From 'The Godfather' to 'Elf', Looking Back on James Caan's Most Memorable Roles

The Oscar nominee often played it serious, and was beloved by fans because of it

01 of 10

James Caan in The Godfather

LOS ANGELES - MARCH 15: James Caan as Santino 'Sonny' Corleone in 'The Godfather, ' the movie based on the novel by Mario Puzo and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Initial theatrical release on March 15, 1972.
James Caan in The Godfather (1972). CBS via Getty

Born in New York City on March 26, 1940, to Sophie and Arthur Caan, Jewish immigrants from Germany, James Caan went to Michigan State University on an athletic scholarship before turning to Off-Broadway, according to a 1975 PEOPLE profile.

Following a theater apprenticeship, he moved on to television guest spots and a role in The Rail People that earned him the eye of one Francis Ford Coppola. The director eventually cast him in 1972's The Godfather, earning Caan his sole Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

02 of 10

James Caan in Brian's Song

Walt Disney Television via Getty Images MOVIE FOR TV - "Brian's Song" - Airdate: November 30, 1971.
ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty

One year prior, he starred in the wildly popular TV movie Brian's Song, which followed the final years of a terminally ill football player. For that role, he earned an Emmy nomination.

"Overnight I was a genius," Caan told PEOPLE in 1975 of his early string of hits. "But it was out-and-out luck."

03 of 10

James Caan in The Gambler

James Caan and Lauren Hutton at the card table together in a scene from the film 'The Gambler', 1974

Caan's role of Axel Freed in 1974's The Gambler — here with Lauren Hutton — earned him his third of four Golden Globe Award nominations.

"I don't like sitting around talking about all that acting crap," Caan told PEOPLE in 1975, "but I've always wanted to be respected by the people I respect. My goal is to do good work and not quit trying."

04 of 10

James Caan in Rollerball

James Caan, US actor, in costume in a publicity still issued for the film, 'Rollerball', 1975. The science fiction film, directed by Norman Jewison, starred Caan as 'Jonathan E'.
Silver Screen Collection/Getty

"You notice the angry face — that's what they pay me for, the angry face," Caan jokingly recalled in 2013 of the 1975 sci-fi film Rollerball, about a violent worldwide game in a futuristic society (set in ... 2018!).

05 of 10

James Caan in Misery

MISERY, James Caan, 1990.
Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

After taking a brief break from the spotlight — and struggling with various legal issues, depression and drugs — Caan returned in pal Rob Reiner's terrifying Misery in 1990.

In an interview with EW 25 years after the film's release, Caan recalled sitting in the theater with Reiner and Stephen King, who penned the story, at the premiere. "He really never came to any of his movies. He didn't like his movies," he said of King. "[But] he got so into that."

06 of 10

James Caan in Bottle Rocket

BOTTLE ROCKET, James Caan, Owen Wilson, 1996
Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Caan appeared in Wes Anderson's very first feature film in 1996 as Mr. Henry, a bad guy with a wild streak. The New York Times called his presence "a lunatic bonhomie that lights a welcome spark."

07 of 10

James Caan in Eraser

ERASER, James Caan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, 1996
Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection

The 1996 action film Eraser paired Caan with Arnold Schwarzenegger, allowing him to once again spread his bad guy wings as villain DeGuerin.

08 of 10

James Caan in Elf

ELF, Will Ferrell, James Caan, 2003
New Line/courtesy Everett Collection

Caan met a new generation of fans when he played the straight-and-narrow biological father to Will Ferrell's Buddy in 2003's Elf.

In a 2020 Rolling Stone interview, director Jon Favreau recalled Caan's "great sense of humor" on set.

"If you could make him laugh, all the tension disappears," Favreau said. "We kept him laughing, and he kept us laughing. He was a lot of fun."

At the end of filming, Favreau said, Ferrell gave his costar a wrap gift.

"He wrote a note that said, 'Great working with you. The first one is a little bit slow, but the second two are really good.' It was The Godfather trilogy."

09 of 10

James Caan on Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS, James Caan, Molly Sims, Josh Duhamel, 'The Story of Owe', (Season 4, Aired November 10, 2006)
Byron J. Cohen/NBC/Courtesy Everett Collection

Caan told CBS in 2021 that he didn't love television, in part because "I fought always never to be the same person. I mean, the fun of being an actor is being somebody else for three months, you know?" However, he had some fun alongside Molly Sims and Josh Duhamel on Las Vegas, starring as casino bigwig Ed Deline from 2003 to 2007.

10 of 10

James Caan on Hawaii Five-0

"Lekio" -- James Caan and son, Scott Caan, behind the scenes of HAWAII FIVE-0. James Caan guest stars as Tony Archer, a retired NYPD bomb expert who is now a private investigator on Oahu, who crosses paths with Five-0 when they investigate the death of a famous talk radio DJ, on HAWAII FIVE-0, Monday, Feb. 27 (10:00-11:00 PM, ET/PT)
Norman Shaprio/CBS via Getty

In 2012, Caan joined son Scott on an episode of Hawaii Five-0, playing a retired NYPD bomb expert who becomes a private investigator in Oahu.

In a 2010 PEOPLE profile, Scott called his dad "one of the greatest actors of all time" and said his father had "always been there for me no matter what." However, he also touched on the pair's "dysfunctional" relationship: the elder Caan had five children with four wives and split from Scott's mom when he was a baby.

"He saw me when I was a little rough around the edges," James told PEOPLE at the time. "Now, we're really best buddies. I'm proud that he's grown up so well."

Related Articles