James Caan, the versatile actor who achieved lasting fame as hot-headed Sonny Corleone in the 1972 Mafia movie The Godfather, died July 6 at age 82.
After the recent death of Goodfellas star Ray Liotta, the news that Caan and Sopranos actor Tony Sirico also have died added to the grief felt by fans who consider the three of them among the best at depicting Mafia characters.
Liotta, who was 67 when he died May 26, portrayed gangster Henry Hill in Goodfellas and recently appeared in another Mob movie, The Many Saints of Newark.
Sirico, a convicted felon who turned to acting, played the malaprop-prone mobster Paul “Paulie Walnuts” Gualtieri in HBO’s The Sopranos TV series. Sirico died July 8 at age 79.
The cause of Caan’s death was not immediately disclosed, but when the news broke, many recalled his several popular roles, including in the TV series Las Vegas and movies such as Misery and Elf.
In his pre-Godfather acting career, Caan was remembered for his portrayal of cancer-stricken NFL football player Brian Piccolo in the television movie Brian’s Song, a moving portrait of the Chicago Bears running back and his friendship with teammate Gale Sayers. Piccolo, 26, died in 1970.
But Caan’s performance as the temperamental son of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) solidified a reputation for memorable acting that endures 50 years after The Godfather premiered. The role earned him an Oscar nomination.
The Bronx-born son of Jewish immigrants, Caan modeled his Godfather character in part on wiseguys he knew in New York, such as Andrew “Mush” Russo, a cousin of the Colombo crime family’s Carmine “The Snake” Persico.
Caan’s performance was so convincing that some people later would try to provoke Sonny-like responses from him, author Mark Seal said in an email.
Seal’s 2021 book Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli examines how director Francis Ford Coppola’s movie came together despite obstacles and now is regarded as a masterpiece. Among the unforgettable scenes involving Caan is one in which Sonny is gunned down at a parkway tollbooth, still considered shocking and gruesome.
“James Caan’s fiery portrayal of Sonny will surely be remembered as one of the greats, as evidenced by what Caan told me about how people would test him in public to see if he would react like Sonny Corleone,” Seal said.
“I won Italian of the Year twice in New York,” Caan said, according to the author, “and I’m not Italian.”
Master of the improv
During filming, Caan’s character really jelled when he began to channel Don Rickles, the insult comedian. As Seal notes in the book, it was this “rapid-fire, Don-Rickles-meets-the-Mob bravado that elevated his character to a whole new level.”
Seal recalled conversations with Caan about the actor’s interpretation of the bold Corleone son depicted in Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather. Another son, Michael (Al Pacino), is level-headed and responsible. A third, Fredo (John Cazale), shows signs of weakness. But Sonny is brash and action-oriented.
“I first met him in person in 2008, in his home in Beverly Hills, and I remember seeing an artist’s depiction of the three Corleone brothers and the Don on his wall,” Seal said. “We spoke for hours that day and thereafter, but (the Rickles story) was critical to how he brought Sonny Corleone to life so vividly — and fiercely — on the screen.”
Caan became so wrapped up in the character that he improvised scenes that Coppola, a classmate at Hofstra University, left in the movie. Among these is Caan’s ad lib of the phrase “bada bing.”
The expression comes up when Sonny is explaining to his brother Michael, a former combat Marine, that he can’t shoot two targeted Corleone enemies from a mile away, like in the military.
“You gotta get up close, like this — bada bing,” Sonny says.
In the book, Seal notes that this term was “sent straight from improv heaven and would quickly become a mantra for mobsters and aspiring mobsters.” Years later, a fictional strip club that the central characters in The Sopranos use as a Mob hangout is called the Bada Bing.
At least one Godfather cast member, Gianni Russo, was not impressed with Caan’s improvisational skills. Russo played Carlo Rizzi, the abusive husband of Sonny’s sister, Connie.
During a phone call after Caan’s death, Russo recalled how Caan veered from the script in throwing a sawed-off broom handle at him in a fight scene and beat him so badly during filming that he was left with a chipped elbow and a couple of cracked ribs.
Russo, author of the 2019 memoir Hollywood Gangster: My Life in the Movies and the Mob, said Caan earlier had set him up to be embarrassed in the presence of mobsters at Jilly’s, a Manhattan nightclub during that period.
Throughout the years, the two of them never got along, Russo said.
Johnny Martino, a Brooklyn-born actor who played Paulie Gatto in the movie, said he saw the news about Caan’s death online.
“I wasn’t sure I was reading it right,” he said over the phone.
It was reported that Caan struggled at one time with drug abuse and had run-ins with the law regarding alleged violent behavior. Martino said he knew Caan had been using a wheelchair because of leg problems, but he had no idea the actor was nearing the end of his life.
Martino remembered Caan as a “tough guy from Queens” who also was a practical joker. “He and Brando would kid sometimes,” Martino said.
Once on the set, with Caan nearby, Brando let his unfastened pants drop, Martino said. Caan earlier had mooned Brando from a moving car.
On the phone two days after Caan’s death, Martino was waiting in line to enter a minor league ballpark in Florida where New York Mets star Jacob deGrom was pitching for single-A St. Lucie. The Mets ace was rehabbing in the minors while recovering from an upper-body injury.
The 85-year-old Martino said he is a fan of both New York big league teams, the Mets and Yankees. Incidentally, Caan spent much of his youth in Queens, where the Mets play their home games. The Yankees are from the Bronx, where Caan was born.
Though Martino was going in to see the baseball game, he took a minute to talk about his friend James Caan. In their younger years, they had been fellow actors enjoying the experience of being on the set of a movie that no one knew would turn out to be a hit, he said.
“It was truly exciting,” Martino said.
Martino said he wishes he’d had a chance to connect with Caan again. “I wanted to see him one more time,” he said.
Although Caan is best known for his Godfather role, he starred in a number of other films, including the well-reviwed 1981 crime thriller Thief, which has a Mob plot line. Thief marked the directorial debut of Michael Mann. He also co-starred with Hugh Grant in the 1999 Mob comedy Mickey Blue Eyes.
Feedback or questions? Email firstname.lastname@example.org