James Caan, Oscar nominee for The Godfather, dies at 82

James Caan, the curly-haired badass, is known to movie fans as the hot-headed Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, and to television audiences as both the dying football player in the Weiner classic Brian’s Song and the casino boss in Las Vegas died. He was 82.

His manager Matt DelPiano said he died Wednesday. No reason was given.

“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 well-loved,” said DelPiano. “Our relationship has always been friendship before business. I will miss him very much and am proud to have worked with him over the years.”

A Michigan State University football player and a handy joker on production sets, Caan was a grinning, handsome performer with the swagger and muscular physique of an athlete. Despite drug problems, temper tantrums and minor legal battles, he managed to have a long career.

Caan had been a Francis Ford Coppola favorite since the 1960s, when Coppola cast him for the lead role in Rain People. He was primed for a starring role in The Godfather as Sonny, the No. 1 enforcer and eldest son of mob boss Vito Corleone.

A violent and ruthless man who committed many murders, Sonny Corleone met his own end in one of the most harrowing scenes in film history. For decades afterward, he once said, strangers would come across him on the street and jokingly warn him to stay off toll roads.

Despite Coppola’s fears that it was a flop, the 1972 release was an enormous critical and commercial success, earning supporting actors Academy Award nominations for Caan, Duvall and Al Pacino.

Already a star on television, Caan had his breakthrough role in the 1971 TV movie Brian’s Song, an emotional drama about the Chicago Bears backing down Brian Piccolo, who died of cancer the previous year at the age of 26.

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 “The Killer Elite” on Neil Simon’s “Chapter Two” among others. He also had a brief appearance in a flashback sequence in The Godfather, Part II.

But in the early 1980s he began to get mad at films. He had begun to struggle with drug use and was devastated by the 1981 leukemia death of his sister Barbara, who had been a driving force in his career up to that point.

In 1990, he returned to full stardom opposite Kathy Bates in Misery.

Caan was in demand again, starring in 1991’s For the Boys with Bette Midler as part of a song and dance team entertaining US 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.

Other later films were Flesh and Bone, Bottle Rocket, and Mickey Blue Eyes. He introduced himself to a new generation as Walter, the workaholic father of Buddy’s Will Ferrell in “Elf.”

Married and divorced four times, Caan had a daughter, Tara, and sons Scott, Alexander, James, and Jacob.

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