(Carmel Dagan’s article appeared in Variety, 7/7; via Pam Green.)
James Caan, whose indelible, Oscar-nominated performance as Sonny Corleone, the recklessly hotheaded son of Marlon Brando’s Mafia don in “The Godfather,” is sure to be remembered as long as there are gangster movies, died on Wednesday, his family announced on Twitter. He was 82.
“It is with great sadness that we inform you of the passing of Jimmy on the evening of July 6,” the tweet reads. “The family appreciates the outpouring of love and heartfelt condolences and asks that you continue to respect their privacy during this difficult time.”
Sonny’s violent end in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” — riddled, as he is, with dozens of bullets — is one of the most memorable scenes in a film filled with them.
Caan initially auditioned for the role of Michael, the college-educated war-hero son who would ultimately become don, and the studio, Paramount, supported this casting for a time; Al Pacino was cast as Michael and Caan as Sonny as part of a complex compromise between Paramount and Coppola.
Caan was riding high on the success of TV weepie “Brian’s Song,” in which he played the dying football player Brian Piccolo alongside Billy Dee Williams as Piccolo’s best friend, Gale Sayers, when he was cast in “The Godfather.” “Brian’s Song” won a number of Emmys, including outstanding single program — drama or comedy, and Caan was nominated for his performance.
The actor had earlier starred for Coppola in the director’s odd little road movie “The Rain People” (1969), in which Caan played a brain-damaged hitchhiker.
But as his career progressed over the decades, Caan would repeatedly essay characters with a penchant for violence.
In addition to “The Godfather,” Caan’s signature films from the 1970s include Mark Rydell’s “Cinderella Liberty” (1973), in which he played a sailor in love with a hooker; Karel Reisz’s 1974 “The Gambler,” in which he played a man with a serious gambling addiction; Sam Peckinpah actioner “The Killer Elite” (1975), a story of CIA assassins that reunited him with Duvall; musical romantic comedy “Funny Lady” (also 1975), with Barbra Streisand and Omar Sharif; Norman Jewison’s satirical, dystopian sci-fi drama “Rollerball,” in which he played a popular athlete in a violent sport based on roller derby but often ending in death; Alan J. Pakula’s Western romance “Comes a Horseman,” in which Caan starred with Jane Fonda and Jason Robards; and the Neil Simon-penned “Chapter Two,” in which a seemingly uncomfortable Caan was essentially a stand-in for Simon in the story of how he got together with second wife Marsha Mason — played in the film by Marsha Mason.