Remembering James Caan: his most memorable roles from The Godfather to Elf

James Caan
(Image credit: Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)

The movie world lost a good one on July 6, as James Caan passed away at the age of 82. Caan was an Oscar-nominated actor, receiving a nom for his role as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, but he had consistently worked on the big and small screen since the early 1960s, including starring in the 2021 movie Queen Bees alongside Ellen Burstyn.

A tweet from Caan’s Twitter account shared the news, though a cause of death has not been shared.

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Many in Hollywood have come out and shared their thoughts on Caan:

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While there still may be a James Caan performance left for fans to enjoy — he starred in Fast Charlie alongside Pierce Brosnan and Morena Baccarin that is eying a first-half 2023 release — there are numerous roles that we’ll always have to enjoy his work. In that spirit, here are What to Watch’s most memorable James Caan roles. 

Brian’s Song (1971) 

Billy Dee Williams and James Caan in Brian's Song

Billy Dee Williams and James Caan in Brian's Song (Image credit: United Archives GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo)

James Caan had been working in TV and movies for 10 years when Brian’s Song came out, but the TV movie, alongside the next movie we mention, would help catapult him to stardom. Caan plays real-life Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo, who formed an incredible friendship with teammate Gale Sayers (Billy D. Williams) as the two inspire each other, though ultimately Piccolo passed away from cancer at a young age. Caan and Williams are great together and were both nominated for Emmys for their work. To this day, Brian’s Song has earned the reputation as being one of the movies that can make even the toughest guys cry, in no small part to Caan’s performance.

Rent Brian’s Song right now on digital on-demand.

The Godfather (1972)

Sonny punches Carlo in The Godfather

James Caan in The Godfather (Image credit: PARAMOUNT PICTURES / Ronald Grant Archive / Alamy Stock Photo)

Without a doubt, the role that James Caan is most remembered for is Sonny Corleone in The Godfather. The hot-headed eldest son of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), Caan exudes the brash and violent nature of Sonny to near perfection. The scene where he beats up brother-in-law Carlo is a great example of this — though it may not have been acting, as Caan apparently beat up his co-star for real shooting the scene. Caan received his only Oscar nomination for his role; had he not had to go up against his co-stars Al Pacino and Robert Duvall he may have won. Trophy or no trophy, Caan’s Sonny is an all-time great performance in the gangster genre.

Watch The Godfather right now on Paramount Plus.

The Gambler (1974)

James Caan at a casino table in The Gambler

James Caan in The Gambler (Image credit: TCD/Prod.DB / Alamy Stock Photo)

After The Godfather, Caan made the leap to leading man, with The Gambler being his first breakout movie as the headliner. As a literary professor with a gambling problem that gets him into more and more trouble, Caan gave another strong performance. Legendary film critic Roger Ebert gave the movie four stars, saying of Caan’s Axel Freed, "We become so absolutely contained by Axel’s problems and dangers that they seem like our own." The Golden Globes were similarly impressed, nominating Caan for their Lead Actor in a Drama award. A remake was made in 2014 starring Mark Wahlberg, but Caan’s version remains the definitive version of The Gambler.

Rent The Gambler on digital on-demand right now.

Thief (1981)

James Caan in Thief

James Caan in Thief (Image credit: TCD/Prod.DB / Alamy Stock Photo)

Throughout his career Caan worked with incredible directors like Francis Ford Coppola (The Rain People & The Godfather), Norman Jewison (Rollerball), Sam Peckinpah (The Killer Elite), Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket) and more. He also worked with Michael Mann in the director’s first movie, Thief. Caan plays a safecracker who plans to do one last big job before going straight. Of course you can guess, things don’t go according to plan. Many reviewers praised Thief as a fantastic debut outing from Mann, with Caan being a key part of that equation.

Watch Thief right now on The Roku Channel, Tubi or Pluto TV.

Misery (1990)

Kathy Bates and James Caan in Misery

Kathy Bates and James Caan in Misery (Image credit: Castle Rock / Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

As much credit as Kathy Bates deserves for her performance as Annie Wilkes in the adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery, we can’t forget that it’s a two-hander. Caan has to play the author whose books Annie is obsessed with and kidnaps to write a new ending for her favorite character. While Bates gets to go big with her performance, Caan is great as his character gets his bearings and begins to formulate a plan to escape (while hampered by injuries). It was a different kind of role for Caan, who has given many of his own larger-than-life performances, but he proved just as adept with it.

Watch Misery right now on Showtime.

Elf (2003)

Amy Sedaris, James Caan and Will Ferrell in Elf

Amy Sedaris, James Caan and Will Ferrell in Elf (Image credit: Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

For many millennials and Gen Zers, Elf could very well have been their first introduction to James Caan. The Christmas movie sees Will Ferrell play Buddy, a human but raised by an elf in the North Pole has become a classic and is almost always on around the holidays. Caan plays Buddy’s real father, Walter, who certainly could use the Christmas spirit that Buddy has in abundance. It’s a delight to see Caan’s rough-and-tough personality play against Ferrell’s jubilant portrayal, making it incredibly endearing when Walter finally learns his lesson and accepts his son and the Christmas spirit that he exudes.

Watch Elf right now on HBO Max

Michael Balderston

Michael Balderston is a DC-based entertainment and assistant managing editor for What to Watch, who has previously written about the TV and movies with TV Technology, Awards Circuit and regional publications. Spending most of his time watching new movies at the theater or classics on TCM, some of Michael's favorite movies include Casablanca, Moulin Rouge!, Silence of the Lambs, Children of Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Star Wars. On the TV side he enjoys Only Murders in the Building, Yellowstone, The Boys, Game of Thrones and is always up for a Seinfeld rerun. Follow on Letterboxd.