high to address his problems. 

Caan went to drug rehab at least twice in the 80s and 90s, making headlines over his violent, addiction-fueled behaviors. He was accused of slapping and choking his girlfriend and for pulling a gun out during an argument over a parking space.

The actor, also while battling his addiction, publicly admitted to having friendships with mobsters, saying of a friend: ‘I know he’s not a carpenter, OK?’ 

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