The famous “bada bing” line featured in The Godfather was actually completely improvised on the set. James Cann, one of the actors in the movie, originally heard the phrase from his real-life acquaintance, mobster Carmine Persico. He then took that knowledge to the set, where he improvised while rolling. That take made it into the final cut of the film, and the rest is movie history. The Godfather is one of the most famous films of all time.
Hard-living actor who had a rollercoaster career and was often mistaken for Sonny Corleone, the quick-tempered character he played in The Godfather and who he resembled in his own life.
James Edmund Caan (March 26, 1940 – July 6, 2022) was an American actor known for his film and television performances. He was nominated for several entertainment industry awards, including for an Academy Award, two Primetime Emmy Awards, and four Golden Globe Awards. Caan was awarded a motion pictures star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1978.
Caan’s performance as the hot-headed mobster Sonny Corleone in The Godfather was so authentic in its swaggering intensity that he was voted “Italian of the year.”
“I kept telling them, ‘You don’t get it. I’m a Jew from the Bronx.’ I feel guilty about accepting, but they wouldn’t let me turn them down,” he said apologetically.
Caan had initially been cast as Michael Corleone, Sonny’s younger brother who succeeds their father, Vito, played by Marlon Brando, as the mafia don, but in a reshuffle Al Pacino eventually played Michael. Yet as Sonny, Caan had some of the film’s most memorable moments. “You gotta get up like this and – bada bing! – you blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit,” he told Michael in explaining how to kill the family’s enemies. Then there was Sonny’s own spectacular death scene, gunned down in a hail of bullets at a New Jersey tollbooth, for which he was required to wear 147 “squibs”, small explosive charges stuck all over his body to simulate his wounds.
“When they went off, it felt like I was being punched all over. If my hand had got in front of one, it would have blown a hole clean through,” he said.
Caan was nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his performance and reprised the role two years later for flashback scenes in The Godfather: Part II.
The role of Sonny Corleone made him one of Hollywood’s hottest properties and earned him the nickname “the toughest man in films.” The New York Times called him “the Paul Newman of the 1970s” and whenever a studio required an alpha male to dish out some violence, Caan was invariably near the top of their list. “If it was up to them, I’d be playing Sonny my entire life. Usually, if there weren’t’t eight people dead by page 11, they wouldn’t send me the script,” he said.
There followed a decade of tough guy headlining roles, including Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite (1975) in which he was reunited with Robert Duvall, his fellow star from The Godfather, and Norman Jewison’s dystopian sci-fi drama Rollerball (1975).
Off screen he lived up to the he-man image. He boxed, was a black belt in karate and for years was a fixture on the rodeo circuit where he was known as “the Jewish cowboy.” The studios that employed him tried to ban him from rodeo riding, a pursuit that left him with so many stitches and screws in his shoulders and arms that one sportswriter commented that “Jimmy Caan was not born, he was embroidered.”
One crossed him at one’s peril. He even took a pop at John Wayne on the set of the 1966 western El Dorado, when he caught “The Duke” cheating at chess. “He was so lame. He’d say, ‘Hey, Jimmy, what’s that over there?’ and shove the rook around while I gazed yonder like a schmuck,” Caan recalled.
He hung around with mobsters in real life, too, and in 1985 appeared as a character witness for Carmine Persico, the boss of the Colombo crime family. He even kissed him on his cheek in court, although it did Persico no good. He was found guilty and died in prison in 2019. “Stand-up guys stay loyal to their pals,” Caan said.
The list of movies he turned down was as impressive as those in which he appeared. He refused the lead in Kramer vs Kramer, dismissing the script as “boring and bourgeois.” Dustin Hoffman replaced him and won an Oscar. He also turned down Apocalypse Now, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Superman, because he thought the costume in the latter was ridiculous.
When he walked out on the 1985 movie The Holcroft Covenant and was replaced by Michael Caine he acquired a reputation for unreliability that made the Hollywood studios reluctant to employ him, although the director John Frankenheimer was grateful enough. “James Caan gave me the best gift that’s ever happened in my career, because Michael is probably the best actor I’ve ever worked with,” he said.
