James Cagney (1899-1986)

Carole Lombard (1908 - 1942)

"During his film career, James Cagney proffered some of the most enduring images and memorable characters ever to appear on celluloid-callously shoving a grapefruit into the face of his mistress in Public Enemy (1931) and later, in the same movie, suffering a grisly demise as a "mummified" corpse; deliberately tarnishing his tough-guy reputation by pretending to "turn yellow" on his way to the electric chair in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938); demonstrating his considerable prowess as a song-and-dance man in his portrayal of George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942); depicting a neurotic, palm tree-loving ship’s captain in Mister Roberts (1955). The multi-talented performer also provided what is perhaps his best-known cinematic portrait in one of his two film noir appearances, perishing in a fiery, apocalyptic explosion in White Heat (1949).

"Everything he does is big," actor-director Orson Welles once remarked, "and yet it’s never for a moment unbelievable, because it’s real. It’s true."

A native of New York’s Lower East Side, James Francis Cagney, Jr., was born on July 17, 1899, the second of seven children (two siblings died in infancy) of Irish-American bar owner James Francis Cagney and his Irish-Norwegian wife, Carolyn Nelson Cagney.

Carole Lombard (1908 - 1942)

"My father had a saloon at Eighty-first Street and First Avenue, just a little place," Cagney recalled in a 1982 Rolling Stone magazine interview, "and he was known as the ‘two for one’ bartender, meaning that he drank two for every one he served. Not a wise way to make a living. In those days, my father thought he had something going simply by running the place, but he was wrong, unfortunately. He was a bookkeeper, originally - that was the irony of it. He also liked to play the horses and ran through a lot of what little money we had." To help boost the family coffers, young Cagney landed his first professional job at the age of 14, working as an office boy at the New York Sun. At various times between his studies at Stuyvesant High School, he also held down posts as a switchboard operator and a pool hall attendant, earned cash wrapping bundles at Wanamaker’s Department Store, and sold tickets for the Hudson Riverboat Line. With the little time he had left, Cagney developed considerable skills as a boxer, becoming runner-up for the New York State lightweight amateur boxing title, and indulged his budding interest as a performer in several productions at the local Lenox Hill Settlement House.

After graduating from high school, Cagney enrolled at Columbia University, but he dropped out to work full-time after the 1918 death of his father, a victim of an influenza epidemic and "the inroads of all that booze," the actor said. Seeking a larger income than he was earning at his $14-a-week job at Wanamaker’s, Cagney jumped at the opportunity to double his salary by auditioning for a vaudeville act called Every Sailor at Keith’s Eighty-first Street Theatre. Although he learned, to his "great surprise," that the production was a female impersonation act, Cagney landed the part and the following year won a slot in the chorus of a Broadway musical, Pitter Patter.

James Cagney and wife Billie arriving at the train station in Hollywood from NY in 1932

"I didn’t know the highland fling from a sailor’s hornpipe, and I couldn’t even sing Sweet Adeline, but I needed that job,” Cagney once said of his tryout for his Broadway debut. “Fifty applicants assembled. I watched the fellow’s feet next to me and did what he did."

Also in the chorus of Pitter Patter were actor Allen Jenkins, who would appear alongside Cagney in a number of his Hollywood productions, and a dancer from Iowa named Frances Willard Vernon. "We met backstage," Cagney said in 1985. "She could dance, but I could not. She was also cute. I said ‘Hello,’ and she said, ‘Hello,’ and that was the beginning of a love relationship that has spanned 63 years, and still exists today. Because her name is Willard, I call her Willie, or Bill, for short. If you want to call it love at first sight, then I guess that’s what it was."

