American actor James Edmund Caan was nominated for a number of honors, including four Golden Globes, an Emmy, and an Oscar. In 1978, Caan received a movie star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
He began his career with small parts in Howard Hawks’ El Dorado (1966), Robert Altman’s Countdown (1967), and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People (1969), but it was his portrayal of Sonny Corleone in The Godfather (1972), for which he received nominations for both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor, that brought him to national attention. In The Godfather Part II (1974), he returned to the character of Sonny Corleone and made a brief cameo appearance at the end.
Caan had significant roles in films such as Brian’s Song (1971), Cinderella Liberty (1973), The Gambler (1974), Rollerball (1975), A Bridge Too Far (1977), and Alan J. Pakula’s Comes a Horseman (1978).
He had sporadically worked in film since the 1980s, with his notable performances including roles in Thief (1981), Gardens of Stone (1987), Misery (1990), Dick Tracy (1990), Bottle Rocket (1996), The Yards (2000), Dogville (2003), and Elf (2003).
What Role Did James Caan Play in the Godfather?
In 1971, Coppola cast him as the short-tempered Sonny Corleone in The Godfather. Originally, Caan was cast as Michael Corleone (Sonny’s youngest brother); both Coppola and Caan demanded that this role be played by Al Pacino, so Caan could play Sonny instead. Robert De Niro was also considered to play Sonny.
Although another actor, Carmine Caridi, was already signed to play Sonny, the studio insisted on having Caan, so he remained in the production. During the production of The Godfather in 1971, Caan was known to hang out with Carmine Persico, aka “The Snake”, a notorious mafioso and later head of the Colombo crime family.
Government agents briefly mistook Caan, who was relatively unknown at the time, as an aspiring mobster. Caan was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in the film, competing with co-stars Robert Duvall and Pacino.
Caan has closely identified with the role for years afterward: “They called me a wiseguy. I won Italian of the Year twice in New York, and I’m Jewish, not Italian… I was denied in a country club once. Oh yeah, 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?”
Caan died in Los Angeles on the night of July 6, 2022. His death was announced a day later.