James Caan, 'The Godfather,' 'Elf' and 'Brian's Song' Actor, Dies at 82

James Caan, the iconic star of The Godfather, Thief, Elf, Misery, and so many more died on Wednesday. His family announced the news on Thursday. Caan earned an Oscar nomination for his role as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather and was nominated for an Emmy for the legendary TV movie Brian's Song. His final movie was Queen Bees, released last year.

"It is with great sadness that we inform you of the passing of Jimmy on the evening of July 6," Caan's family said in a statement. "The family appreciates the outpouring of love and heartfelt condolences and asks that you continue to respect their privacy during this difficult time." Caan's family included "end of tweet," the now-famous phrase Caan used at the end of every message he shared with fans.

Caan was born in The Bronx on March 26, 1940, and became interested in acting while in college. After starring in off-Broadway productions, he began his career in Hollywood during the early 1960s. Aside from a supporting role in the John Wayne-Robert Mitchum Western El Dorado (1967), it wasn't until he worked with Francis Ford Coppola for the first time on The Rain People that he broke through. His performance as football player Brian Piccolo in the 1970 TV movie Brian's Song made him a household name before he reunited with Coppola to star in The Godfather as Al Pacino's hot-headed older brother Santino "Sonny" Corleone. Caan had a cameo as Sonny in the final scenes of The Godfather Part II.

The Godfather's success made him one of Hollywood's biggest stars suddenly, but he found himself struggling to find another hit. He starred in several good movies now considered classics, like Rollerball and Thief, and acted alongside Barbra Streisand in her Funny Girl sequel Funny Lady. In 1980, he directed Hide In Plain Sight, which only landed a small release. 

Caan's career suddenly stopped in 1981 when his litter sister Barbara died from leukemia. Her death changed his life, as he spoke about often in recent interviews. "Barbara was like my best friend," he told The Independent. "She was the only person I was afraid of in the world. When she died, passion became this whole thing with me. That's what I loved about my sister: she was just so passionate about whatever she did. I started doing cocaine, which is like a death sentence. That lasted a while." 

After Caan worked on getting clean, he planned his comeback, starting with Gardens of Stone (1987), which reunited him with Coppola. That put him on the road to a complete revival of his career in the 1990s. He worked with Rob Reiner on Misery and Honeymoon in Vegas, and James L. Brooks helped Wes Anderson cast Caan in a supporting role in Bottle Rocket.

For younger audiences, Caan will always be remembered for his part in Jon Favreau's Elf. He played Walter Hobbs, a cantankerous children's book author shocked to learn that Will Ferrell's Buddy the Elf is his biological son. The 2003 movie remains a perennial Christmas classic. "The thing with Caan is, he's got a great sense of humor," Favreau told Rolling Stone in 2020. "So if you could make him laugh, all the tension disappears. We kept him laughing, and he kept us laughing."

Caan could have retired at any point in the last two decades, but he never did. He even began working on television in recent years, scoring a recurring part in Starz's Magic City and appearing alongside his son Scott Caan in an episode of Hawaii Five-0. In 2013, he even starred in the short-lived ABC sitcom Back in the Game.


"I can't take it easy," Caan told Ben Mankiewicz on CBS Sunday Morning in July 2021. "I enjoy working. I love to work with good people. I have more fun when I'm working because I get to know new people and mostly good people, you know? Really good – always in some, you know, some things there's a couple of people you meet, and there's a lot – I have a lot of laughs and I get respect, too, sometimes."  

Caan was married and divorced four times. He had five children, including Scott Caan, who played Det. Sgt. Danno Williams on Hawaii Five-0.