Cagney and "Bill" married in 1922, later adopted two children, James and Kathleen, and remained together until the actor’s death in 1986. After their run in Pitter Patter, they hit the vaudeville circuit together, performing in Lew Fields’ Ritz Girls and sometimes appearing in their own act, billed as Vernon and Nye. In the late 1920s, "Bill" retired from performing and, along with her husband, opened the Cagney School of Dance in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

James Cagney and Edward Woods in The Public Enemy directed by William A. Wellman, 1931

In addition to his appearances with his wife, Cagney was seen in numerous productions throughout the 1920s, including Dot’s My Boy (1921); Outside Looking In (1925), where he played one of his first tough-guy roles; Women Go on Forever (1927); The Grand Street Follies of 1928 (1928); and Maggie the Magnificent (1929), in which he was paired for the first time with actress Joan Blondell. The two were teamed again the following year in Penny Arcade (1930), but although the play closed after 24 performances, it attracted the attention of Broadway star Al Jolson, who bought it for the screen and sold it to Warner Bros., stipulating that Cagney and Blondell reprise their roles for the film. A short time later, Cagney was on his way to Hollywood.

"I came out for three weeks," the actor once said, "and I stayed, to my absolute amazement, for 31 years!"

Retitled Sinner’s Holiday, Cagney’s screen debut ran only 55 minutes but it earned favorable reviews for the actor, including a mention from the New York Times critic who remarked, "The most impressive acting is done by James Cagney." Studio head Jack Warner wasted no time in signing Cagney to a three-year, $400-a-week contract, and the actor made four pictures in the next six months, including The Doorway to Hell (1930), a bootlegging drama; Other Men’s Women (1930), his second of six films with Joan Blondell; and The Millionaire (1931), a comedy starring George Arliss. After these features, Cagney was cast in the film that would transform him into an overnight sensation, The Public Enemy (1931).

Mae Clarke and James Cagney: "I wish you was a wishing well - so that I could tie a bucket to ya and sink ya!"

It was in The Public Enemy that Cagney offered the first of his string of memorable movie moments, ramming a half-grapefruit in the mug of his moll (Mae Clarke) after telling her, "I wish you was a wishing well - so that I could tie a bucket to ya and sink ya!"

"That half-grapefruit has become a piece of Americana," Cagney said of the scene. "It was just about the first time, if not the very first, that a woman had been treated like a broad on the screen instead of like a delicate flower…. That bit of business became so identified with me that years afterward when I’d go into a restaurant, people would send me half-grapefruits with their compliments and I got so tired of that deal I began to duck eating in public. It was hard for me to get used to the idea that in The Public Enemy I had hit the jackpot overnight."

After his triumph in The Public Enemy, Cagney was cast opposite Joan Blondell in Blonde Crazy (1931) and with Edward G. Robinson in Smart Money (1931), but before the films were released, Cagney fired what would become the initial salvo in an ongoing battle with Jack Warner.

"[The studio] had a couple of people on the lot who were stars, and they were getting $125,000 a picture,” Cagney later recalled. “And here I was up above the title just as they were, and I was getting $400 a week. That didn’t last long - I walked out."

Portrait of Loretta Young and James Cagney in Taxi! directed by Roy Del Ruth, 1932

During Cagney’s retreat to New York, audiences turned out in droves for Blonde Crazy and Smart Money, and three months later, Warners renegotiated the actor’s contract, increasing his weekly salary to $1,400 and allowing for "periodic reappraisals" of his worth. Cagney’s first picture after his brief walkout was another hit, Taxi! (1932), co-starring Loretta Young, followed by The Crowd Roars (1932), where he played a race car driver, and Winner Take All (1932), in which he demonstrated his boxing skills. After the latter feature, Cagney staged another walkout, telling the press, "A player should be in a position to demand what he is worth as long as he is worth it. My employers can’t see my way so I’m through." This time, it took the studio six months to see Cagney’s way - he returned to the lot later that year with an agreement for four pictures a year at $3,500 a week, to increase to $4,500 weekly by 1935.

