James Caan, whose explosive performance as the hotheaded Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather” produced some of the most memorable moments in movie history, died Wednesday at age 82, his family announced Thursday.
A cause of death was not released for the Bronx-born actor.
“The family appreciates the outpouring of love and heartfelt condolences and asks that you continue to respect their privacy during this difficult time,” reads the announcement on Caan’s official Twitter page.
Caan’s death was mourned Thursday by members of “The Godfather” family, including Al Pacino, who starred as Michael Corleone, a younger brother of Caan’s character.
“Jimmy was my fictional brother and my lifelong friend,” Pacino said. “It’s hard to believe that he won’t be in the world anymore because he was so alive and daring. “A great actor, a brilliant director and my dear friend. I’m gonna miss him.”
Robert De Niro, who portrayed Don Vito Corleone in “The Godfather II,” said, “I’m very very sad to hear about Jimmy’s passing.”
Raised in Sunnyside, Queens, Caan got his start in entertainment as a New York stage actor, making his Broadway debut in “Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole” in the early 1960s.
He went on to appear in more than 130 film and TV roles during a career spanning more than six decades, bringing similar gusto to the dramatic “Brian’s Song,” the thrilling “Misery” and the raucous comedy “Elf.”
But he was best known for his portrayal of the no-nonsense, quick-tempered mobster Sonny in 1972′s timeless “The Godfather,” which earned him Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for best supporting actor.
Ahead of the film’s 50th anniversary this year, Caan told the Daily News he never could’ve imagined the gangster flick directed by Francis Ford Coppola would have such a lasting impact.
“The story, there were a lot of angles in it that had to touch one of us in the audience,” Caan told The News in February. “Some could have said, ‘Wow, that was a really strong (story) about the family.’ Somebody else could’ve said, ‘See how that works as a gangster?’ ... Whatever it was, there was enough out there to interest somebody, no matter what they did for a living.”
Caan’s character was the eldest son of the don, and was at the center of several of the film’s most famous scenes, including Sonny being gunned to death at a highway toll plaza.
“What I remember most was, ‘Wow, I didn’t know I could be that frightened.’ They had bullets all over the place,” Caan recalled in February. “I had 147 squibs on my body and in my jacket. ... Pretty loud squibs, too.”
Sonny’s brutal beat down of his younger sister’s abusive husband using his fists and a trash can was similarly iconic.
“James was a good man, a kind man, a family man, and a wildly gifted man — whose great talent will always be loved and remembered,” Talia Shire, who played Sonny’s sister, Connie, said Thursday.
“My prayers are with his family that he treasured so dearly.”
Caan also appeared as the character in a flashback sequence in 1974′s “The Godfather II.”
Before becoming an actor, Caan spent two years at Michigan State University, where he was a quarterback for the Spartans football team. He then transferred to Hofstra University on Long Island, where he met Coppola.
Caan first worked with Coppola on the 1969 drama “The Rain People” in what proved to be a breakthrough role. The film also starred Caan’s future “Godfather” co-star Robert Duvall.
“Jimmy was someone who stretched through my life longer and closer than any motion picture figure I’ve ever known,” Coppola said Thursday.
“From those earlier times working together on THE RAIN PEOPLE and throughout all the milestones of my life, his films and the many great roles he played will never be forgotten. He will always be my old friend from Sunnyside, my collaborator and one of the funniest people I’ve ever known.”
Caan teamed up with Billie Dee Williams on the 1971 made-for-TV football drama “Brian’s Song,” which depicted the friendship between two Chicago Bears players, one white and one Black, during the racial tension of the 1960s.
Williams played Gale Sayers, while Caan portrayed teammate Brian Piccolo, who died of cancer several years after his NFL debut. The role earned Caan the lone Emmy nomination of his career.
On Thursday, Williams tweeted a broken-heart emoji and a recent photo with Caan after learning of the actor’s death.
“Team Mates and friends till the end,” Williams wrote. “RIP Jimmy.”
Caan told CBS News last year that he struggled with his sister’s death from leukemia in the 1980s, and his career slowed during the decade. He enjoyed a big resurgence with 1990′s “Misery,” adapted from a Stephen King novel, in which he portrayed an injured author held captive by his twisted caretaker, played by Kathy Bates.
The actor also said he was skeptical of doing the 2003 Christmas comedy “Elf” when approached by star Will Ferrell but ultimately joined the lighthearted family film, introducing him to an even wider audience.
Caan was married four times and had five children, including Scott Caan, who followed in his footsteps and became an actor, best known for starring on the police show “Hawaii Five-0.”
Adam Sandler, who worked with Caan on the 1996 action-comedy “Bullet Proof,” said in a Twitter tribute that he “always wanted to be like” the actor.
“So happy I got to know him,” Sandler wrote. “Never ever stopped laughing when I was around that man. His movies were best of the best. We all will miss him terribly. Thinking of his family and sending my love.”
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