Hollywood's Jewish tough guy James Caan dies aged 82

Kid from New York who found fame in The Godfather, Rollerball and Misery


American actor James Caan on the set of the film 'Rollerball', in which he plays the hero Jonathan E., UK, August 1974. (Photo by John Downing/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Hollywood star James Caan has died aged 82, leaving behind a legacy of iconic film roles including his explosive performance as Sonny in The Godfather.

Born the son of German-Jewish immigrants in New York, Caan grew up in the Bronx, on the streets of which he learnt the life skills that forged his tough guy persona.

A highly promising American Football player at college, he initially wanted a career in the sport, but at Hofstra University he discovered acting, and also met his future director, Francis Ford Coppola.

A series of roles on stage, TV and film – including in Coppola’s 1969 cult drama The Rain People – were a showcase for Caan’s intense physical presence and gritty star power.

He held his own alongside John Wayne in the 1966 Howard Hawks western El Dorado; later in life Caan was to dub himself the "only New York Jewish cowboy".

But it was reunited with Coppola in The Godfather that Caan found the role for which he will always be remembered.

The Jewish kid from The Bronx was reborn as the embodiment of Italian-American machismo, Sonny Corleone, the eldest son with an uncontrollable violent temper who is doomed to die a bloody death.

He was cast only after overcoming initial resistance, producer Robert Evans claiming that Coppola first protested: “Caan’s a Jew. He’s not Italian.”

It seems the movie-going public had other ideas. Caan once quipped: “I won 'Italian of the Year' twice in New York, and I'm not Italian,” but he was proud of his Jewish identity and a strong supporter of Israel.

Asked in 2016 if anyone had ever suggested he should boycott the country, he replied in characteristically forceful style: “They would have gotten punched in the face. No, I don't hang around with antisemites if that's what you mean and I don't know any. And if I did, I'd punch them in the face.”

The immense critical acclaim and box-office success of The Godfather elevated Caan to the A-list, but he continued to choose an eclectic range of challenging roles.

In 1974’s The Gambler – directed by Karel Reisz and based on the novella by Dostoyevsky – Caan played a professor addicted to gambling in a profound, absorbing existential study.

Though met with a lukewarm critical response, the dystopian action thriller Rollerball (1975) gave Caan the chance to exhibit his natural athleticism as the star of a gladiatorial sport played to the death in a dark near future.

Caan faded away in the 80s amid battles with addiction and other personal problem, but he bounced back in 1990 with many critics’ pick for his greatest performance, in the screen adaptation of Stephen King's novel Misery, playing a writer held prisoner by an obsessive fan.

Later in his career, Caan found a new lease of life deploying his tough guy persona to humorous effect in mainstream comedies including Mickey Blue Eyes and Elf.

An avid user of social media, Caan’s trademark sign-off on Twitter posts was “end of tweet”.

A final message posted on his account today says: “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.

"End of tweet.”

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