“It is with great sadness that we inform you that Jimmy passed away on the evening of July 6,” the statement said. “The family appreciates the outpouring of love and heartfelt condolences and asks that you continue to respect their privacy at this difficult time.”
They did not name a cause of death.
Caan first rose to fame playing Chicago Bears halfback Brian Piccolo in Brian’s Song, a widely viewed 1971 TV movie. The tear-jerking film chronicled Piccolo’s real-life battle with terminal cancer and was credited for his treatment interracial friendship between Piccolo and a black teammate, Gale Sayers.
His next film, 1972’s The Godfather, made Caan a star. Though not Italian, Caan was cast as the hot-headed Sonny Corleone, the eldest of gangster Vito Corleone’s three sons, who is memorably gunned down by rival gangsters in an ambush at a tollbooth.
“It wasn’t to imitate Don Rickles. It had that drive, that thing, you know? I was just caught up in it,” he said of his performance.
The role earned him an Oscar nomination. Caan also appeared in a flashback in The Godfather, Part II.
The curly-haired actor was known for playing badass characters in movies like ‘Thief’ and ‘Rollerball.’ But he was a versatile actor who also exuded vulnerability in films like Misery, the 1990 Stephen King adaptation about a mild-mannered romance novelist held captive by an obsessive fan.
He is probably best known to younger audiences for his role in 2003’s Elf, the Christmas Carol, in which he played Will Ferrell’s Scrooge-esque father, a workaholic children’s book publisher unhappy at having an unusually cheerful adult Son wearing an elf costume and pouring maple syrup on his spaghetti.
It wasn’t a cuddly role, but Caan, playing the straight man opposite Ferrell’s exuberant male child, brought with it a welcome dose of cynicism — and plenty of annoyed, tight-lipped looks — that tempered the film’s sweetness.
In the same CBS interview, Caan said he almost turned down the Elf role because of the film’s title alone, but Ferrell convinced him to join the project.
Caan was born in 1940 in the Bronx, New York, the son of Jewish immigrants. His father was a butcher. He played football at Michigan State and later began studying drama as an undergraduate at Hofstra University, where one of his classmates was “Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola.
After appearing in a few plays on and off Broadway, Caan moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s to pursue a film career. Coppola gave him one of his first roles, as a drifter in the 1969 drama The Rain People.
Caan’s other memorable films included the Howard Hawks western El Dorado, James Toback’s The Gambler and A Bridge Too Far (1977), Richard Attenborough’s World War II ensemble epic.
Later in his career, he appeared on television with his son Scott Caan in the rebooted series Hawaii Five-0.
More recently, actor Damian Conrad-Davis played Caan in The Offer, the 2022 Paramount+ miniseries about the making of The Godfather.
Entertainers in Hollywood and beyond paid tribute to Caan on Thursday.