James Caan , brilliantly explosive as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, also led an equally volcanic life
Born on 6th March 1940 in the Bronx area of New York, Caan was Jewish born to German parents and he had intended to become a football player rather than follow his father into being a kosher butcher. As it was he did neither finding an interest in acting at university where he would meet Francis Ford Coppola who would give him his best role. But he would first work in theatre eventually ending up on Broadway in 1961 (the year when he also first married) before getting a leading man role in 1965’s ‘Red Line 7000’. A year after he would divorce but shortly afterwards he would be cast by Robert Altman in a little regarded film before Coppola cast him in 1969’s The Rain People. Coppola was amongst a group of what would be called the Hollywood New Wave of directors that included Scorsese, Lucas and Brian DePalma too and it was the Godfather that really him bought him to the world’s attention as Sonny Corleone which he had taken after he had auditioned for Michael Corleone that Al Pacino would get despite the studio’s opposition to the then relatively unknown actor. Caan need not have worried as he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role which saw his on screen demise as he is shredded by over 100 multiple simulated gunshots in one of the films many notable sequences. He lost out on an Oscar to Joel Grey for Cabaret
James Caan was now a known name and the 1970’s saw him appear in films as diverse as Freebie and the Bean ( a cop movie well worth seeking out), the musical Funny Lady and the all star cast war epic ‘A Bridge too Far’. The decade saw him marry and divorce a second time in a marriage that only lasted a year and he also turned down films that might have cemented his reputation which included Kramer vs Kramer, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and for Coppola’s Apocalypse Now ( they couldn’t agree on a fee). But by 1981 his career had taken a distinct down turn matched by his personal life too. His sole attempt at directing with 1980’s Hide in Plain Sight had flopped but the death of his sister hit him hard and he resorted to the prolific use of drugs which affected his on set behaviour seeing him storm off the thriller The Holcroft Covenant in 1985. He soon checked himself into rehab when the drugs and partying were now destroying him.
It was Coppola who again would get Caan back into Hollywood when casting him in Gardens of Stone which he followed with the popular sci-fi film Alien Nation. But it was director Rob Reiner who cast him as an author trapped in an isolated house by a unbalanced fan that really revived his career in a film that proved one of the best adaptations of a Stephen King novel ever made. The 1990’s saw him marry and divorce for a third time and then marry for a fourth time (though that ended in divorce too in 2017) and his marriages bought him five children in all. His tough guy persona never left him – he was questioned by police about the death of a man who fell from a fire escape to the apartment he was staying – the verdict on the man’ was accidental death. Caan was also arrested when he flashed a loaded gun in public though he was never charged with the offence and he even appeared as a witness for a friend accused of being a mobster.
With a revived career he worked continuously appearing in a variety of decent films, several trading on his Sonny Corleone persona in films such as Mickey Blue Eyes with Hugh Grant, but the films he accepted from hereon were diverse taking in comedies (Honeymoon in Vegas, Elf), thrillers (Things to do in Denver when you’re Dead) animation ( Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) and blockbuster actioners (Eraser) and suitably his last film that awaits release is Gun Monkeys that centres around a a dead mob boss.
James Caan died on 6th July aged 82 years old.
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