Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

The Other Iconic Godfather Character James Caan Almost Played

Screen legend James Caan passed away on July 6, 2022, leaving behind a legacy of roles in such film classics as "Brian's Song," "Thief," "Rollerball," "Misery," and "Elf." Arguably Caan's greatest performance, though, came as Sonny Corleone in director Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 gangster epic "The Godfather," a role that earned the performer an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.

In "The Godfather," Sonny Corleone is the hot-headed older brother of Fredo (John Cazale) and Michael (Al Pacino) — and earlier in his life, the elder son was responsible for bringing a street orphan, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), into the Corleone family. Sonny's fragile temperament was a liability, though, causing him to get into deep conflicts within the Corleone family as well as rival crime families. Ultimately, he gets viciously gunned down in one of the film's most riveting scenes.

But while fans have memories of Caan's portrayal of Sonny forever seared in their collective memories, Caan said that he was actually approached to play another principal role in "The Godfather."

Caan auditioned to play Michael Corleone in The Godfather

In a March 2022 interview with "The Rich Eisen Show" to discuss the 50th anniversary of "The Godfather," James Caan recalled that when the film was in preproduction, he was joined by a relative unknown named Al Pacino, as well as Robert Duvall and Marlon Brando, to improvise some scenes for Francis Ford Coppola in San Francisco. After Coppola went with the production to scout locations in New York, Caan — who worked with the director previously on the arthouse drama "The Rain People" — said he got a call from his filmmaker friend about auditioning for a role other than Sonny.

"He said, 'Jimmy ... they want you to come in and test.' I said, 'Test what? You got a Porsche you want me to drive around the block? What are you talking about?' So he says, 'No, they want you to play Michael,'" Caan recalled for Eisen. "I said, 'What?'"

Caan continued on to clarify that while the studio potentially wanted him to play Michael, it appears that Coppola was firm on Caan playing Sonny. "You know, Francis has his ideas and that's why he's Francis," Caan told Eisen. 

While Sonny was gunned down in "The Godfather," Caan reprised the role in an uncredited cameo in "The Godfather, Part II." Caan and the core cast — apart from Brando's Vito Corleone — appear in a flashback dinner scene where Michael tells the family that he's joined the Army, much to Sonny's dismay.