Hollywood Legend James Francis Cagney Jr.
James Francis Cagney Jr. was an American actor and dancer, both on stage and in film. Known for his consistently energetic performances, distinctive vocal style, and deadpan comic timing, he won acclaim and major awards for a wide variety of performances. He is best remembered for playing multifaceted tough guys in films such as The Public Enemy (1931), Taxi! (1932), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), and White Heat (1949), finding himself typecast and limited by this reputation earlier in his career. In 1999 the American Film Institute ranked him eighth among its list of greatest male stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Orson Welles said of Cagney, “(he was) maybe the greatest actor who ever appeared in front of a camera”.
In his first professional acting performance, Cagney danced costumed as a woman in the chorus line of the revue Every Sailor, in 1919. He spent several years in vaudeville as a dancer and comedian, until he got his first major acting part in 1925. He secured several other roles, receiving good notices, before landing the lead in the 1929 play Penny Arcade. After rave reviews, Warner Bros. signed him for an initial $500—a—week, three—week contract to reprise his role; this was quickly extended to a seven—year contract.
Cagney‘s seventh film, The Public Enemy, became one of the most inﬂuential gangster movies of the period. Notable for a famous scene in which Cagney pushes a grapefruit against Mae Clarke‘s face, the film thrust him into the spotlight. He became one of Hollywood‘s leading stars and one of Warner Bros.‘ biggest contracts. In 1938 he received his first Academy Award
for Best Actor nomination for his subtle portrayal of the tough guy/man—child Rocky Sullivan in Angels with Dirty Faces. In 1942 Cagney won the Oscar for his energetic portrayal of George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. He was nominated a third time in 1955 for Love Me or Leave Me. Cagney retired from acting and dancing in 1961 to spend time on his farm with his family. He came out of retirement 20 years later for a part in the movie Ragtime (1981), mainly to aid his recovery from a stroke.
Cagney walked out on Warner Bros. several times over the course of his career, each time returning on much improved personal and artistic terms. In 1935 he sued Warner for breach of contract and won. This was one of the first times an actor prevailed over a studio on a contract issue. He worked for an independent film company for a year while the suit was being settled, establishing his own production company, Cagney Productions, in 1942 before returning to Warner four years later. In reference to Cagney‘s refusal to be pushed around, Jack L. Warner called him “the Professional Againster”. Cagney also made numerous morale—boosting troop tours before and during World War II and served as president of the Screen Actors Guild for two years.
Cagey‘s penultimate film was a comedy. He was hand—picked by Billy Wilder to play a hard—driving Coca—Cola executive in the film One, Two, Three, Cagney had concerns with the script, remembering back 23 years to Boy Meets Girl, in which scenes were reshot to try to make them funnier by speeding up the pacing, with the opposite effect. Cagney received assurances from Wilder that the script was balanced. Filming did not go well, though, with one scene requiring 50 takes, something to which Cagney was unaccustomed. In fact, it was one of the worst experiences of his long career. For the first time, Cagney considered walking out of a film. He felt he had worked too many years inside studios, and combined with a Visit to Dachau concentration camp during filming, he decided that he had had enough, and retired afterward.
He made few public appearances, preferring to spend winters in Los Angeles, and summers either at his Martha‘s Vineyard farm or at Verney Farms in New York. When in New York, Billie Vernon and he held numerous parties at the Silver Horn restaurant, where they got to know Marge Zimmermann, the proprietress.
Cagney was diagnosed with glaucoma and began taking eye drops, but continued to have Vision problems. On Zimmermann‘s recommendation, he Visited a different doctor, who determined that glaucoma had been a misdiagnosis, and that Cagney was actually diabetic. Zimmermann then took it upon herself to look after Cagney, preparing his meals to reduce his blood triglycerides, which had reached alarming levels. Such was her success that, by the time Cagney made a rare public appearance at his American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement award ceremony in 1974, he had lost 20 pounds (9.1 kg) and his Vision had improved. Charlton Heston opened the ceremony, and Frank Sinatra introduced Cagney. So many Hollywood stars attended — said to be more than for any event in history — that one columnist wrote at the time that a bomb in the dining room would have ended the movie industry. In his acceptance speech, Cagney lightly chastised the impressionist Frank Gorshin, saying, “Oh, Frankie, just in passing, I never said ‘M—MMMmmmm, you dirty rat!‘ What I actually did say was ‘Judy, Judy, Judy!”— a joking reference to a similar misquotation attributed to Cary Grant.
While at Coldwater Canyon in 1977, Cagney had a minor stroke. After he spent two weeks in the hospital, Zimmermann became his full—time caregiver. Cagney died at his Dutchess County farm in Stanfordville, New York, on Easter Sunday 1986, of a heart attack. He was 86 years old. He died 4 days after his brother William‘s 81st birthday. A funeral Mass was held at Manhattan‘s St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church. The eulogy at the funeral was given by his close friend, who was also the President of the United States at the time, Ronald Reagan. His pallbearers included the boxer Floyd Patterson, the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov (who had hoped to play Cagney on Broadway), actor Ralph Bellamy, and the director Milos Forman. Governor Mario M. Cuomo and Mayor Edward I. Koch were also in attendance at the service.
Cagney was interred in a crypt in the Garden Mausoleum at Cemetery of the Gate of Heaven in Hawthorne, New York.