One of Hollywood's pre-eminent male stars of all time (eclipsed, perhaps, only by "King" Clark Gable and arguably by Gary Cooper or Spencer Tracy), and the cinema's quintessential "tough guy", James Cagney was also an accomplished--if rather stiff--hoofer and easily played light comedy. Ending three decades on the screen, he retired to his farm in Stanfordville, New York (some 77 miles/124 km. north of his New York City birthplace), after starring in Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three (1961). He emerged from retirement to star in the 1981 screen adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's novel "Ragtime" (Ragtime (1981)), in which he was reunited with his frequent co-star of the 1930s, Pat O'Brien, and which was his last theatrical film and O'Brien's as well).b Cagney's final performance came in the title role of the made-for-TV movie Terrible Joe Moran (1984) (TV), in which he played opposite Art Carney.IMDb Mini Biography By: Bill Takacs <email@example.com> (qv's & corrections by A. Nonymous)
|Frances Cagney||(28 September 1922 - 30 March 1986) (his death) 2 children|
Famous for his gangster roles he played in the 1930s and 1940s (which made his only Oscar win as the musical composer/dancer/actor George M.Cohan most ironic).
Diminutive but nimble frame
Unmistakable rapid-fire speaking voice
Wise-cracking New Yorker persona
Cagney's first job as an entertainer was as a female dancer in a chorus line.
According to his authorized biography, Cagney, although of Irish and Norwegian extraction, could speak Yiddish since he had grown up in a heavily Jewish area in New York. He used to converse in Yiddish with Jewish performers like Sylvia Sidney.
Ranked #45 in Empire (UK) magazine's "The Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time" list. [October 1997]
Films co-starring James Cagney and Pat O'Brien were these nine: Here Comes the Navy (1934), Devil Dogs of the Air (1935), The Irish in Us (1935), Boy Meets Girl (1938), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), Torrid Zone (1940), The Fighting 69th (1940), Ceiling Zero (1936), as well as their finale together, four decades later, Ragtime (1981).
American Film Institute Life Achievement Award 
Interred at Gate of Heaven Cemetery, Hawthorne, New York, USA.
President of Screen Actors Guild (SAG). [1942-1944]
Convinced decorated war hero Audie Murphy to go into acting.
His widow Frances (nicknamed 'Bill') outlived Cagney by eight years, dying aged 95 in 1994.
Father of actor James Cagney Jr.
Pictured on a 33¢ USA commemorative postage stamp in the Legends of Hollywood series, issued 22 July 1999.
Had two adopted children, Cathleen "Cassie" and James Jr.
Earned a Black Belt in Judo.
He was voted the 14th Greatest Movie Star of all time by Entertainment Weekly.
Extraordinarily (for Hollywood), he never cheated on his wife Frances, resulting in a marriage that lasted 64 years (ending with his death). The closest he came was nearly giving into a seduction attempt by Merle Oberon while the two stars were on tour to entertain WWII GIs.
Despite the common perception that he was full-blooded Irish of origin this was not all-together true. His grandfather was from Norway, but as he told an interviewer shortly before his death in 1986: "My mother's father, my Grandpa Nelson, was a Norwegian sea captain, but when I tried to investigate those roots I didn't get very far, for he had apparently changed his name to another one that made it impossible to identify him within the rest of the population."
Was of Irish-Norwegian origin.
Though most Cagney imitators use the line "You dirty rat!", Cagney never actually said it in any of his films.
According to James Cagney's autobiography Cagney By Cagney, (Published by Doubleday and Company Inc 1976, and ghost written by show biz biographer Jack McCabe), a Mafia plan to murder Cagney by dropping a several hundred pound klieg light on top of him was stopped at the insistence of George Raft. Cagney at that time was president of the Screen Actors Guild, and was determined not to let the mob infiltrate the industry. Raft used his many mob connections to cancel the hit.
He was voted the 11th Greatest Movie Star of all time by Premiere Magazine.
Named the #8 greatest Actor on The 50 Greatest Screen Legends List by The American Film Institute
According to his autobiography his brother Bill (who was also his manager) actively pursued the role of Cohan in the ultra-patriotic film Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) as a way of removing the taint of Cagney's radical activities in the 1930s, when he was a strong Roosevelt liberal. When Cohan himself learned about Cagney's background as a song-and-dance man in vaudeville, he okay-ed him for the project.
