James Caan was hardly a newcomer to Hollywood when he played the role of hothead Sonny Corleone in The Godfather. But it was Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 epic mob movie that solidified his place on the A-list (and landed him his first and only Oscar nomination).
While the Bronx-born actor, who passed away at the age of 82 on July 6, 2022, amassed more than 135 acting credits throughout his more than 60-year career, he was just as well known for the major roles he turned down. Here are just a handful of them.
1. Popeye Doyle // The French Connection (1971)
Who Played It: Gene Hackman
One year before The Godfather was named Best Picture, William Friedkin’s The French Connection won the same accolade (and then some) when it nabbed five of its eight Academy Award nominations, including one for Gene Hackman as Best Actor. While it’s hard to imagine anyone but Hackman in the role of NYPD detective Popeye Doyle, he was hardly the first choice for the part. That honor went to Steve McQueen, who was the first choice for many roles at the time, but who was worried that the movie was too similar to Bullitt. Lee Marvin, Jackie Gleason, Robert Mitchum, and Caan were all offered the part, too. All turned it down. Caan didn’t think that Popeye was likable enough.
2. R.P. McMurphy // One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
Who Played It: Jack Nicholson
Caan turned down yet another Oscar-winning part when he said no to playing mental ward rebel R.P. McMurphy in Miloš Forman’s movie adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel. In 2013, Caan sat down with Howard Stern to separate fact from fiction when it comes to the many parts he has declined. In the case of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Caan admitted that “I turned down Cuckoo’s Nest four times before Jack [Nicholson] got it.”
3. Roy Neary // Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Who Played It: Richard Dreyfuss
According to Ray Morton’s book, Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg’s Classic Film, Steve McQueen was Spielberg’s first choice to play the lead in this sci-fi classic. McQueen liked the script but didn’t believe he was right for the part, because it would require him to cry—something he had never been able to do on film. Spielberg said he would rewrite the scenes and nix the crying, but McQueen said no; he liked the scenes but wasn’t the right person for the job. Caan passed on it, too. As did Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, and Dustin Hoffman.
4. Han Solo // Star Wars (1977)
Who Played It: Harrison Ford
When asked about the pervasive rumors that he turned down the role of Han Solo in Star Wars, Caan would neither confirm nor deny it to Howard Stern. But he did make a rather telling comment when he explained that “They didn’t want an actor. That’s why they got Harrison Ford.”
5. Superman // Superman: The Movie (1978)
Who Played It: Christopher Reeve
Caan in a pair of tights? He couldn’t picture it either. In an interview with ContactMusic.com, he talked about some of the roles that could've been—including Superman. Though Marlon Brando, who would’ve played Caan’s father again, tried to convince him to sign on, Caan just couldn’t get on board with the idea of wearing the superhero costume.
6. Captain Willard // Apocalypse Now (1979)
Who Played It: Martin Sheen
Whether Coppola wanted Caan to play the part of Captain Willard or Colonel Lucas (Harrison Ford’s part) is unclear. Different sources say different things. Which could very well mean that both parts were offered to the actor at different times. What is clear is that Caan wanted more money than the production could afford, and that he had no regrets about declining to appear in Apocalypse Now. “It wasn't going to be 16 weeks and we wanted money,” he told ContactMusic.com. “And then Francis Ford Coppola said, ‘Listen Jimmy, I’ll tell you what, we’ll live in Manila and we’ll fly by helicopter [to the set].’ I said, ‘That's two things I hate—height and tsetse flies ... I can't do this. That was a wonderful picture, but that last 15 minutes was cerebral horsecrap ... I don't know what that meant."
7. Ted Kramer // Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
Who Played It: Dustin Hoffman
Dustin Hoffman owes a debt of gratitude to Caan for turning down the lead in Kramer vs. Kramer, the role that won Hoffman his first Oscar. But Caan was convinced that it was going to bomb at the box office. “I looked at it and I said, ‘This is middle-class, bourgeois horsecrap! This is crap! Cut to a kid crying all the time.’ I'm a genius.”
A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2022.