On July 6, 2022, one of Hollywood’s most iconic actors passed away at the age of 82. Best remembered for his Oscar-nominated performance in “The Godfather” (1972), James Caan‘s career spanned almost 60 years of theatrical and television work.
Born in the Bronx on March 26, 1940, Caan made his TV debut on an episode of “Naked City” in 1961, and his film debut two years later in an uncredited role in Billy Wilder‘s “Irma la Douce.” He soon made a name for himself co-starring alongside such Hollywood legends as Olivia de Havilland in “Lady in a Cage” (1964) and John Wayne and Robert Mitchum in “El Dorado.”
In 1971, he earned his sole Primetime Emmy nomination for his title role in the tearjerker “Brian’s Song,” and the following year achieved an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, for his memorable turn in “The Godfather.” This was the role with which he became most identified; however, over the next half century, Caan provided many steady lead performances and solid supporting roles in over 100 movie and TV appearances. After “The Godfather,” he had several tough guy roles, in films such as “Thief,” but also proved to be equally adept as a romantic lead in “Funny Lady” (1975) and “Chapter Two” (1979), and as a comic foil in “Honeymoon in Las Vegas” (1992) and “Elf” (2003). From 2003-2007, he starred as Ed Deline in the drama series “Las Vegas.”
Caan continued to work until his death, with his most recent cinematic release being “Queen Bees” in 2021. Tour our photo gallery ranking his 12 greatest feature film roles (not including “Brian’s Song” since it was a TV movie).
12. Honeymoon in Vegas (1992)
Two decades after his star-making turn as heir to a Mafia family in “The Godfather,” Caan had fun with that gangster image in this romantic comedy. He stars as gambler Tommy, who tries to steal PI Jack’s (Nicholas Cage) girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker) because she reminds him of his late wife. Tommy makes sure it’s not easy for Jack to win her back.
11. Funny Lady (1975)
Although it didn’t get the love its predecessor “Funny Girl” received, “Funny Lady” is an enjoyable movie in its own right. Caan stepped outside his comfort zone, starring alongside Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice’s second husband Billy Rose in this musical comedy. Although critics weren’t enthused, audiences loved it, making it a box office success. Caan earned his fourth, and final, Golden Globe nomination for this film.
10. A Bridge Too Far (1975)
Caan stood out in a huge ensemble cast that includes Dirk Bogarde, Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Gene Hackman, Robert Redford, Maximilian Schell and Laurence Oliver. Although reviews for the film were tepid, Caan and Anthony Hopkins received praise for their supporting performances.
9. The Rain People (1969)
Before “The Godfather,” Caan teamed with Robert Duvall and director Francis Ford Coppola in this desolate drama. The film follows the unlikely pairing of a pregnant housewife who’s left her husband (Shirley Knight) and the hitchhiker she picks up, a college football star who has suffered a head injury (Caan). Although it received mixed reviews at the time, it’s now a cult favorite and considered one of Caan’s, and Coppola’s, best.
8. El Dorado (1966)
In one of his earliest film roles, Caan impressed critics with his role as “Mississippi” Traherne in this highly praised western. Working alongside legends John Wayne, Robert Mitchum and director Howard Hawks, Caan proved he could hold his own with the best.
7. Rollerball (1975)
Long before “The Hunger Games” and “Squid Game,” “Rollerball” offers a dystopian take on the world in 2018, with Caan’s Rollerball player having to fight to the death.
6. Bottle Rocket (1996)
This little gem marks Wes Anderson’s directorial debut, and brother Owen and Luke Wilson’s film debuts. A group of friends attempts a heist, with the help of the “legendary” Mr. Henry (Caan), who turns out to be more crooked than they realize. One of his quirkier films, Caan proves he is equally suited for a crime caper and a comedy.
5. Elf (2003)
In what is probably his most “lovable” role, Caan plays self-centered book publisher Walter, who finds out he has a son named Buddy (Will Ferrell) who was raised by Santa’s elves. Caan is the perfect foil to Ferrell’s childlike joy, and Walter’s change of heart has made this a Christmas classic.
4. The Gambler (1974)
Caan earned a Golden Globe nomination for his role as an English professor whose gambling addiction puts his life in peril. Part character study and part thriller, Caan offers a mesmerizing performance.
3. Thief (1981)
In Michael Mann’s feature film debut, Caan portrays a safecracker looking to leave his life of crime, but is drawn into one last dangerous heist. A gripping thriller, Caan gives one of his most compelling lead performances.
2. Misery (1990)
Over 30 years after its release, I still cringe when I think of the horrors Caan’s poor novelist had to endure at the whim of his “number one fan” Annie Wilkes. Although several others were considered for the part of Paul Sheldon, and the character was unlike any he had played before, Caan was perfectly cast alongside the then-unknown Kathy Bates (who won the Best Actress Oscar), and the two brought to life one of the most thrilling Stephen King adaptations.
1. The Godfather (1972)
As part of one of the most influential and successful trilogies of all time, Caan earned a permanent place in motion picture history. Who can ever forget Sonny Corleone’s unfortunate fate at a toll booth? Caan garnered his sole Oscar nomination (Best Supporting Actor) for this Best Picture winner, and earned a cameo spot in its sequel “The Godfather: Part II.”