The Holcroft Covenant was meant to be Caan’s comeback at a time when his life was in freefall. Addicted to cocaine, he was pushed over the edge by the death of his sister, Barbara, from leukaemia in 1981. “She was my best friend, and I was just angry, raging at the world. Getting high and partying seemed like the best option,” he said.
His passion for movies gone, he decided to retire. “Everybody wants to do ‘Rocky 9’ and ‘Airport 96’ and ‘Jaws 7’ and what little idealism you have left slowly dwindles,” he said. He moved into Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion and spent much of his time coaching his son’s baseball and basketball teams.
He thought he had enough money to sustain a life of dope and decadence until he found he had been swindled by an accountant and was “flat-ass broke” with a large tax bill he couldn’t pay. “It wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been permanently stoned,” he admitted. He had no desire to return to work “but when the dogs got hungry and I saw their ribs, I decided that maybe it’s a good idea.” The studios did not want him back and he turned to Coppola, whom he had known since college days. The director fought Caan’s corner and cast him as a battle-hardened platoon sergeant in the 1987 Vietnam-era film Gardens of Stone.
His comeback was cemented by a bravura performance in 1990’s Misery, a psychological thriller based on the Stephen King novel. Rob Reiner, the director, had wanted Warren Beatty but when he was unavailable due to post-production work on Dick Tracy, Caan was given the role as a bedridden novelist held hostage and tormented by a crazed fan, played by Kathy Bates.
It was as far removed from his earlier roles as it was possible to get. “I wondered if this was a sadistic joke on Rob’s part,” he said. “Let’s get the most hyper guy in Hollywood to play a total victim and get the crap beat out of me.” He ranked it as one of the most challenging – and most rewarding – roles of his career.
More successful roles followed, including the Hugh Grant comedy Mickey Blue Eyes (1999) and the Christmas family favourite Elf (2003). These came after he was finally cured of his cocaine addiction in the mid-1990s, as well as his habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In 1993 an aspiring actor had fallen to his death from the fire escape of Caan’s Los Angeles apartment. The following year he had been arrested for pulling a loaded pistol in public. The actor said he had done it to break up a fight and the charges were dropped.
He was one of the first stars to be picked up when the scandal broke around the “Hollywood madam”, Heidi Fleiss. “Hookers? Well, I never paid for them. I just gave them all the cocaine they wanted,” he said.
He finally went into rehab after his 15-year-old son turned up in the middle of a drug deal to take his father home.
He was married and divorced four times: between 1961 and 1966 to the actress Dee Jay Mathis, with whom he had a daughter, Tara; briefly in 1976 to Sheila Marie Ryan, a former girlfriend of Elvis Presley, with whom he had a son, Scott; between 1990 and March 1995 to Ingrid Hajek, with whom he had a son, Alexander; and between October 1995 and 2016 to Linda Stokes, a costume designer, with whom he had two sons, James and Jacob.
His children all survive him. He appeared in the 2009 movie Mercy with Scott, who also wrote the screenplay. It was the most nervous he had ever been on a film set, he said. “United Artists or Warner Brothers or Coppola, I can mess up, but you don’t want to fail for your kid.”
James Edmund Caan was born in 1940 in the Bronx, New York, to German-born Jewish parents Sophie (née Falkenstein) and Arthur Caan, a kosher butcher. A junior boxer, by the time he was 11 he was known as “Killer Caan”. He studied economics at Michigan State University and Hofstra University, but was more interested in playing football. He did not graduate and enrolled at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York, determined to emulate his hero, Marlon Brando.
He made his Broadway debut in 1961 in a play starring Peter Fonda and small movie parts followed, while he supplemented his income from all-night poker sessions and rodeo riding.
His break came in the 1971 TV movie Brian’s Song, based on the true story of the friendship between a black football star, Gale Sayers, and Brian Piccolo, a white team-mate played by Caan who is diagnosed with cancer.
