James Cagney

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James Cagney
James cagney promo photo (cropped, centered).jpg
James Cagney
Birth name: James Francis Cagney, Jr.
Date of birth: July 17 1899(1899-07-17)
Birth location: New York, New York
Date of death: March 30 1986 (aged 86)
Death location: Stanfordville, New York
Academy Awards: Best Actor
1942 Yankee Doodle Dandy
Spouse: Frances Cagney (1922-1986)

James Francis Cagney, Jr. (July 17, 1899 – March 30, 1986) was an Academy Award-winning American film actor who won acclaim for a wide variety of roles and won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1942, for his role in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Many of the roles that Cagney played plumbed the depth of human experience, explored the struggle between good and evil. He tended to play gangster roles, some of whom had a touch of decency despite their criminal personae. In can be said that Cagney left the world a better place for having lived and for having spent his life as an actor, dramatist, and interpreter of the human spirit. He dropped out of sight from the public for almost twenty years to escape the overexposure and hype of Hollywood. Cagney said that the secret to acting was simply this: "Learn your lines… plant your feet… look the other actor in the eye… say the words… mean them."

Early life

Cagney was born on the Lower East Side to James Cagney Sr., an Irish American bartender and amateur boxer, and Carolyn Nelson; his maternal grandfather was a Norwegian ship captain.[1] He had a reputation as a street fighter. Cagney associated with a rough crowd; most of whom ended in state prison and one was sent to the electric chair. Cagney did manage to graduate from Stuyvesant High School in New York City in 1918, and attended Columbia University.[2] On September 28, 1922, he married dancer Frances Willard Vernon with whom he remained for the rest of his life. They adopted a son, James Cagney Jr, and a daughter, Cathleen Cagney. Cagney began his acting career in vaudeville and on Broadway. When Warner Brothers acquired the film rights to the play Penny Arcade, they took Cagney and co-star Joan Blondell from the stage to the screen in the retitled Sinner's Holiday (1930), featuring Grant Withers. Cagney went on to star in many films, making his name as a "tough guy" in a series of crime films.


With Virginia Mayo in White Heat (1949)
James Cagney in the trailer for the film Love Me or Leave Me (1955)

Although he claimed to be never further to the political left than "a strong FDR Democrat," Cagney lost the role of Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne in Knute Rockne, All American to his friend Pat O'Brien because Cagney had signed a petition in support of the anti-clerical Spanish Republican government in the then-ongoing Spanish Civil War. The Notre Dame administration, which controlled all aspects of the filming, denied Cagney the role.[3] This was a major career disappointment for Cagney, who had hoped that playing the football legend would help break him out of gangster roles.

He won an Oscar playing George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). He returned to his gangster roots in Raoul Walsh's film White Heat (1949) and then played a tyrannical ship captain opposite Jack Lemmon and Henry Fonda in Mister Roberts (1955).

Cagney's health deteriorated substantially after 1979. Cagney's final appearance in a feature film was in Ragtime (1981), capping a career that covered over 70 films, although his last film prior to Ragtime had occurred 20 years earlier with Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three (1961). During the long hiatus, Cagney rebuffed all film offers, including a substantial role in My Fair Lady as well as a blank check from Charles Bluhdorn at Gulf & Western to play Vito Corleone in The Godfather, to devote time to learning how to paint (at which he became very accomplished), and tending to his beloved farm in Stanford, New York. His roles in Ragtime and Terrible Joe Moran, a 1984 made-for-television movie, were designed to aid in his convalescence.

Death and legacy

Cagney died at his Dutchess County farm in Stanfordville, New York, aged 86, of a heart attack. He is interred in the Cemetery of the Gate of Heaven in Hawthorne, New York. His pallbearers included boxer Floyd Patterson, Mikhail Baryshnikov (who had hoped to play Cagney on Broadway), actor Ralph Bellamy, and director Miloš Forman.

He was one of the founders of the Screen Actors Guild and its president from 1942 to 1944. In 1974, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Film Institute. He received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1980, and in 1984, his friend Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Cagney eighth among the Greatest Male Stars of All Time.

Cagney's lines in White Heat (“Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”) were voted the 18th greatest movie quote by the American Film Institute.

It should be noted, however, that he never actually said, "You dirty rat," a popular phrase associated with him. In his AFI speech, he evoked considerable laughter by remarking that what he really said was, "Judy, Judy, Judy!" another famous, wrongly-attributed line (in this case to Cary Grant). The phrase actually originated in the 1932 film Taxi! in which Cagney said, "Come out and take it, you dirty, yellow-bellied rat, or I'll give it to you through the door!" often misquoted as "Come out, you dirty rat, or I'll give it to you through the door!"

