Veteran Actor. Accomplished Athlete. INSP Mourns the Passing of James Caan.
He played everything from mobsters to cowboys, writers to football players, soldiers, spies, fathers, and grandpas. Stage. Screen. Comedy. Drama. James Caan’s versatile acting career spanned more than 60 years.
James Edmund Caan was born to German-Jewish immigrants on March 26, 1940, in The Bronx, but grew up in Sunnyside, Queens, both boroughs of New York City. His father was a Kosher butcher, but young James did not want to follow his footsteps in the meat trade. He set his sights on the gridiron. Caan played football for Michigan State University while majoring in economics. After two years, he transferred to Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY, where he became more interested in acting than the study of wealth in society. He was in good company—one of his classmates was Francis Ford Coppola, who would later prove to be a key player in Caan’s career. Caan dropped out of Hofstra and applied to the acting program at New York’s prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse and was accepted. He graduated in five years, having studied with the legendary acting teacher, Sanford Meisner.
After his Broadway debut in brothers William and James Goldman’s army comedy Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole, and a variety of TV and movie parts that included the roles of Mississippi, the young drifter who fights alongside John Wayne’s Cole Thornton in El Dorado, and a guest appearance on Wagon Train, Coppola cast Caan in 1969’s The Rain People. In the film, Caan plays Jimmy “Killer” Kilgannon, a former college football star who, during a game, suffered permanent brain damage, and is cut loose from the team—and the school.
In 1971, Caan suited up again for Brian’s Song, this time playing Chicago Bears running back, Brian Piccolo in the emotional TV movie based on Piccolo’s life. His performance earned Caan an Emmy nomination. Then in 1972, Caan got the role of a lifetime, Mafia mobster, Sonny Corleone, starring with Al Pacino and Marlon Brando in the now-classic film, The Godfather. In the years that followed, Caan made several “Godfather” sequels, including voicing a “Godfather” video game. He starred in Comes a Horseman with Jane Fonda, Neil Simon’s Chapter Two with Marsha Mason, Mickey Blue Eyes with Hugh Grant, Misery with Kathy Bates, Elf with Will Ferrell, and many more.
Though he worked steadily, Caan continued to pursue his passion for sports. He was an avid golfer, often playing in celebrity events, and he attained the level of Master in Gosoku Ryu Karate. While filming The Rain People in Nebraska, Caan was drawn to the rodeo life and started learning to rope. For about nine years, he proved himself a force to contend with in the arena, as he competed regularly on the pro rodeo circuit in tie-down, and team roping (heeler).
He took the sport seriously. “I’m not some Hollywood guy who acts like a professional roper, I am one. As a matter of fact, my rodeo accomplishments mean more to me than my Oscar nomination for The Godfather,” Caan said in a 1980 PRCA press release, “There’s something about rodeo dirt that makes me feel clean. It gets me away from the fakery of Hollywood, and back to the basics.”
James Caan died on July 6, 2022, at the age of 82. Caan was married four times and is survived by his five children.