‘The Godfather’: James Caan Reflects on Sonny’s Best Moments 50 Years Later

The Godfather is considered one of the greatest mob movies of all time and it is soon celebrating its 50th anniversary. James Caan plays Sonny Corleone, the quick-tempered, violent member of the Corleone family. As The Godfather approaches its 50th anniversary, Caan looks back at some of Sonny’s most iconic moments, including his horrific death scene.

James Caan says Sonny’s death was a frightening experience

James Caan reflects on his role as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather.
James Caan | Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

In The Godfather, Sonny is a volatile character whose spontaneous decisions eventually lead to disastrous consequences. He ends up angering the wrong people, which leads to them getting rid of him. Sonny’s death occurs when he is ambushed at a highway toll plaza by the family’s mob rivals and is killed in a torrent of gunfire. Caan tells the Daily News that he didn’t know he could be “that frightened.”

“What I remember most was, ‘Wow, I didn’t know I could be that frightened.’ They had bullets all over the place,” Caan said about the scene. “I had 147 squibs on my body and in my jacket. … Pretty loud squibs, too. It went all over the place, parts of my suit. It was pretty hairy, and I was very happy to be done with it.”

Despite the character’s early death, Caan says that he believes fans responded to Sonny as a character because he “wore his heart on his sleeve” and served as the “keeper of peace by being violent.”

Caan was given free rein in some of Sonny’s most violent scenes

Speaking with the Daily News more, Caan details how director Francis Ford Coppola allowed him to bring his own interpretation to this character. Sonny has a violent nature, and Caan says growing up in Queens gave him some experience to bring to the role. One scene in particular features Sonny beating his sister’s abusive boyfriend, Carlos, with fists and a trash can. 

“[Coppola] let me go, because I came from the neighborhood that he was writing about. … He left ‘bada bing’ and all of that, the way I spoke, and throwing the money on the street,” Caan explains. “If you broke anything, it was OK, as long as you paid for it. All of that stuff is what I grew up with. Not everyone was Sonny Corleone, but I mean, that’s the way people were.”

Caan credits Coppola for ‘The Godfather’s lasting legacy 50 years later

The Godfather is still regarded as one of the best movies of all time, and Caan believes that this is primarily due to Coppola’s work as the director. Coppola was nominated for Best Director for the film, and it ended up winning Best Picture at the 45th Academy Awards. It’s an incredibly influential film that is constantly referenced and often parodied. 

“Francis’ genius was not just in directing that film. It was gathering a group of experts who became the experts,” Caan shared. “The story, there were a lot of angles in it that had to touch one of us in the audience. Some could have said, ‘Wow, that was a really strong (story) about the family.’ Somebody else could’ve said, ‘See how that works as a gangster?’ … Whatever it was, there was enough out there to interest somebody, no matter what they did for a living.”

In honor of The Godfather’s 50th anniversary, restored versions of each film in The Godfather trilogy will become available on 4K Ultra HD on March 22. 

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