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Actor James Caan grew up in Sunnyside

In conjunction with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, the Times/Ledger Newspaper presents noteworthy events in the borough’s history

Born on March 26, 1940 and raised in Sunnyside, James Edmund Caan is a prolific, versatile movie actor perhaps best known for playing Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather.” Appearing in over 80 movies in a career spanning six decades, Caan’s roles have ranged from the rugged, masculine renegade in films such as “Rollerball” and “Gardens of Stone, “ to the heart-wrenching as the terminally ill protagonist in “Brian’s Song” and the vulnerable victim of a crazed stalker in “Misery. “Caan is the father of Hawaii Five-0 star Scott Caan and is also a 6th degree black belt in karate.

The future Hollywood actor was born in The Bronx to Sophie and Arthur Caan, Jewish immigrants from Germany, and he grew up in Queens. After high school, the athletic Caan briefly played football at Michigan State University, and before earning fame on the silver screen he gained the moniker “The Jewish Cowboy” as a regular on the rodeo circuit. While a student at Hofstra University, on Long Island, he developed an interest in acting and began appearing Off-Broadway at Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse. Although the rising star from Sunnyside did not graduate from Hofstra, one of his classmates was Francis Ford Coppola. It was not the last time their paths would intersect.

With his rugged good looks and undeniable acting talent, James Caan’s career took off in the 1960s. He followed up his 1961 Broadway debut in “Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole” with a brief, uncredited appearance in the 1963 romantic comedy “Irma La Douce, “and earned regular roles in “The Untouchables, ““Ben Casey, “Rout6 66”and other hit TV series in the early Sixties. In the following decade, the butcher’s son from Queens continued to gain acclaim and notoriety. After starring as cancer-stricken football player Brian Piccolo in “Brian’s Song,” Caan was cast opposite Robert Duvall and Al Pacino as the short-tempered, fiery Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather, “a role which earned him a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Feeling typecast by the role of Mafia gangster, Caan once remarked “They called me a wiseguy. I won Italian of the Year twice in New York, and I’m not Italian!”

By the 1980s, however, Caan began to suffer from what he called “Hollywood burnout.” After rejecting a series of promising roles in box office hits, including “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Blade Runner” and “Superman, “Caan fell into depression and a bout with drug abuse following the death of a beloved sister from leukemia. His 1987 comeback was, nevertheless, equally spectacular as he was reunited again with Francis Ford Coppola in the Vietnam-war film “Gardens of Stone. “He continued his winning streak into the 1990s with starring roles in “Dick Tracy,” “Misery “and “Honeymoon “in Vegas, and returned to the sport of football as a coach in “The Program.

The rugged former cowboy and gridiron great has showed no signs of slowing in the new century. Caan appeared as the president of the United States in the 2008 action comedy “Get Smart, “ and in 2012 he guest starred alongside his son Scott in “Hawaii Five-0.” Considered one of the greatest screen stars of his generation, off screen James Caan is a master of Gosuku Ryu Karate and has trained the Culver City Police Department in practical martial arts.

On growing up in Sunnyside, he said, “I really believe that you grow up a certain way in New York. There’s a New York morality, a sense of loyalty. You know how to win and lose. There are a thousand kids outside; you know who to push and who not to push. There’s a sixth sense you develop just because it’s New York.”

For further information, call the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718-278-0700 or visit our website

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