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.