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What James Caan Really Thought Of Sonny's Big Scenes In The Godfather

No doubt, James Caan played a great many memorable roles over the course of his career. But to many, the actor, who died on July 6 at the age of 82, will always be remembered, first and foremost, as Sonny Corleone in "The Godfather." Caan's energy playing the hot-headed Sonny — next in line to take over for his father Vito (Marlon Brando) as head of the Corleone crime family — was nothing short of kinetic.

To say Sonny had impulse control issues would be an understatement. But it would also be untrue to say he wasn't fiercely loyal to his family members. Those characteristics are established from the get-go, but in a way, the die is really cast when Sonny delivers a public beating to his brother-in-law Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo), as a warning against his abuse of Sonny's sister Connie (Talia Shire). It's this impulsiveness mixed with die-hard loyalty that Don Barzini (Richard Conte) exploits in order to entrap and mercilessly gun Sonny down.

Both of these scenes go down in cinema history as two of its most brutal. Given this, one would think that the amount of choreography and planning that went into them would have been significant. Caan, however, remembered it another way.

The fight scene was choreographed and shot in one day

Speaking to the A.V. Club's Todd Gilchrist in March of 2022, James Caan said that much of Sonny's signature rage in "The Godfather" was spontaneous. Early in the brief interview, Gilchrist asked Caan about filming the beating scene with Carlo. Gilchrist was mistakenly under the impression that the scene took four days to shoot, and asked whether that made it difficult to stay in the moment as an actor.

Somewhat surprisingly, Caan quickly corrected Gilchrist, informing him that the fight did not take four days. In fact, not only did the scene only take a single day to complete, but director Francis Ford Coppola never even saw the fight choreography until the day of filming. According to Caan, he and stuntman Paul Baxley planned out the fight themselves on a Saturday afternoon. By the time Coppola showed up, they were ready to go.

"Francis never saw it," said Caan. "Nobody saw it. We shot it, getting out of the car, throwing the thing at him, all the stuff — I beat him with the trash can — all of the way through the entire fight through the kick at the hydrant, in that one day."

Caan performed Sonny's death scene as purely emotional

As for Sonny Corleone's death scene, James Caan also dismissed the idea that it was logistically difficult to shoot. "No, that's purely emotional," he told Gilchrist. He also provided some insight into why Coppola had such trust in him to do his thing during Sonny's scenes.

"I mean, a lot of that stuff, Francis was really good to me," he said. "I come from Sunnyside [in the Bronx], Francis did too. His grandmother lived around the corner from me and we behaved in certain ways, so he let me go pretty much." Reading this response, Caan almost seems nonchalant. But what it really shows is that Coppola had a great amount of trust in Caan. The two were very much on the same page as to how Sonny should act. Of course, it also means Caan had a great amount of trust in himself as an actor. 

As he was a student of Sanford Meisner (via TheWrap), this kind of spontaneity was key to Caan's acting style. As Meisner himself once said, "The foundation of acting is the reality of doing" (via Medium). This made for a style that, in Caan's case, relied on organic reactions, and often improvisation. Despite the anarchic and often violent energy he brought to this particular role, Caan once told Playboy that he never once started a fight (via Forward).