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James Caan, an onscreen tough guy and movie craftsman, has died at 82

American actor James Caan on the set of the film 'Rollerball', in which he plays the hero Jonathan E., UK, August 1974. (Photo by John Downing/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
American actor James Caan on the set of the film 'Rollerball', in which he plays the hero Jonathan E., UK, August 1974. (Photo by John Downing/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Updated July 7, 2022 at 2:33 PM ET

James Edmund Caan was an athletic kid from the Bronx, the son of German-Jewish immigrants who grew up to play tough movie guys: sailors, football players, gangsters and was one of the most recognizable screen actors of his era.

He died on July 6, according to a post on his official Twitter account. No further details were available.

Best known for his explosive turn as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather and as a dying professional football player in the made-for-TV-movie Brian's Song (which earned him Oscar and Emmy nominations, respectively), Caan lent an eminently watchable machismo to dozens of films and shows. In Misery, he was a famous author held captive by Kathy Bates. In Gardens of Stone, he was a heartsick Vietnam vet reluctantly guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In Elf, he played against type as a failing children's book publisher who is also the main character's dad.

After starting in theater and television, Caan burst into Hollywood like a comet, appearing in films by some of the most renowned auteurs of the era, including Howard Hawks (El Dorado), Robert Altman (Countdown) and Francis Ford Coppola (The Rain People). His burst of early success led to a period of difficulty, both personal and professional. Caan married and divorced several times, got into on-set arguments and publicly struggled with substance abuse and depression.

He turned down numerous films that would prove to be pivotal for other actors, including Kramer vs. Kramer, Apocalypse Now, M*A*S*H and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, choosing projects instead that became flops.

"There are pictures I made that I still haven't seen," he told The New York Times in 1991. "I was depressed when I was making them. In the middle of some of these pictures, I kept thinking, 'What am I doing here?' It's like you're in a hallway and you can't get out."

Misery helped turn things around. The former athlete spent much of the 1990 movie tied to a bed. Caan also anchored the movie emotionally. His actorly range was immense; he performed in song-and-dance films such as Funny Lady and For The Boys but also in dark, serious films such as Dogville by Danish auteur Lars von Trier.

Caan worked steadily up until the end of his life, playing grandparents, colonels and inevitably, himself, in animated appearances on Family Guy and The Simpsons.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Correction: July 7, 2022
An earlier version of this story said James Caan was in the film ET. The actor in that film was James Kahn.

Transcript :


Actor James Caan, who rose to stardom in "The Godfather" and spent the next six decades bringing a gruff realism to more than 100 film and television roles, has died. He was 82. Critic Bob Mondello has this appreciation.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: He was a coiled spring in "The Godfather," with a mind forever racing ahead of what he was saying.


JAMES CAAN: (As Sonny Corleone) He wants us to send Michael to hear the proposition, and the promise is that the deal is so good that we can't refuse.

MONDELLO: Sonny was the Corleone family's hotheaded heir apparent, and James Caan gave him a hair-trigger temper and not much interest in playing nice.


ROBERT DUVALL: (As Tom Hagen) Sonny, we ought to hear what they have to say.

CAAN: (As Sonny Corleone) No, no, no. No more. Not this time, Consigliere. No more meetings. No more discussions. No more...

DUVALL: (As Tom Hagen) It's business, not personal, Sonny.

CAAN: (As Sonny Corleone) Well, then business will have to suffer, all right?

MONDELLO: He was so effective in this gangster role that he was typecast as tough guys for years afterwards, in spite of the fact that just a year before "The Godfather," he'd won hearts in a far gentler and even more widely seen role on TV - that of Chicago Bears halfback Brian Piccolo in the rending tale of Piccolo's battle with terminal cancer, "Brian's Song."


SHELLY FABARES: (As Joy Piccolo) I'm scared.

CAAN: (As Brian Piccolo) I'm no idiot. This thing I got is bad. I know that. But, why, it's just a detour, Joy. I'm not going to let it stop me. I'm just not. There's no way.

MONDELLO: Caan had been rattling around television for a decade at that point, playing bit parts in shows from "Wagon Train" to "Get Smart." But the one-two punch of "Brian's Song" and "The Godfather" made him a bankable star. In short order, he appeared in the crime flick "The Gambler," the extreme sport fantasy "Rollerball," the war film "A Bridge Too Far," and almost more dangerously than anything he did in those, he dared to sing along in "Funny Lady," while Barbra Streisand's Fanny Brice was recording.


CAAN: (As Billy Rose, singing) Whether you're right.

BARBRA STREISAND: (As Fanny Brice, singing) Whether you're right, whether you're wrong.

CAAN: (As Billy Rose, singing) Whether you're wrong.

STREISAND: (As Fanny Brice) Shh.

MONDELLO: During those same years, he passed on a lot of movies that worked out well for other actors - "M*A*S*H," "The French Connection" and "Kramer Vs. Kramer" among them. In the 1980s, Caan went into a self-imposed exile for a few years, but Coppola brought him back in "Gardens Of Stone," and his career picked up again, being tormented by Kathy Bates in the horror film "Misery," or playing the workaholic children's book publisher in the Christmas comedy "Elf," who is not pleased when Will Ferrell's title character shows up unannounced.


CAAN: (As Walter Hobbs) Just who the heck are you, and what is your problem?

WILL FERRELL: (As Buddy) I'm Buddy. I'm your son.

CAAN: (As Walter Hobbs) Where did you get this picture?

FERRELL: (As Buddy) Papa Elf gave it to me.

MONDELLO: Happy to play Scrooge amid so much sweetness, Caan was his gruffly, engaging self - versatile, cocky and confident in a way that had served him well for more than 50 years in a business where longevity can be its own reward. As of yesterday, he had several projects in the works. He'd finished shooting the gangster drama "Fast Charlie" and was reportedly eyeing yet another reunion with Francis Ford Coppola - James Caan, still after so many years, a coiled spring still racing ahead. I'm Bob Mondello.