As acting techniques became increasingly systematic (as in the case of "Method acting"), Cagney was asked during the filming of Mister Roberts about his approach to acting. As Jack Lemmon related in the television special, "James Cagney: Top of the World," which aired on July 5, 1992, Cagney said that the secret to acting was simply this: "Learn your lines… plant your feet… look the other actor in the eye… say the words… mean them."

In the 1981 television documentary, James Cagney: That Yankee Doodle Dandy[4] Cagney spoke of his well-known penchant for sarcasm, remarking in an on screen interview, "Sex with another man? Real good!"

In his AFI speech, Cagney said that film producer Jack Warner had dubbed him "the professional againster."

Stanley Kubrick often stated that Cagney was among his favorite actors.[5]


Year Title Role Notes
1981 Ragtime
1968 Arizona Bushwhackers (narrator)
1961 One, Two, Three
1960 The Gallant Hours (also producer)
1959 Shake Hands with the Devil
Never Steal Anything Small
1957 Short-Cut to Hell (in pre-credits sequence) (also director)
Man of a Thousand Faces
1956 These Wilder Years
Tribute to a Bad Man
1955 Mister Roberts
The Seven Little Foys
Love Me or Leave Me
Run for Cover
1953 A Lion Is in the Streets
1952 What Price Glory?
1951 Starlift (Cameo)
Come Fill the Cup
1950 The West Point Story
Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye
1949 White Heat
1948 The Time of Your Life
1947 13 Rue Madeleine
1945 Blood on the Sun
1944 Battle Stations (short subject) (narrator)
1943 Johnny Come Lately
You, John Jones (short subject)
1942 Yankee Doodle Dandy
Captains of the Clouds
1941 The Bride Came C.O.D.
The Strawberry Blonde
1940 City for Conquest
Torrid Zone
The Fighting 69th
1939 The Roaring Twenties
Each Dawn I Die
Hollywood Hobbies (short subject)
The Oklahoma Kid
1938 Angels with Dirty Faces
Boy Meets Girl
For Auld Lang Syne (short subject)
1937 Something to Sing About
1936 Great Guy
Ceiling Zero
1935 Frisco Kid
Mutiny on the Bounty (uncredited as extra)
A Midsummer Night's Dream
The Irish in Us
G Men
Devil Dogs of the Air
Trip Thru a Hollywood Studio (short subject)
A Dream Comes True (short subject)
1934 The St. Louis Kid
The Hollywood Gad-About (short subject)
Here Comes the Navy
He Was Her Man
Jimmy the Gent
1933 Lady Killer
Footlight Parade
The Mayor of Hell
Picture Snatcher
Hard to Handle
1932 Winner Take All
The Crowd Roars
1931 How I Play Golf (short subject)
Blonde Crazy
Smart Money
The Millionaire
The Public Enemy
Other Men's Women
1930 The Doorway to Hell
Sinners' Holiday


  • The Ballad of Smokey the Bear (1966) (voice) (narrator)
  • Terrible Joe Moran (1984)

Preceded by:
Gary Cooper
for Sergeant York
Academy Award for Best Actor
for Yankee Doodle Dandy
Succeeded by:
Paul Lukas
for Watch on the Rhine
Preceded by:
Paul Muni
for The Life of Emile Zola
NYFCC Award for Best Actor
for Angels with Dirty Faces
Succeeded by:
James Stewart
for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Preceded by:
Gary Cooper
for Sergeant York
NYFCC Award for Best Actor
for Yankee Doodle Dandy
Succeeded by:
Paul Lukas
for Watch on the Rhine
Preceded by:
Edward Arnold
President of Screen Actors Guild
1942 – 1944
Succeeded by:
George Murphy


  1. Gregory Speck, From Tough Guy to Dandy: James Cagney. World and I, Retrieved June 22, 2022.
  2. Peter B. Flint, James Cagney Is Dead at 86; Master of Pugnacious Grace The New York Times, March 31, 1986. Retrieved June 22, 2022.
  3. James Cagney Biography IMDb. Retrieved June 22, 2022.
  4. James Cagney: That Yankee Doodle Dandy IMDb. Retrieved June 22, 2022.
  5. John Baxter, Stanley Kubrick A Biography (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1997, ISBN 9780786704859).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Baxter, John. Stanley Kubrick A Biography. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1997. ISBN 9780786704859
  • Bergman, Andrew. James Cagney. New York: Galahad Books, 1974. ISBN 9780883651629
  • Cagney, James. Cagney by Cagney. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976. ISBN 9780385045872
  • Schickel, Richard. James Cagney A Celebration . Boston: Little, Brown, 1985. ISBN 9780316773096
  • Warren, Doug and James Cagney. James Cagney, the Authorized Biography. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983. ISBN 9780312439569

External links

All links retrieved June 22, 2022.


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