James Cagney was born in New York City on July 17, 1899. He grew up on the Lower East Side, earning money by working in restaurants and pool halls. His first job in the entertainment business was as a female impersonater---a dancer in a chorus line. He married at a young age, and toured Vaudeville in the late 1920s until the start of his film career with a part in Sinner's Holiday (1930).

Cagney became well-known for his portrayal of pugnacious gangster and "tough-guy "characters in movies such as The Public Enemy (1931), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), and White Heat (1949). He earned an Academy award for his performance in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). His film career spanned over thirty years before he finally decided to retire.

In 1974, Cagney was awarded the Life Achievement Award by the American Film Institute. He came out of retirement to perform as a police commissioner in Ragtime (1981), and lastly in the TV movie Terrible Joe Moran (1984).

Cagney died of a heart attack on March 30, 1986 at his upstate New York farm. He is buried in Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, NY.

"Everything Cagney does is big, and yet it's never for a moment unbelievable because it's real. He's a great movie actor." Orson Welles

Best known for his portrayal of gangsters and considered by many to be Hollywood’s original “tough guy”

The Early Years

James Cagney was a product of the streets of Manhattan. As a youth, he gained a reputation of a street fighter and hung around with what was considered a “bad crowd”. Although he himself never got on the wrong side of the law, many of his friends wound up in prison and legend has it that one was even sent to the electric chair. His father fit the stereotype of the hard core Irishman who liked to talk big and was fond of a drink or two and his mother was the daughter of a tugboat captain. The neighborhood he grew up in was predominately Jewish and Cagney was able to pick up on the nuances of his surroundings and even managed to become fluent in Yiddish.

Never one to hold a steady job for any extended period, Cagney made his way by working a series of odd jobs and even managed to attend Columbia University for a spell. He was forced to drop out when his father died. It looked like “curtains” for Cagney and he was resigned to living a workingman’s life. That is, until….

They Say the Neon Lights Shine Bright

On Broadway. Entirely on a whim, Cagney decided to try out for the role (of all things!) of a chorus girl in an all male review that went by the name of Every Sailor. Even though he had no formal training in the field of song and dance he somehow landed the part and from then on he always considered himself to be a song and dance man. While appearing on Broadway he also met his bride to be and married one Willard (Billie) Vernon in 1922. The relationship would last until his death in 1986. They also decided to form their own act and took to the road to perform on the Vaudeville circuit.

It wasn’t too long afterwards that noted star of stage and film, Al Jolson noticed Cagney’s talents and recommended him for a part in an upcoming film by the name of Sinner’s Holiday. He wound up signing a contract with Warner Brothers and remained making movies with them well into the 1940’s.

The Gangster Years

After making some less than successful films, Cagney got first real break when he appeared in The Public Enemy. To say he was typecast after that would probably be an understatement. I think his definitive role came in the movie Angels With Dirty Faces which also featured the Dead End Kids (an offshoot of the Bowery Boys) and his friend, actor Pat O’Brien.(He would wind up making a total of nine movies with O’Brien and they started being called part of what was known as “The Irish Mafia” in Hollywood circles.

In the movie, he plays the good boy turned bad and winds up as a gangster. The boys from the neighborhood (the Dead End Kids) idolize Cagney even though he is a villain and admire the wealth and esteem he has managed to acquire. His lifelong friend, a priest played by O’Brien, counsels Cagney about setting a bad example on the kids and asks that he goes “straight”. Cagney refuses and is eventually caught and sentenced to die in the electric chair Somehow, the Dead End Kids are able to be on hand for the execution and O’Brien asks Cagney to act scared in order to discourage them from a life of crime. Cagney refuses but as the curtain closes you see him being strapped into the chair and all the while he is struggling and screaming “I don’t want to die!, I don’t want to die!”. The movie ends and one is left wondering if Cagney listened to the priest or if he was indeed, afraid of dying and was finally revealing his cowardice. If you haven’t seen it, you should.

Return to Your Roots

Anyway, Cagney finally got to break out of his tough guy image when he returned to his roots in song and dance. He portrayed George M. Cohan in the 1941 film Yankee Doodle Dandy for which he won his only Oscar. Some of his more memorable films from that time on includedWhite Heat ,Mister Roberts and the biography of Lon Chaney called Man of a Thousand Faces. (Another borgo favorite!)

By the time 1961 rolled around, Cagney had decided to retire from acting. Always a nature fan, he retired to his ranch in upstate New York where he concentrated on sailing and raising horses. Also, in direct conflict with the tough guy image, Cagney took up painting and poetry wrting. They soon became his favorite hobbies.

After a twenty year absence, Cagney was lured out of retirement for the movie Ragtime in which he was reunited with his lifelong buddy Pat O’Brien. He made his last movie (ironically, a made for television effort) called Terrible Joe Moran in 1984. James Cagney died of a heart attack on March 30, 1986.

Oh yeah, he claims he never said it.


Sinner's Holiday (1930)
Doorway to Hell (1930)
Other Men's Women (1930)
The Millionaire (1931)
The Public Enemy (1931)
Smart Money (1931)
Blonde Crazy (1931)
Taxi! (1932)
The Crowd Roars (1932)
Winner Takes All (1932)
Hard to Handle (1933)
Picture Snatcher (1933)
The Mayor of Hell (1933)
Footlight Parade (1933)
Lady Killer (1933)
Jimmy the Gent (1934)
He Was Her Man (1934)
Here Comes the Navy (1934)
The St. Louis Kid (1934)
Devil Dogs of the Air (1935)
G-Men (1935)
The Irish in Us (1935)
A Midsummer Night's Dream(1935)
Frisco Kid (1935)
Ceiling Zero (1935)
Great Guy (1936)
Something to Sing About (1937)
Boy Meets Girl (1938)
Angels with Dirty Faces
The Oklahoma Kid (1939)
Each Dawn I Die (1939)
The Roaring Twenties (1939)
The Fighting 69th (1940)
Torrid Zone (1940)
City for Conquest (1940)
The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941)
Captains of the Clouds (1942)
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
Johnny Come Lately (1943)
Blood on the Sun (1945)
13 Rue Madeleine (1946)
The Time of Your Life (1948)
White Heat (1949)
The West Point Story (1950)
Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950)
Come Fill the Cup (1951)
Starlift (1951)
What Price Glory (1952)
A Lion Is in the Streets (1953) Run for Cover (1955) Love Me or Leave Me (1955)
Mister Roberts (1955)
The Seven Little Foys (1955)
Tribute to a Bad Man (1956)
Man of a Thousand Faces (1957)
Short Cut to Hell (1957)
Never Steal Anything Small (1959)
Shake Hands with the Devil (1959)
The Gallant Hours (1960)
One, Two, Three (1961)
Ragtime (1981)
Terrible Joe Moran (1984 – made for TV) http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Park/1568/CagneyBio.html

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