James Caan loved to tell the story about how he took revenge on The Godfather director, Francis Ford Coppola, for stealing his food.
“James made a sandwich with hot jalapeños,” says Jennifer Tilly, his costar on Jericho Mansions. “Coppola came roaring out, grabbed the sandwich … and gobbled it down. Tears started squirting out of his eyes. He started yelling, ‘What did you do to me?!’ Jimmy said meekly, ‘Did I ask you to eat my sandwich? Did I?’”
The larger-than-life actor, who passed away on July 6 at age 82, enjoyed many wild exploits during his six-decade career. Handsome, macho and versatile, he brought America to tears in Brian’s Song, swaggered as hot-tempered Sonny Corleone in The Godfather and elicited laughs in crowd-pleasers like Honeymoon in Vegas and Elf.
Along the way, James earned one Oscar nomination — for 1972’s The Godfather — and two Emmy nominations. The son of Jewish immigrants who escaped Nazi Germany, Jimmy, as friends called him, grew up in Queens, N.Y., where his dad, Arthur, was a butcher.
A self-described “punk from Sunnyside,” he played football for Michigan State but drifted back to New York to work as a lifeguard and nightclub bouncer before he discovered acting at Long Island’s Hofstra University.
His father thought he was crazy. “Tell me you want to be a butcher, a baker, a bricklayer, anything ,” Arthur Caan pleaded. The prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse accepted Jimmy as a student, and before long, he was getting roles on TV’s Route 66 and Dr. Kildare.
Jimmy even managed to hold his own opposite fellow tough guys John Wayne and Robert Mitchum in 1966’s El Dorado.
Next came The Godfather — and life would never be the same.
“The Godfather has a lot of truth, sincerity, and art,” said Jimmy proudly, but he sometimes struggled to shake off the long shadow that Sonny cast. “They want me to play Sonny for the rest of my life,” he complained.
It was hard to blame fans who confused Jimmy’s life and art. A man’s man like Sonny, Jimmy earned a black belt in karate, roped steer, married and divorced four times, and often clashed with costars, directors and journalists.
His life took a hard turn in 1981 when his sister-manager Barbara died of leukemia, sending Jimmy into “a bad bout with cocaine” and a career free fall. “When I lost her, I couldn’t handle it,” he admitted. Following rehab, his old friend Coppola — who had forgiven him for the pepper-sandwich prank — cast Jimmy in 1987’s Gardens of Stone, reestablishing the star as an acting powerhouse.
Jimmy worked steadily thereafter — in Misery, Eraser, Las Vegas, Dogville and the upcoming Fast Charlie.
Despite his ups and downs, Jimmy aspired to be a good father to children Tara, 57, Scott, 45, Alexander, 31, James, 26, and Jacob, 23. “My dad is a good example of someone who digs into life and goes, ‘Yeah, that tore my heart out, but I’m going to try again,’” Scott said. “His family was more important” than anything else.