Cagney’s highly publicized battles for adequate compensation were not limited to his own career; his reputation as a Hollywood rebel also encompassed his struggles on behalf of his peers. In October 1933, the actor became one of the first major stars to join the fledgling Screen Actors Guild (SAG), later serving as First Vice President, President, and member of the Board of Directors. More than four decades after receiving his SAG card, the actor would be honored with the organization’s lifetime achievement award.

James Cagney for A Midsummer Night's Dream directed by William Dieterle and Max Reinhardt, 1935

"He was respected on both sides of the bargaining table and was personally involved in solving his fellow actors’ problems," former SAG Executive Secretary John L. Sales said in 1986. "He’d often call at 1 or 2 A.M. with stories of an actor’s troubles, and we’d often hold emergency meetings at his home. He was a marvelous example to Guild members."

Over the next few years, Cagney starred in such hits as Lady Killer (1933), in which he again abused co-star Mae Clarke, this time by dragging her across a room by her hair; Foot-light Parade (1933), where he was given the opportunity to display his talent as a hoofer; Here Comes the Navy (1934), the first of Cagney’s eight features with lifelong friend Pat O’Brien; Jimmy the Gent (1934), co-starring Bette Davis; and ‘G’ Men (1935), which found the actor on the right side of the law as an FBI agent. In one of his few clunkers during this period, Cagney also appeared in the lavish production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), portraying Bottom, a weaver who is transformed by fairies into a donkey. A box-office disappointment, the film earned a handful of good reviews upon its release, but Cagney was universally panned, with the critic for the New York Times writing that he "belabors the slapstick of his part beyond endurance."

Despite his status as a top box-office draw, Cagney’s fight with his studio heated up again in 1935 when he was seen in five releases - one more than his agreement called for. The actor walked out again, this time suing Warners for breach of contract and succeeding in earning a release from the studio.

James Cagney in Angels with a Dirty Face directed by Michael Curtiz, 1938

Following his defection from Warners, Cagney signed with the newly-formed Grand National studio, but after only two features there, he was once again lured back to Warner Bros., which offered him the phenomenal deal of $150,000 per film against 10 percent of the gross, story refusal rights, and a "happiness clause,"” which allowed the actor to terminate his contract if he judged his relationship with the studio to be "obnoxious or unsatisfactory to him." It was a deal Cagney couldn’t refuse, and he returned to the studio in back-to-back features with Pat O’Brien, Boy Meets Girl (1938), an amusing screwball comedy, and the box-office smash Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). In the latter, Cagney earned a Best Actor Academy Award nomination.

Although Cagney lost the Oscar to Spencer Tracy in Boys Town (1938), he received the New York Film Critics’ Award and was hailed by critics, including Kate Cameron of the New York Daily News , who judged that his performance was "one of the most impressive he has ever given"; the critic for Variety, who noted his "swagger and aw-goto-hell pugnacity"; and the New York Post ’s Archer Winston, who wrote, "It’s an all–Cagney portrait, crackling with nervous energy and excellent."

Cagney followed this top-notch feature with a series of hits, including The Roaring Twenties (1939), where he was seen with Humphrey Bogart as a ruthless bootlegger; Each Dawn I Die (1939), costarring George Raft; City for Conquest (1940), in which he turned in what one critic termed a "stunning performance" as a semi-blinded pugilist; and The Fighting 69th (1940), an all-male wartime drama with Pat O’Brien and George Brent. (After the latter feature, the actor once again tangled with Warner Bros., filing suit when the marquee at the film’s premiere initially listed O’Brien’s name, instead of Cagney’s, in the top-billing slot.)

