Happy Birthday James Caan: Relive the Hollywood Legend’s Best Moments

by Mark Long

Hollywood has produced many leading men, but James Caan is one of those rare stars who’s also a man’s man. Today marks his 81st birthday, so let’s take a look at the best moments from his decades-long career. These include roles as a professional football player, mobster, roller derby alpha male, and more.

‘Brian’s Song’

Caan began performing on stage and screen in the early 1960s. He first gained the attention of mainstream American audiences in 1971 with “Brian’s Song.” This ABC Movie of the Week starred Caan and Billy Dee Williams as Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers in the true story of the two Chicago Bears running backs.

The men begin as competitors to be the team’s starter but go on to become close friends. The story takes a tragic turn when Piccolo is diagnosed with cancer and dies at age 26. The movie won an Emmy Award and is considered one of the greatest sports films ever. Need proof? It has a 92% Fresh score at Rotten Tomatoes.

‘The Godfather’

Shortly after “Brian’s Song,” Caan earned an Academy Award nomination for playing Sonny Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 mafia masterpiece “The Godfather.”

While his role as Piccolo was a sentimental tearjerker, Sonny is hotheaded and prone to violence as a solution for most problems. You reap what you sow, however, and Sonny’s execution at a tollbooth is a classic gangland slaying.


Yet another iconic Caan role in the 1970s was Jonathan E. in “Rollerball,” a near-future dystopian film where governments have been replaced by corporations. Caan’s character is the star player on the Houston Rollerball team owned by the Energy Corporation.

Jonathan E. becomes too popular and a threat to social order, so the movie becomes a series of ever-more-dangerous rollerball bouts meant to kill him. In this classic man versus society story, you’ll have to watch all the way to the end to see who comes out on top.

James Caan’s Storied Career

Beyond these roles in the 1970s, Caan’s work covers the decades since then too. He played a hardboiled police detective with a space alien partner in “Alien Nation” (1988), a struggling football coach in “The Program” (1993), and a grumpy dad to erstwhile elf Buddy in “Elf” (2003).

You’d be mistaken to think Caan has any intention of slowing down. His latest movie came out in 2020, and he has three more in the works. His legion of fans is wishing him the best on his birthday while also looking forward to seeing his upcoming roles.