James Caan Dies, Aged 82

James Caan

by James White |
Updated on

James Caan, the Oscar- and Emmy-nominated actor who appeared in some of the best films of the last four decades, has died. He was 82.

Caan was born in 1939 in New York's Bronx borough, the son of Arthur, a meat dealer and Sophia, a dancer. Growing up, Caan was a star from an early age if not always an actor - he was a top athlete and class president of his high school.

Heading to Michigan State University intending to parlay playing on their American football team as a route to an NFL career, he discovered he was too small to make the team and transferred instead to Hofstra University, where he truly switched tracks to study theatre, but dropped out.

From there, he studied at the Neighbourhood Playhouse School of Theatre with legendary acting coach Sanford Meisner in New York and began his career on the stage. After several roles on Broadway, he moved to Los Angeles to take a shot at TV work, scoring gigs in shows such as Naked City, Route 66, The Untouchables, Wagon Train and Get Smart. His biggest televisual break was in 1971 movie Brian's Song. Even as his feature film career blossomed, though, he still found time for small-screen work, including starring in Las Vegas for four years.

His film debut came in 1963's Irma La Douce, though that was a minor, uncredited part. His proper first role was in 1964s Lady In A Cage. Francis Ford Coppola helped boost his career via 1969';s The Rain People, which then led to his casting in what will be remembered as perhaps his finest role: Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, for which Caan was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Other movies included Thief, Funny Lady, Chapter Two, Rollerball, Kiss Me Goodbye, Alien Nation, Misery, For The Boys, Honeymoon In Vegas, The Way Of The Gun, Elf, The Yards and, most recently, Queen Bees. He'd planned to appear in Coppola's ambitious epic Megalopolis.

While Caan had harboured ambitions to direct, he had such a struggle with his debut behind the camera for Hide In Plain Sight that he never directed again.

His personal life was also troubled, featuring family tragedy (his sister Barbara died on leukemia), financial trouble, run-ins with the law and struggles with anger issues, drug use and depression.

Caan's family confirmed his death via twitter.

He's survived by his children Tara, Scott (who also became an actor), Alexander, James Arthur and Jacob Nicholas.

"I was king of my block," Caan told Christina Newland a few months ago for our Godfather issue, "because I was smart enough to realise if you were chief, you didn’t have to do too much of that stuff. So I made them believe I was the chief."

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