Lost the role of Knute Rockne to his friend Pat O'Brien when the administration of Notre Dame - which had approval over all aspects of the filming - nixed Cagney because of his support of the far-left (and anti-Catholic) Spanish Republic in the then-ongoing Spanish Civil War.
Originally a very left-wing Democrat activist during the 1930s, Cagney later switched his viewpoint and became progressively more conservative with age. He supported his friend Ronald Reagan's campaigns for the Governorship of California in 1966 and 1970, as well as his Presidential campaigns in 1980 and 1984. President Reagan delivered the eulogy at Cagney's funeral in 1986.
His performance as Tom Powers in The Public Enemy (1931) is ranked #57 on Premiere Magazine's 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time.
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) is ranked #88 on the American Film Institute's 100 Most Inspiring Movies of All Time.
Often said that he did not understand the method actors like Marlon Brando. Cagney admitted that he used his own personal experiences to help create his performances and encouraged other actors to do so, but he did not understand actors who felt a need to go to the extreme length that method actors went to.
Biography in: "The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives". Volume Two, 1986- 1990, pages 149-152. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1999.
To protest the quality of scripts he was given at Warner Brothers, instead of violating his contract by refusing to appear in a picture he reputedly used his appearance to get even. In Jimmy the Gent (1934) he got an ugly crew-cut to make himself look like the hoodlum Warners wanted him to play. In movies like He Was Her Man (1934) he grew a thin mustache to upset thin-mustachioed studio boss Jack L. Warner.
Encouraged by his mother to take up boxing as a hobby. She thought it was a necessary skill to have, especially in the rough Eastside section of New York City where he grew up. She would often show up and watch him take on neighborhood kids in a street fight. However when he wanted to become a professional boxer, she disapproved. She started to put on a pair of boxing gloves and told him "If you want to become a professional fighter, then your first fight will have to be against me". He abandoned the idea of doing boxing professionally from that moment on.
Inspiration for the Madonna song, "White Heat", from her album, True Blue.
At the time of filming of White Heat (1949), Special Effects were not yet using squibs (tiny explosives that simulate the effects of bullets). The producers employed skilled marksmen who used low velocity bullets to break windows or show bullets hitting near the characters. In the factory scene, Cagney was missed by mere inches.
Broke a rib while filming the dance scene in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) but continued dancing until it was completed.
He once claimed that problems with Horst Buchholz had convinced him to retire from acting.
Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan at a ceremony at the White House on 26 March 1984.
In his autobiography, he mentions that while in the chorus of the musical "Pitter Patter", he earned $55 a week, of which he sent $40 a week home to his mother. As his salary increased, so did the amount he sent back home. In The Public Enemy (1931), he earned $400 a week, sending over $300 back home. Until his mother passed, he never kept more than 50% of his earnings.
Often left the set early claiming he was too ill to continue filming in order to ensure an extra day of filming so that the extras and the film crew, whom he thought woefully underpaid, could get an additional day's salary.
Two grandchildren, from daughter Kathleen, Verniey Lee and Christina May Thomas.
He is the father-in-law of screenplay writer Jack W. Thomas, who married his daughter Cathleen on February 17, 1962.
Grandfather of actor James Cagney IV.
Great grandfather of actress Fiona Cagney.
Great-great uncle of Brian Harrison Mack.
Great uncle of Pattee Mack.
"Cagney! The Musical," an original biographical stage work written by Peter Colley and directed by Bill Castellino, had its world premiere in March 2009 at the Florida Stage theatre in Manalapan, Florida. Robert Creighton starred as Cagney, both he and the show received good to excellent reviews and the run soon sold out, setting a record for the theatre.
Part of the first group of major stars to join the Screen Actors Guild in October 1933 as member number 50. Before his Guild presidency, he served nearly a decade on the Board and as First Vice President. Cagney was elected Guild president in September 1942.
Although closely associated with his friend Pat O'Brien who co-starred with Cagney in 9 movies, Cagney actually made more movies with his other close friend Frank McHugh. 11 in total which included: The Crowd Roars (1932), Footlight Parade (1933), Here Comes The Navy (1934), Devil Dogs Of The Air (1935), The Irish In Us (1935), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), Boy Meets Girl (1938), The Roaring Twenties (1939), The Fighting 69th (1940), City For Conquest, (1940), A Lion Is In The Streets (1953).
