James Caan, the enduring, Oscar-nominated star who rose to fame as Sonny in The Godfather, and went on to star in films like Misery and Thief, has died. He was 82 years old.
Caan’s family confirmed the news Thursday via his official Twitter account.
“It is with great sadness that we inform you of the passing of Jimmy on the evening of July 6,” the tweet reads. “The family appreciates the outpouring of love and heartfelt condolences and asks that you continue to respect their privacy during this difficult time.”
“End of tweet” was Caan’s classic Twitter sign-off. In the last few years of his career, the beloved star earned a wide following on the social media platform, where he riffed on hip-hop and shared stills from some of the classic films he worked on over the course of his decades-long career.
That career began when Caan, a New York native, was in college at Hofstra University. While there, he began studying at the Neighborhood Playhouse, a local theater conservatory in New York City. “They took me right away,” he told CBS in 2021. “I was supposed to have three interviews, and I only had one.” That auspicious early endorsement was soon followed by plum TV and film roles on shows like The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and, a few years later, the John Wayne film El Dorado.
Just a few years later, Caan landed the role of his career when he was cast as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola‘s adaptation of the hit mafioso book. The classic 1972 drama revolved around a powerful mob family led by the even-keeled patriarch Don Corleone, played by Marlon Brando. Sonny was the hotheaded older son full of righteous rage, furious and ultramacho compared to his calm brother Michael (Al Pacino), and his cowardly brother, Fredo (John Cazale). Though Sonny is supposed to take over the family business, he tragically gets gunned down by another Mob family after trying to defend his sister from her abusive husband.
Sonny was the first, but certainly not the last iconic role Caan would play in his career. He played the holder crook in Michael Mann‘s 1981 drama, Thief, and an author kidnapped by a crazed fan in the Stephen King adaptation Misery. (Mann paid tribute to Caan in a heartfelt statement, calling it “a terrible and tragic loss.”) A few decades later, he made a kid-friendly turn as the confused patriarch in elf, Will Ferrell‘s silly Christmas classic about a man who grew up in the North Pole and went off to find his father in New York City. He continued working up until his death; he has, to wit, one film coming out in 2023, and two more films that he was set to star in.
“I can’t ‘take it easy,’” he said in that CBS interview when asked about his busy schedule. “I enjoy working, I love to work with good people. I have more fun when I’m working, and I have a lotta laughs—and I get respect, too, sometimes!”
However, Caan was well aware that his 1972 turn in The Godfather was by far the most neatly cemented in the pop-cultural landscape. As he put it frankly to The New York Times in 2004: “I’ll always be Sonny to people.”
Cann married four times over the course of his life and had five children, including son Scott Caan, who followed his father’s footsteps and became an actor in his own right.