The Heart-Wrenching Death Of James Caan

Respected actor James Caan sadly died on July 6, 2022. He was 82 years old and leaves behind an incredible legacy from an acting career that spanned decades. James Caan built his singular, roller-coaster career on his personality as much as he did roles like the hot-headed Sonny Corleone in 1972's "The Godfather," football player and cancer patient in the prior year's "Brian's Song," turns in 1974's "The Gambler," 1975's "Rollerball," 1990's "Misery," and more. 

The official Twitter account of the actor tweeted out, "It is with great sadness that we inform you of the passing of Jimmy on the evening of July 6. The family appreciates the outpouring of love and heartfelt condolences and asks that you continue to respect their privacy during this difficult time."

A storied career

James Caan went from Broadway to small television roles before making his first big-screen splash in 1966's "El Dorado" beside the legendary John Wayne. "The Jewish Cowboy" (per QNS) eventually cemented his name in Hollywood in "The Godfather" (1972). But he eventually felt that the role typecast him. "They called me a wiseguy," he said. "I won Italian of the Year twice in New York, and I'm not Italian!" He remained busy throughout his late life, taking on more and more roles. More, in fact, in his 70s and 80s than in decades prior, as IMDb shows. 

Still, later in his career, Caan experienced disappointment after refusing roles in highly successful films like, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Blade Runner," and "Superman." After his career peak, arguably in the 1970s, he vanished for a bit from 1982 to 1986 to coach Little League baseball, per Roger Ebert

A huge, outspoken personality

James Caan remained irascible and energetic his entire life. "It's nuts. They're nuts. They're absolutely crazy," he said in 1988 (per Roger Ebert), deploying his trademark, frenetic cadence when speaking of actors becoming famous overnight. "They think this kid has an audience," said Caan. "What are they talking about? The people out there aren't stupid. They go to a movie because they like it." In 2021, he said in a similar jokester fashion to Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Eraser," "Our first scene, he goes, 'Get in the am-boo-lance' — I said, 'What the f***'s an am-boo-lance? Speak English, ya b***ard, they're paying you a fortune!'"

His "Mister Tough Guy or Mister Hero" persona, as he put it to The Independent, mingled with off-screen escapades like four marriages and four divorces, an openly discussed drug phase "doing coke and partying and being really destructive" (per the Orlando Sentinel), and the year he "spent living in the Playboy Mansion." All the while, Caan garnered not a single major award to his name (although he was nominated in 1972), saying, "I sound like I'm bitter, and I am!"

A driven young man rescued by the arts

Born James Edward Caan in 1940 in the Bronx, New York, Caan was raised by Jewish refugees from Germany in the aftermath of World War II. In short, Caan was a tough, stocky kid from a tough, stocky neighborhood. "My neighborhood wasn't conducive to the arts," he said in the Orlando Sentinel, embellishing his accent to illustrate, and continuing (per QNS), "I really believe that you grow up a certain way in New York. There's a New York morality, a sense of loyalty ... There are a thousand kids outside; you know who to push and who not to push. There's a sixth sense you develop just because it's New York."

In his youth, Caan was a bouncer, a lifeguard, and engaged in other "non-Jewish activities" like boxing and bull-riding (per the Independent). Terrified of the prospect of getting stuck in his father's "meat market" career as a butcher, and drawn to the arts, he dropped out of high school and enrolled in the Neighborhood Playhouse under legendary acting coach Sanford Meisner. "I just busted into the Neighborhood Playhouse 10 days before school started," he stated, despite the school's admission process requiring three auditions a year. He was accepted practically on the spot.

Karate practitioner and true never say die guy

In 1981, James Caan experienced one of the most traumatic events of his life when his sister died from leukemia. He told the Independent that, "Barbara was like my best friend ... When she died, passion became this whole thing with me. That's what I loved about my sister: she was just so passionate about whatever she did." 

"I don't care if it's eating, playing tennis, making love," he said similarly back in 1988. "You have to care." 1987's Francis Ford Coppola film "Gardens of Stone" afforded him his comeback chance.

Aside from acting, Caan held a black belt in karate and, as QNS says, trained the Culver City Police Department in martial arts. His son, actor Scott Caan, holds a black belt in jiu-jitsu, per the Jiu-jitsu Times. He said of his father on Closer Weekly, "My dad is probably one of the most interesting people I've ever met." Caan had five children total over his four marriages.