James Caan—the son of a kosher butcher, born in the Bronx, N.Y., and raised in Queens—admits, “My choices have not been very Yiddish.
“I rode horses; I played with karate,” says Caan, a master in Gosoku Ryu. “When I came to Hollywood, the first thing I bought was a horse and hung out with stuntmen. I did things that people wouldn’t expect.”
Doing the unexpected became second nature to the macho man, who rose to stardom in films including El Dorado with John Wayne in 1966. His star burned brightly with his iconic Emmy-nominated turn as Chicago Bears standout Brian Piccolo in 1971’s Brian's Song, followed by his Oscar-nominated 1972 role as the hot-tempered Sonny Corleone in The Godfather. Between films, Caan competed heavily in rodeos.
The ’80s brought a spate of personal tragedies, including the death of his beloved sister, drug addiction and financial failure. Caan spent most of that time playing dad and coaching Little League teams his son Scott (who’s now starring on Hawaii Five-0) played on. He entered rehab in the mid-1990s.
It looked as if his career might have been over, but Caan wasn’t down for the count. He came back with a strong second act, including a TV comeback in 2003 with Las Vegas.
Now, at 73, the unconventional Caan stars in the ABC comedy Back in the Game. And he certainly is.