James Caan, US actor of ‘Godfather’ fame, dies aged 82

Caan, best known for playing Sonny Corleone in 1970s gangster film, The Godfather, died on Wednesday, his family said.

Caan's career spanned six decades and included a broad range of roles, but the most celebrated was his portrayal of Sonny Corleone in, The Godfather [File: Chris Delmas/AFP]

US actor James Caan, best known for playing Sonny Corleone in the famous 1970s gangster film, The Godfather, has died at age 82, his family said in a statement.

The statement was posted on Caan’s Twitter account on Thursday but did not mention a cause of death. “It is with great sadness that we inform you of the passing of Jimmy on the evening of July 6,” it said.

“The family appreciates the outpouring of love and heartfelt condolences and asks that you continue to respect their privacy during this difficult time.”

Caan received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor for his portrayal of Sonny Corleone, the hot-tempered brother of the main antagonist, Michael Corleone, in The Godfather.

Sonny’s gruesome death, in which he is shot while stopped on a toll road, is one of the film’s most iconic scenes.

The Godfather, released in 1972 and widely considered one of the best mafia films of all time, was followed in 1974 by The Godfather: Part II, in which Caan returned as Sonny during several flashback scenes.

“Jimmy was my fictional brother and my lifelong friend,” Al Pacino, who played Michael Corleone in the films, wrote in an emailed statement. “It’s hard to believe that he won’t be in the world anymore because he was so alive and daring.

“A great actor, a brilliant director and my dear friend. I’m gonna miss him.”

In an article in the Hollywood Reporter marking the 50-year anniversary of the first Godfather film this year, actor Robert Duvall said that Caan was a buoyant presence on the set and made the first film the most fun to work on. “Jimmy made it so funny,” said Duvall.

In the same article, Caan detailed a disagreement he had with director Francis Ford Coppola over a scene featuring Sonny that was ultimately cut from the film.

Caan recounted becoming so angry when he realised the scene was not included that he walked out of the screening. “I was so pissed off, I couldn’t watch the rest of the film,” he said. “But otherwise, he gave me a great honor,” Caan added.

James Edmund Caan was born in the Bronx borough of New York City on March 26, 1940, to German Jewish immigrants.

One of three siblings, Caan began acting on television in 1961. He gained widespread acclaim for his role in the 1971 TV movie, Brian’s Song, in which he played real-life Chicago Bears football player Brian Piccolo, who died of cancer at age 26. The role earned Caan an Emmy nomination.

But by the early 1980s he began to sour on films, though Michael Mann’s 1981 neo-noir heist film, Thief, in which he played a professional safecracker looking for a way out, is among his most admired films.

“The fun of it was taken away,” he told an interviewer in 1981. “I’ve done pictures where I’d rather do time. I just walked out of a picture at Paramount. I said you haven’t got enough money to make me go to work every day with a director I don’t like.”

He had begun to struggle with drug use and was devastated by the 1981 leukemia death of his sister, Barbara, who until then had been a guiding force in his career. For much of the 1980s he made no films, telling people he preferred to coach his son Scott’s Little League games. Scott Caan also grew up to be an actor.

Short on cash, Caan was hired by Coppola for the leading role in the 1987 film, Gardens of Stone, which renewed his acting career.

That career ultimately spanned six decades and included a broad range of roles in films from psychological thriller, Misery, to comedy, Elf. Last year, he starred in the romantic comedy, Queen Bees, opposite Ellen Burstyn.

Tributes poured in for Caan as news of his death broke on Thursday.

“Never ever stopped laughing when I was around that man,” actor Adam Sandler said on Twitter. “​His movies were best of the best. We all will miss him terribly.”

Antonio Banderas said that “a great actor has left us”, while rapper and actor Ice-T tweeted that Caan was the “star of my favorite movie ever” alongside the trailer of the 1981 film, Thief.

Billy Dee Williams, who starred with Caan in Brian’s Song, shared an undated photo of the two together in recent years on his Twitter account.

“Team Mates and friends till the end. RIP Jimmy,” Williams wrote.

Robert De Niro also wrote that he was, “very very sad to hear about Jimmy’s passing.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies