On July 6, 2022, we lost one of Hollywood’s most iconic actors. Best remembered as the hot-headed son of Vito Corleone in ‘The Godfather’, James Caan’s name is now firmly entrenched in the upper echelons of cinema history as an icon of blue-collar America and a timeless symbol of virility on the silver screen. Born to an immigrant Jewish butcher in 1940, Caan spent his childhood shuttling between Queens and the Bronx before making a name for himself in the industry with his swaggering physicality, boundless charisma and subtle emotional depth.
As someone who was capable of stealing scenes with his sheer presence, Caan never missed a step during his six-decade-spanning career, amassing over 130 acting credits. His chest-haired, tough-guy persona followed him long after becoming a household name with ‘The Godfather’, but Caan never shied away from playing against type, testing his versatile range and taking his career in wildly unexpected directions. That leaves us with a rich body of work full of veritable classics and a few rough patches, but where one thing is for certain — he always gave it his very best.
As we bid farewell to one of the defining faces of New Hollywood, we have assembled ten of Caan’s most unforgettable performances in chronological order — spanning his early breakout roles, scene-stealing supporting turns and overlooked gems that deserve a second look.
1. El Dorado (1966)
Going up against two Hollywood heavyweights such as John Wayne and Robert Mitchum would have been an uphill battle for most actors, let alone an unproven, 25-year-old newcomer. But James Caan wasted no time to make his presence felt and proved he had what it takes to make it big by holding his own with the very best in this 1966 western.
‘El Dorado’ marked the second collaboration between him and veteran director Howard Hawks, who had previously cast him in ‘Red Line 7000’ a year earlier. If not quite his breakout role, Caan’s respectable outing as hot-headed handyman Alan “Mississippi” Traherne certainly helped set his career in motion. One would not suspect that the actor almost came to blows with John Wayne on set considering their great chemistry together on-screen, as we watch a unique bond build between the two characters during their road trip back home. Though it would take a while for him to find material worthy of his talent, ‘El Dorado’ is definitely worth a watch for any Caan fan who’d like to see the actor take his first baby steps towards stardom.
2. The Rain People (1969)
Truth be told, when most people think of James Caan and Francis Ford Coppola, they’re likely thinking of a different film than this one. Though often swept under the rug as a perceived misfire in a sea of veritable masterpieces, Coppola’s ‘The Rain People’ sketches many themes that would be echoed later in his career — including but not limited to toxic patriarchy, rampant crime and social alienation.
Caan plays Killer, a brain-damaged former college football star who’s struggling to figure out his life’s calling and keeps getting the short end of the stick. By a twist of fate, he stumbles upon a pregnant housewife on the run (Shirley Knight) who offers him a ride as she travels all across the country hoping to leave all her problems behind. Operating under the restraints of a shoestring budget, Coppola allows the actors greater leeway in carrying the weight of the story, providing Caan, Knight and soon-to-be Godfather co-star, Robert Duvall, with a juicy showcase to flex their acting chops. It’s safe to say the director liked what he saw, and would offer Caan his career-defining role in his very next film.
3. Brian’s Song (1971)
James Caan put on his helmet and shoulder pads once again to portray a real-life NFL football player in this made-for-TV movie that centers around the on and off-court relationship between Chicago Bears teammates Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams). Though Caan initially turned the role down in fear he would be typecasted and stray away from his silver screen aspirations, ‘Brian’s Song’ struck a chord with television audiences and became an instant hit, eventually landing a Primetime Emmy nomination for both of its leads.
The film definitely shows its age and might come off a bit too saccharine by today’s standards, but it nevertheless offers a poignant tale of kinship and racial unity against the rowdy backdrop of civil rights-era America. Caan has rarely been as effortlessly charming and good-natured, proving once again he was far more gifted than suggested by his tough-guy persona.
4. The Godfather (1972)
Every actor is born to play a certain role, although very few get the chance to do so. James Caan was unquestionably born to play Santino Corleone.
Whenever ‘The Godfather’ slithers back into our pop culture discourse, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and Robert Duvall are all put on a pedestal for their respective performances, and for good reason. But looking back fifty years on, it’s impossible to imagine Coppola’s masterpiece without Caan’s mercurial presence as the enfant terrible of the Corleone clan. Although Caan originally auditioned for Michael Corleone — being narrowly edged out by Pacino — he found the role of a lifetime as his elder brother Sonny, a ticking time-bomb of a man who’s suddenly forced to take the reins of his family’s crime syndicate after a murder attempt on his father. Santino’s reign is ultimately short-lived, as he eventually falls victim to his own recklessness, meeting his fate at a toll booth in one of the most memorable death scenes ever captured on celluloid.
Caan injected his customary physicality, gravitas and restlessness into the character and briefly reprised the role in an uncredited flashback in the 1974 sequel. Countless subsequent films have tried their best to come up with their own Sonny-wannabe — but make no mistake, James Caan’s memorable turn is in a class all by itself.
5. The Gambler (1974)
Riding high off the wheels of success, Caan gifted us with his most criminally underrated role in this adaptation of Dostoevsky’s eponymous novel. ‘The Gambler’ follows Axel Freed, an English college professor whose crippling gambling addiction puts him with one foot on the grave after leaving him in a 40,000$ black hole of debts.
The film plays out like a sort of proto-Uncut Gems comedy of errors where our self-destructive, yet lovable protagonist keeps pushing his luck through a series of unhinged gambling sprees. Nothing is off the table for Axel Freed as long as he can put some dough on it, whether it’s a pick-up basketball game, a three-leg college parlay or a game of blackjack. Caan is definitely in his element here — bringing all the chutzpah and wit that the role demanded and more, which makes Axel’s inevitable downfall all the more heartbreaking.