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Not being Italian was no obstacle to James Caan, who portrayed Sonny in “The Godfather,” winning “Italian of the Year”–twice!

Scott Antony
(Photo by Paramount Pictures/Fotos International/Getty Images)
(Photo by Paramount Pictures/Fotos International/Getty Images)

“Hey, whaddya 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…”

Yes, you guessed it right, it is Don Corleone’s eldest son, Santino ‘Sonny’ Corleone, portrayed by James Caan, talking to his brother Michael (Al Pachino) after he informed him that he would kill Sollozzo and his ally, police Captain McCluskey. It is one of the best scenes in one of the greatest movies ever made–The Godfather.

According to Roger Ebert, the only film critic with a star on Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame, “the story by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola is a brilliant conjuring act, inviting us to consider the Mafia entirely on its own terms”.

Coppola’s film saga, in which he masterfully portrays the dark side of the American dream, left a long-lasting legacy in the movie industry by defining an entire genre and setting the standards on a level that simply cannot be surpassed by any other movie in near future. The Godfather was nominated for ten Academy Awards including four for acting, which means that director Francis Ford Coppola made excellent casting choices by hiring James Caan, Al Pacino, Marlon Brando and Robert Duval to play his four main male characters.

All of them achieved worldwide fame and will always be identified with their roles. However, James Caan’s hot-headed Sonny was chosen by many as their “favorite” character. What makes Sonny Corleone so irresistibly adorable and how this character became one of the most iconic in the history of Hollywood? He is a less-than-ideal Don; he is rash, impulsive, and sometimes just plain stupid. He cheats on his wife, notably with Lucy Mancini, one of his sister’s bridesmaids. All in all, Sonny is just the opposite of the Don and Michael.

On the other hand, Sonny is a kind, generous man who is extremely protective of his family. He nearly killed Carlo Rizzi for hitting Connie. Sonny is too emotional and that probably explains why he is so quick to anger. He would never let someone mistreat his family, which is what leads him to his death.

Even nearly a half-century later, James Caan is still identified with his famous character. Although the actor has a wide range of characters he portrayed during his decades-long career in the movie business, people are always casting him as the tough guy. As he says: “People say they didn’t know I could sing and dance. Well, nobody ever asks me! It’s always ‘Punch this guy!'”

As written by Vanity Fair, he is constantly tested in public to see if he’ll react like trigger-tempered Sonny Corleone. “I’ve been accused so many times,” he told Vanity Fair. “They called me a wiseguy. I won Italian of the Year twice in New York, and I’m not Italian.… I was denied in a country club once. Oh, yeah, the guy sat in front of the board, and he says, ‘No, no, he’s a wiseguy, been downtown. He’s a made guy.’ I thought, What? Are you out of your mind?”

Read another story from us: The Colombo crime family threatened the production of the cult movie The Godfather

James Caan made his screen debut as a sailor in Irma la Douce (1963) and since then he has appeared in numerous other films, including Red Line 7000 (1965), Brian’s Song (1971), Cinderella Liberty (1973), The Gambler (1974), Godfather Part II (1974), to name just a few. However, the role which launched Caan’s career and is considered by many as his crowning achievement is his iconic portrayal of Sonny Corleone.

Scott Antony

Scott Antony is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News