HUAC hearing

At this point in his career, however, Cagney’s squabbles with his studio faded into insignificance when he faced highly publicized charges of Communism. Several years earlier, Cagney had contributed to a fund aiding striking cotton pickers in California which, unbeknownst to the actor, was backed by an organization with left-wing leanings. He’d also donated money to the defense of the Scottsboro boys, nine black youths in Alabama who had been falsely accused of rape, and his check wound up hanging on the wall of a Communist Party office in San Francisco. As a result of his contributions to these and similar causes, Cagney was named as a Communist - along with such notables as Humphrey Bogart and Fredric March - by former Communist Party leader John R. Leech. Cagney vehemently denied the charges, attributing them to "West Coast political aspirants," and in August 1940 appeared before a congressional committee headed by Martin Dies. Reportedly, after only 15 minutes, Dies cleared the actor of all charges.

"[Dies] went in to interview Cagney and he came out with Cagney’s autographed picture,” Warner Bros. screenwriter Julius Epstein said years later. “That was the big laugh around the studio."

James Cagney for Yankee Doodle Dandy directed by Michael Curtiz, 1942

With this scare behind him, Cagney starred in two successful comedies, The Strawberry Blonde (1941) with Olivia deHavilland and Rita Hayworth, and The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941) opposite Bette Davis, before being cast in one of his best-loved films, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). Portraying Broadway hoofer George M. Cohan - who reportedly hand-picked the actor for the role - Cagney turned in a memorable, multifaceted performance that allowed him to showcase his dancing talent and display a wide range of emotion, from humor to pathos.

Nominated for his second Academy Award for Best Actor, Cagney went home with the golden statuette this time around, beating out such formidable opposition as Ronald Colman in Random Harvest (1942), Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees (1942), Walter Pidgeon in Mrs. Miniver (1942), and Monty Woolley in The Pied Piper (1942). In his brief acceptance speech (which followed a rambling monologue delivered by Greer Gar-son for her Mrs. Miniver win), Cagney told the assembled guests, "An actor is only as good as people think he is and as bad as people think he is. I am glad so many thought I was so good."

The Time of Your Life (1948)

Yankee Doodle Dandy was Cagney’s last film under his Warner Bros. contract, and he turned down offers to re-sign with the studio in order to form a production company with his brother, Bill, who had for years served as his agent and manager. Under the Cagney Productions banner, the siblings produced three films, Johnny Come Lately (1943), a mediocre period piece that one critic labeled "not dreadful"; Blood on the Sun (1945), an anti-Japanese actioner co-starring Sylvia Sidney; and The Time of Your Life (1948), based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by William Saroyan and co-starring Cagney’s baby sister, Jeanne. Between features, Cagney found time to contribute to the war effort by serving as chairman of the Hollywood Victory Committee, heading up bond-raising tours alongside such stars as Pat O’Brien, Judy Garland, Charles Boyer, and Bing Crosby. He also performed at overseas military bases, lent his Martha’s Vineyard estate to the Army for maneuvers, appeared in recruiting trailers for the Allied war effort, and narrated the 1944 documentary short, Battle Stations.

James Cagney and Margaret Wycherly in White Heat directed by Raoul Walsh, 1949

Despite the critical success of Cagney’s The Time of Your Life, the actor’s production company took a financial blow and Cagney returned the following year to his old home studio, appearing in six Warners features over the next four years. The first of these contained the actor’s standout performance in the film noir classic White Heat (1949). Although Cagney’s portrait of Cody Jarrett is viewed today as a tour-de-force, a few critics seemed slightly overwhelmed by his performance after the film’s release.

The following year, Cagney starred in the second of his two films noirs, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950), once again turning in a well-done portrait of a ruthless killer. Produced by Cagney’s brother, Bill, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye garnered a mixed reaction from critics.

Although Cagney provided the narration for an anti–Communist government documentary, Road to the Wall (1962), an NBC-TV special, Smokey the Bear (1966), and the western Arizona Bushwhackers (1968), the actor remained out of the limelight for nearly 15 years, spending most of his time on Martha’s Vineyard or his farm near Millbrook, New York, indulging his interests in farming, painting, collecting antique carriages, and raising horses. Then, in 1973, at the age of 75, Cagney made a triumphant return to the Hollywood community to accept the Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute (AFI), becoming the second individual to receive the honor (director John Ford was the first).

