James Cagney

Active - 1930 - 2003  |   Born - Jul 17, 1899 in New York, New York, United States  |   Died - Mar 30, 1986   |   Genres - Drama, Comedy, Crime, Romance

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Biography by Sandra Brennan

With his raspy voice, and staccato vocal inflections James Cagney was one of the brightest stars in American cinema history. The son of an Irish father and a Norwegian mother who lived and worked in New York's Lower Eastside, Cagney did a variety of odd jobs to help support his family, including working as a waiter, and a poolroom racker, and even a female impersonator in a Yorkville revue. This humble beginning led to joining the chorus in the Broadway show Pitter-Patter, followed by a vaudeville tour with his wife Francis. By 1925, Cagney had begun to play Broadway leads; he was particularly successful in the musical Penny Arcade, which lead him to be cast in the Hollywood version, renamed Sinner's Holiday (1930). Within a year, Cagney had been signed by Warner Bros., where, in his fifth movie role, he played the ruthless gangster in Public Enemy, the 1931 film that made him a star.

Cagney was a small, rather plain looking man, and had few of the external qualities usually associated with the traditional Hollywood leading man during the '30s. Yet, inside, he was a dynamo, able to project a contentious and arrogant confidence that made him the ideal Hollywood tough guy, the role in which he is best remembered. Of Cagney's energetic acting style, Will Rogers once said, "Every time I see him work, it looks to me like a bunch of firecrackers going off all at once." But Cagney was not content to simply play one type of role, and soon proved his range and versatility by appearing in musicals (Yankee Doodle Dandy [1942], for which he won an Oscar for his portrayal of George M. Cohen); Shakespearean drama (as Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream [1935]); and satire (as a gung-ho American businessman in One, Two, Three[1961]). Cagney even tried directing with Short Cut to Hell a remake of This Gun for Hire, but it was not a commercial success. He retired afterward -- publishing his autobiography, Cagney by Cagney in 1975 -- although continued to receive respect and adulation from his peers and the public. Fifteen years after retiring, Cagney was the first actor to receive the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award. In 1980, he earned a similar award from Kennedy Center. And, in 1984, he received the U.S. government's highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom.

Already suffering from diabetes, circulatory problems, and recurring strokes, Cagney's health began rapidly deteriorating in retirement. Although he had been refusing movie offers for years, his doctors finally convinced him that a little work would do him good. He made his critically acclaimed 1981 comeback playing a small, but crucial role in Milos Forman's Ragtime. This encouraged the aging actor to appear as a grumpy ex-prizefighter in a television movie Terrible Joe Moran in 1984. It was his final film; two years later, Cagney died of a heart attack on his isolated farm in upstate New York. At his funeral, longtime friend and colleague President Ronald Reagan delivered the eulogy, noting that "America lost one of her finest artists."

Movie Highlights

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  • Among his odd jobs were gift wrapper, copy boy, ticket taker, waiter, poolroom racker, female impersonator and, along with his wife, Frances, vaudevillian.
  • Debuted on Broadway in the chorus of 1920's Pitter-Patter and got his breakout part in the 1929 musical Penny Arcade, going on to reprise the role in the 1930 film version, Sinner's Holiday.
  • After his star-making turn as a gangster in the 1931 Warner Bros. film Public Enemy, he defied typecasting by giving acclaimed performances in the 1935 Shakespearean drama A Midsummer Night's Dream, the 1942 musical Yankee Doodle Dandy and the 1961 Billy Wilder satire One, Two, Three.
  • Fought for freedom from the Hollywood studio system, serving as president of the Screen Actors Guild and, with his brother William, forming his own production company, Cagney Productions.
  • In 1981, ended a 20-year retirement with a small part in Milos Forman's Ragtime, then gave just one additional performance, in the 1984 TV-movie Terrible Joe Moran, before his 1986 death from a heart attack.