James Caan’s career was built on adaptations of notable books.

Caan, who died Wednesday at 82 of undisclosed causes, was best-known for his role as Sonny Corleone, a doomed, hotheaded mobster in 1972’s The Godfather, based on Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel. But he first gained wide attention in the 1971 made-for-TV movie Brian’s Song, in which he played Brian Piccolo, a Chicago Bears halfback who died of cancer at 26. The hit movie was based on I Am Third, a memoir by his Bears teammate Gale Sayers, in which he recalled their close friendship.

Before that, Caan played Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom in an ill-fated 1970 adaptation of John Updike’s classic 1960 novel, Rabbit, Run. The movie was spurned by audiences, never released widely, and quickly fell into obscurity. Even Updike disliked the adaptation, telling an interviewer he regretted the “embarrassment and extreme unworthiness that I’ve caused all these gifted people.…Rabbit, Run was too faithful to the book.” But he added that it “had some good performers in it. James Caan went on to good things.” 

In 1990, Caan’s career enjoyed a resurgence with the release of Misery. Based on Stephen King’s 1987 novel of the same name, Caan played a novelist who is held hostage by a fan and forced to write a new novel featuring a beloved character. On Thursday, King tweeted that he was “very sorry to hear about the passing of James Caan, who gave an Oscar-worthy performance as Paul Sheldon in Rob Reiner’s exceptional film version of Misery.”

Mark Athitakis is a journalist in Phoenix who writes about books for Kirkus, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere.