Quirky, with flair and venom and forever Sonny Corleone

The bloody end of Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, the most famous role of actor James Caan, who died on Wednesday.Image Getty Images

An unimaginable fact from the career of James Caan, the American actor who died on Wednesday at the age of 82. Less than a month to shoot The Godfather Paramount studio bosses chose him as Michael Corleone, Don Vito’s thoughtful youngest son. And not Al Pacino. Fortunately, director Francis Ford Coppola won the in the book Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli recorded struggle with the studio over the casting of the world’s most famous (crime) feature film. And the Jewish butcher’s son Caan got to play the part of his life as that eldest son of the mafia don, Sonny Corleone. Restless, rutted, explosive. The well-trained karateka body in a sporty white worker gangster shirt, the speaking style loose and swinging, very different from the rest of the cast. Caan’s own addition to the script, his free onomatopoeia of a liquidation, ‘bada bing!’, would later make it to Tony Soprano’s strip club company name in the TV series. The Sopranos† A doomed son, that Sonny; father’s strength, but not his patience and intelligence. The most American son too, in appearance: destined to install the Italian migrant family in the upper echelons of society, if his hot temper didn’t always play out.

And if the competing clan smashes Sonny in the first part of The Godfather, in one of the most memorable and violent death scenes in cinema history, son Michael takes on that – ultimately impossible – task; played by the darker Pacino, the actor who really is of Sicilian and even Corleonean descent. Just as Coppola had originally conceived the cast, the cinematographer who had already met Caan at university in New York and previously gave him an early lead role as a hitchhiker and former college football star with brain damage in The Rain People (1969).

Caan as Sonny Corleone (right) with Al Pacino as his brother Michael Corleone in The Godfather.  Image AP

Caan as Sonny Corleone (right) with Al Pacino as his brother Michael Corleone in The Godfather.Image AP

First role as a sailor

James Edmund Caan, born in 1940 and raised as the son of German migrants in a rough part of the New York borough of Queens, was the only one of the protagonists from The Godfather who was in direct contact with real Italian-American gangsters. The actor grew up with them, later also befriended the head of the Colombo mafia family; the godfather of one of his sons. Caan, who became interested in acting as an extremely athletic student, began his film life with a minor role as a sailor in Billy Wilder’s classic romantic comedy. Irma la Doucec (1966). He did make progress during the first ten years of his career; a supporting role alongside John Wayne in Howard Hawk’s western El Dorado (1966), starring as an astronaut in Robert Altmans countdown (1967). Caan had flair, venom, flair. But initially there were hardly any hits under the titles in which he played. The Godfather (1972) changed everything and also earned him his only Oscar nomination. That sudden stardom lasted for a while, leading to roles in cult science fiction rollerball (1975) and the war epic filmed near Deventer A Bridge Too Far (1977). In the meantime, the idiosyncratic Caan also turned down a striking number of beautiful (leading) roles in films that have become classic, such as The French ConnectionApocalypse NowOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestKramer vs Kramer† He also directed one feature film himself, it received lukewarm Hide in Plain Sight (1980), in which he played a divorced husband of a woman who remarries a criminal.

Depression and drugs

In the eighties, after his sister died, the actor fell into a depression, which he tried to dampen with drugs. Caan walked away from the set and was out of the picture in Hollywood for years. He got more satisfaction from coaching his son’s baseball team, the actor later said, but that didn’t make enough money. So it’s a comeback after all: when the novelist imprisoned by his ‘fan’ after an accident in misery (1990), one of the best Stephen King films. After that, the work never stopped again, with the gangster role as a fixed and varied value: from the comic variant in Mickey Blue Eyes (1999), alongside Hugh Grant, to Grace’s vengeful father (Nicole Kidman) who has the pinstripe town population mowed down in Lars Von Trier’s masterpiece dogville (2003).

Last February, de Volkskrant spoke with Caan, because of the fiftieth anniversary of The Godfather. The actor, cheerful and somewhat hard of hearing, was looking forward to shooting a new Coppola feature film, megapolisin which he would play a part. He spoke fondly of the film-maker: ‘Francis is my little guru’. And couldn’t reveal anything about the film yet, ‘I’m just saying it’s something very big’.

It is not known whether Coppola had already started spinning. Caan, who played more than a hundred roles, will in any case still be seen in the already shot crime film Gun Monkeys

The actor, who leaves five children, married and divorced four times.

Caan with his son Scott on archive image from 2010. Image AFP

Caan with his son Scott in an archive image from 2010.Image AFP