The following year The Godfather changed his life forever and the rollercoaster ride was under way.
Classic Scene – The Godfather
The Godfather has been shot but survives. Sonny (James Caan), Michael (Al Pacino), Tom (Robert Duvall), Clemenza and Tessio sitting in the Don’s study discussing what to do.
Hagen: I found out about this Captain McCluskey who broke Mike’s jaw.
Sonny: What about ‘im?
Hagen: Well, he’s definitely on Sollozzo’s payroll, and for big money. See? Now McCluskey has agreed to be the Turk’s bodyguard. What you have to understand, Sonny, is that while Sollozzo is being guarded like this, he is invulnerable. Now nobody has ever gunned down a New York police captain. Never. It would be disastrous. All the Five Families would come after you, Sonny. The Corleone Family would be outcasts! Even the old man’s political protection would run for cover! So do me a favour – take this into consideration.
Sonny: All right. We’ll wait.
Michael: We can’t wait.
Michael: We can’t wait. I don’t care what Sollozzo says about a deal, he’s gonna kill Pop, that’s it. That’s the key for ‘im. Gotta get Sollozzo.
Clemenza: Mike is right.
Sonny: Lemme ask you somethin’….What about this McCluskey? Huh? What do we do with this cop here?
Michael: They want to have a meeting with me, right? It will be me, McCluskey, and Sollozzo. Let’s set the meeting. Get our informers to find out where it’s gonna be held. Now we insist it’s a public place – a bar, a restaurant – some place where’s there’s people so I feel safe. They’re gonna search me when I first meet them, right? So I can’t have a weapon on me then. But if Clemenza can figure a way to have a weapon planted there for me. Then I’ll kill ‘em both.
Everyone is astonished; they all look at Michael. Silence. Clemenza suddenly breaks out in laughter. Sonny and Tessio join in; only Hagen is serious.
Sonny walks over to Michael, leaning in.
Sonny: Hey, whataya gonna do, nice college boy, eh? Didn’t want to get mixed up in the family business, huh? Now you wanna gun down a police captain. Why? Because he slapped ya in the face a little bit? Hah? What do you think this is the army, where you shoot ’em a mile away? You’ve gotta get up close like this and bada-bing. you blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit. C’mere…
Top 10 Films
El Dorado (1966) – Caan took third billing to such Hollywood heavyweights as John Wayne and Robert Mitchum in the highly-acclaimed western.
The Godfather (1972) – James Caan earned the sole Oscar nomination of his career for his explosive turn as Sonny Corleone.
The Godfather: Part II (1974) – Although he only appears in an uncredited flashback cameo, Caan can still lay claim to having The Godfather: Part II listed in his decorated filmography.
The Gambler (1974) – “Hit me” is how you ask for another card in 21, and that suits the endless masochism of Caan’s table game addict.
Rollerball (1975) – Long before The Hunger Games and Squid Game, Rollerball offers a dystopian take on the world in 2018, with Caan’s Rollerball player having to fight to the death.
A Bridge Too Far (1977) – In Richard Attenborough’s three-hour World War II epic, Caan joined the A-list ensemble of Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Olivier, Robert Redford, and many more to cross A Bridge Too Far.
Thief (1981) – Michael Mann made his narrative feature film debut with Thief, starring Caan in the title role. Caan plays Frank, a hot-shot safecracker and jewel thief who vows one last job before going on the straight and narrow.
Misery (1990) – Directed by Rob Reiner and based on Stephen King’s novel, Misery is a terrifying two-hander for which Kathy Bates won Best Leading Actress at the Oscars.
Honeymoon in Vegas (1992) – Caan had fun with his gangster image in this romantic comedy. He stars as gambler Tommy, who tries to steal PI Jack’s (Nicholas Cage) girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker) because she reminds him of his late wife.
Elf (2003) – The story of Buddy the oversized elf (Will Ferrell), who leaves the North Pole and meets his real father, Walter, played by Caan at his crotchety best.
Photo: Caan as Sonny in The Godfather (1972)