James Caan, who preferred, “Jimmy,” was best known for portraying Sonny Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather” and Paul Sheldon in Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Stephen King’s “Misery,” died this past month.
Before starting his acting career, the New York City native was a running back at Michigan State, though was quoted in Cigar Afficionado as “too often assuming the role of a tackling dummy.”
His most memorable roles was that of the hotheaded Sonny Corleone, brother of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone, “The Godfather.” He was nominated in the best supporting actor categories at the 1972 Academy Awards and the Golden Globes that same year.
Caan reprised his role in “The Godfather Part II” with a cameo appearance at the end of the film. Caan had previously worked with Coppola in 1969’s “The Rain People” and often smoked Italian cigars with the director and producer, which reminded him of his childhood neighborhood.
Caan was born on March 26, 1940, in The Bronx, New York City, to Sophie and Arthur Caan, Jewish immigrants from Germany. The neighborhood he grew up in was a mix of Italian, Irish and Jewish families, where he and his younger brother, Ronnie, and sister, Barbara, learned life skills, and for James that meant learning how to be a tough guy. That skill was a major part of the persona he would build for himself through Hollywood.
One of the ideological philosophies that Caan learned on the streets at an early age was how to smell respect…and a rat. “You’re not a quitter, you’re not a rat,” Caan said in his January/February 2004 interview with Cigar Afficionado Magazine.
The legendary Hollywood actor was also dedicated to the study of Gosoku Ryu Karate. A 6th degree black belt, Caan has trained for forty-four years with karate legend Takayuki Kubota. A genuine believer in the benefits of martial arts, Caan often gave back to his home community by instructing Culver City police officers in the ways of karate as a method of arrest control.
His father was a kosher meat dealer and a cigar smoker – two life skills Caan learned from his dad, although he later stated in a CBS Sunday Morning interview that he “hated the smells associated with the meat industry.” He did however enjoy everything about cigar smoking, a habit he was very fond of to the end of his life. Jimmy’s cigar interests changed throughout his life, but he seemed to keep returning to Macanudos, a company he even promoted in advertisements on the pages of Playboy Magazine in the 1970s.