Cagney and best friends Frank McHugh & Pat O'Brien, were known collectively and affectionately as the 'Irish Mafia' and would often be seen out together around Hollywood nightclubs having a quiet drink and a chat. Other members of this close knit social group included actors Lynne Overman, Ralph Bellamy, Frank Morgan, Bert Lahr, Allen Jenkins and Spencer Tracy.
Once worked as a waiter.
A studio changed his birth date from 1899 to 1904 to capitalize on his youthful appearance.
In 1973, he was offered the title role in the comedy Harry and Tonto, but Cagney, who was then 74 year-old and hadn't starred in a feature film since 1961, didn't want to come out of retirement. The role, and the Best Actor Oscar, would go to Art Carney.
He refused payment for his cameo in "The Seven Little Foys" (1955) even though he spent ten days learning his complicated tap routine for the film.
There's not much to say about acting but this. Never settle back on your heels. Never relax. If you relax, the audience relaxes. And always mean everything you say.
All I try to do is to realise the man I'm playing fully, then put as much into my acting as I know how. To do it, I draw upon all that I've ever known, heard, seen or remember.
My biggest concern is that doing a rough-and-tumble scene I might hurt someone accidentally.
[in the early 1960s] In this business you need enthusiasm. I don't have enthusiasm for acting anymore. Acting is not the beginning and end of everything.
They need you. Without you, they have an empty screen. So, when you get on there, just do what you think is right and stick with it.
Where I come from, if there's a buck to be made, you don't ask questions, you go ahead and make it.
With me, a career was the simple matter of putting groceries on the table.
Once a song and dance man, always a song and dance man. Those few words tell as much about me professionally as there is to tell.
I hate the word "superstar". I have never been able to think in those terms. They are overstatements. You don't hear them speak of [William Shakespeare] as a superpoet. You don't hear them call Michelangelo a superpainter. They only apply the word to this mundane market.
You know, the period of World War I and the Roaring Twenties were really just about the same as today. You worked, and you made a living if you could, and you tried to make the best of things. For an actor or a dancer, it was no different then than today. It was a struggle.
My father was totally Irish, and so I went to Ireland once. I found it to be very much like New York, for it was a beautiful country, and both the women and men were good-looking.
[about his most famous misquoted line] I never actually said, "Nnng-you dirty ra-at!" What I actually said was [imitating Cary Grant] "Judy! Judy! Judy!"
Learn your lines, find your mark, look 'em in the eye and tell 'em the truth.
Learn your lines ... plant your feet ... look the other actor in the eye ... say the words ... mean them.
The lovers of hate, born in fear - Find no release from tension - They spend their lives in a permanent state - Of miserable apprehension.
When I was younger, if someone had told me I had only two years to live, I'd have gone to an island that was really country--and just rocked it out by myself. But if someone told me the same thing today, I believe I'd probably travel--just to get away from all the noise and nonsense we are surrounded with.
The things the world most needs are simplicity, honesty and decency--and you find them more often in the country than in the city. My feeling for the country goes beyond sense. I don't like to be in the cities at all. I like to be where animals are--and thing growing.
[Telegram sent to House Ways and Means Committee regarding No Runways on Vacation Isle - 1969] For more than 30 years I have watched Martha's Vineyard go downhill as a place of natural wonder and peaceful haven. Now they are talking of runways for jets. Is there to be no end to the destruction of all that is natural and worthwhile? Please give it some thought.
[in 1931] I'm sick of guns and beating up women. Movies should be entertaining, not bloodbaths.
|Sinners' Holiday (1930)||$500/week (three-week shoot)|
|The Doorway to Hell (1930)||$400/week|
|The Public Enemy (1931)||$400/week|
|Blonde Crazy (1931)||$450/week|
|Hard to Handle (1933)||$3,000/week|
|Great Guy (1936)||$100,000|
|Something to Sing About (1937)||$100,000|
|Boy Meets Girl (1938)||$5,000/week|
|Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)||$150,000|
|The Roaring Twenties (1939)||$12,500/week|
|You may report errors and omissions on this page to the IMDb database managers. They will be examined and if approved will be included in a future update. Clicking the 'Edit page' button will take you through a step-by-step process.|
|With our Resume service you can add photos and build a complete resume to help you achieve the best possible presentation on the IMDb.|
Click here to add your resume and/or your photos to IMDb.