Times Arts Editor

He had read a poem by John Masefield:

What is the hardest task of art

To clear the ground and make a start. . . .

He had made an eloquent celebration of art, quoting the philosopher William Ernest Hocking’s definition that art is life, plus caprice.


He’d thanked everyone who had had to do with his Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. Then James Cagney paused and said, “And the names, the names of my youth--Lagerhead Quinlivan, Artie Klein, Pete Leyden, Jake Brodking, Specs Toporcer, Brother O’Mara, Picky Houlihan. . . . “

They were all part of the very stimulating environment, Cagney said, that produced “the unmistakable touch of the gutter without which this evening might never have happened at all.”

That litany of names, and the wry, sly wisdom of the comment, is still for me the most unforgettable moment of the warmest of all the AFI tributes. And the assessment looks as if it may go into time as a kind of self-written epitaph.

Of all the things that were true of him, the central truth may have been simply that Cagney knew Cagney to the marrow of his bones. The independence of spirit that was part of his appeal as a performer started with his indifference to anything except the commands of his personal ethic, his conscience and his professional pride. He was inner-directed in an industry that more often moves by an uneasy radar.

Cagney, who died on Sunday at the age of 86, was one of that handful of film stars who, out of their secure knowledge of themselves (or out of their sharp awareness of the transience of film fame), remain immune to the blandishments and traps of stardom.

(He liked to quote something Clark Gable once said in their early days: “I never buy anything I can’t take back East on the Chief.”)

“I was always, whaddya call it, a journeyman actor. I never gave a damn about the rest of it,” Cagney told me over lunch at the home of his friend A. C. Lyles one day in 1973. “Do the job and run. . . . By the time I’d finished each job, I’d have my reservations to get out of there.”

The luncheon was an arranged accident. There were rumors then that Cagney was grossly fat or gravely ill or both, and he wanted a credible witness to say it wasn’t so. (It wasn’t.) But, having refused interviews for a dozen years, he also didn’t want to suggest he was available again. So I strolled past Lyles’ house one noontime, was espied and invited in to meet a visitor.


It was one of the pleasures of a lifetime. Cagney reminisced, told stories, wept at departed friends. (Lyles, smoothing things over, kidded him about the tears. “Ah,” said Cagney, dabbing at his eyes, “you know the Irish, we cry at card tricks.”

He commented very critically about his painting and his poetry, although he quoted favorably a couplet he’d written about an unfavorite acquaintance at Warners in the old days:

A bunch of vertebrae in a peculiar tangle

From trying to kiss at an awkward angle.


He recalled the now-famous Rule One of acting that he had told Pamela Tiffin on “One Two Three”: “Walk in, plant yourself, look the other actor in the eye and tell the truth.”

He had had to add Rule Two: “Look the actor in the downstage eye.”

“Which is the downstage eye?” Cagney said she asked him.

“The one nearest the camera,” he explained.


Cagney had decided in 1961 that there was more to life than waiting to be called before the cameras on dark sound stages. He retired and made the retirement stick for 20 years, despite an offer of $1 million to play Eliza Doolittle’s father in “My Fair Lady.” It was partly on a doctor’s advice to be more active, partly out of his admiration for Milos Forman, that he broke the retirement to do “Ragtime.”

It is said too often that we are not apt to see the likes of this star or that director again, although in fact creators and performers continually appear who reflect their times and their culture. But Cagney was one of that slim and fast-diminishing group of movie pioneers who were born in the 19th Century, and it is more than a statistical curiosity.

It means that he grew up in a time and a culture already almost unimaginably different and distant from our own. It means as well that he became one of the founding fathers and shaping figures of the motion pictures: a charismatic individual who helped to expand the limits of what the movies could do and how well they could do it.

The touch of the gutter Cagney spoke of emerged as a tinge of realism in the fantasy, a kind of counterstrain that provided the darkest villain (Cody Jarrett in “White Heat,” let’s say) with a redeeming, vestigial touch of ordinary humanity and universal feelings. On the other side, there was a hint of rascality and toughness in the cheeriest Cagney hero. He brought a roundness to the characters, and an apparent depth to the thinnest material. He was an authentic original, and he was very, very good.


Cagney was being more than merely sentimental in reciting the names of his boyhood pals. The litany evoked not only the rough, tough early days in working-class Yorkville. It also, with the economy of poetry, could be taken to symbolize the ethnic richness and the newness of the society, and the unsoiled, unspoiled American Dream of success in no more than a generation or two off the boat. (Many of Cagney’s pals did quite nicely.)

Cagney never stopped thinking of himself as a song-and-dance man, a hoofer. (That was what made “My Fair Lady” so hard to turn down; it wasn’t the money.) At the time of our lunch, Cagney had gained a little weight from his movie days, but he still, he said, put on a stack of records every morning and danced to keep himself in shape.

The last days were slow, painful and uncertain--not what anybody would have wished for him. But they are done at last and, as in a jump cut, Cagney returns to memory in his prime time as the hoofer who made good: tough, sentimental, honest, talented, a dandy emblem of the best of us.

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