James Cagney was awarded the 2nd Annual AFI Lifetime Achievement Award on March 31st, 1973.

After the AFI tribute, Cagney resumed his life out of the public eye, reportedly rejecting numerous films offers, including Kotch (1971) and The Godfather, Part II (1974). But he was seen on television in 1980, when he received a Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award, and the following year returned to the big screen in a much-heralded performance in Milos Forman’s Ragtime (1981), which starred Howard Rollins. Although the actor had been debilitated by diabetes and a mild stroke in 1977, he was a standout in his role as a wily New York police commissioner and the film was a critical and financial success. Three years later, shortly after being presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Cagney was seen as an aging prizefighter in the made-for-television movie Terrible Joe Moran (1984), but by this time, the actor was suffering from dysphasia, which caused his speech to slur, and his entire role was reportedly dubbed by another actor.

On Easter Sunday 1986, his body weakened by heart and circulatory ailments and diabetes, James Cagney died at his home in upstate New York, with his wife of 64 years, Bill, at his side. His passing invited a spate of tributes from former co-stars, including James Stewart, who called him "one of the biggest names of all in motion pictures," and Bob Hope, who said, "I’d be selfish to say I’m going to miss him because all the whole world’s going to miss him."

While James Cagney is commonly thought of in terms of his performances in gangster films, his wide-ranging talent and versatility was well-demonstrated in such features as Yankee Doodle Dandy, Mister Roberts, and Man of a Thousand Faces. Although numerous descriptions have been offered to account for Cagney’s enormous and long-lasting appeal, perhaps the best was furnished by actorturned - president Ronald Reagan, who said that Cagney was"“the best at whatever he did - a hero, a villain, a comic, or a dancer." [1]


  • Terrible Joe Moran (1984)
  • Ragtime (1981)
  • Arizona Bushwhackers (1968)
  • The Ballad of Smokey the Bear (1966)
  • One, Two, Three (1961)
  • The Gallant Hours (1960)
  • Shake Hands with the Devil (1959)
  • Never Steal Anything Small (1959)
  • Man of a Thousand Faces (1957)
  • These Wilder Years (1956)
  • Tribute to a Bad Man (1956)
  • Mister Roberts (1955)
  • The Seven Little Foys (1955)
  • Love Me or Leave Me (1955)
  • A Lion Is in the Streets (1953)
  • What Price Glory (1952)
  • Starlift (1951)
  • Come Fill the Cup (1951)
  • The West Point Story (1950)
  • Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950)
  • White Heat (1949)
  • It Pays to Advertise (1948)
  • 13 Rue Madeleine (1946)
  • Blood on the Sun (1945)
  • Johnny Come Lately (1943)
  • The Roaring Twenties (1939)
  • Each Dawn I Die (1939)
  • The Oklahoma Kid (1939)
  • Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
  • Boy Meets Girl (1938)
  • Something to Sing About (1937)
  • Great Guy (1936)
  • Ceiling Zero (1936)
  • Frisco Kid (1935)
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)
  • The Irish in Us (1935)
  • 'G' Men (1935)
  • Devil Dogs of the Air (1935)
  • The St. Louis Kid (1934)
  • Here Comes the Navy (1934)
  • He Was Her Man (1934)
  • Jimmy the Gent (1934)
  • Lady Killer (1933)
  • Footlight Parade (1933)
  • The Mayor of Hell (1933)
  • Picture Snatcher (1933)
  • Hard to Handle (1933)
  • Winner Take All (1932)
  • The Crowd Roars (1932)
  • Taxi!(1932)
  • Blonde Crazy (1931)
  • Smart Money (1931)
  • The Millionaire (1931)
  • The Public Enemy (1931)
  • Other Men's Women (1931)
  • The Doorway to Hell (1931)
  • Sinners' Holiday (1930)