From the Archives: James Cagney, Legend of Movies, Dies at 86
James Cagney, whose feisty, finger-jabbing portrayals of the big city tough guy helped create a new breed of Hollywood superstar—but won his only Oscar playing a song-and-dance man—died Easter Sunday at the farmhouse he loved in upstate New York.
He was 86 and had returned to the farm in Duchess County only last week after a brief stay at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, where he was treated for diabetes and a heart ailment.
“They said, ‘You just take him home,’ ” said Marge Zimmerman, the actor’s friend and manager, who was with him at the time of death as were her husband and Cagney’s wife of 64 years, Billie.
“We were getting him ready for breakfast and he just closed his eyes and went to sleep,” Zimmerman said. “It’s Easter and it’s a good time if he had to go. . . .”
In addition to his wife, Cagney leaves a daughter, Cathleen. Funeral arrangements were pending.
Praised as ‘a Classic’
Expressions of grief and of admiration for the man and for his accomplishments were not slow in coming—and one of the first was from President Reagan, who had presented Cagney with the Medal of Freedom in White House ceremonies just two years ago.
He called Cagney “a classic American success story,” who “was the best at whatever he did—a hero, a villain, a comic, or a dancer.”
“Nancy and I have lost a dear friend of many years today,” the President said, “and America has lost one of her finest artists. Jimmy burst upon our movie screen with an energy and a talent we have never seen before and will never see again.”
Another admirer was Bob Hope. “We worked together on the ‘Seven Little Foys’ and knew each other for about 50 years,” Hope said in a telephone interview at his home in Palm Springs. “I’d be selfish to say I’m going to miss him because the whole world’s going to miss him.”
“He’s been one of the biggest names of all in motion pictures,” actor Jimmy Stewart said. “He was tremendously versatile as far as acting was concerned, and he was an enormous asset to the motion picture industry.”
Anna Strasberg, widow of actor-teacher Lee Strasberg, said she and her husband both knew Cagney well.
Man of Integrity
“Lee thought he had such integrity,” she said. “He certainly did give the world an image of decency, didn’t he? I always thought that he uplifted people.”
Former Screen Actors Guild President Charleton Heston called Cagney “an absolutely unique performer” because of the “riveting energy, which was evident in every performance he gave.”
And Bette Davis was grief-stricken: “One by one,” she said, “we lose all the great ones.”
Some of the comments might have drawn a disbelieving grin from Cagney. But no one else ever doubted his credentials.
Cagney’s electrifying screen personality, coupled with a Depression-riddled America ready to cheer the kind of anti-heroes he played—men rebelling against a world they did not create—catapulted the pugnacious, fast-talking Irishman into a legendary stature that far surpassed his 30 years of movie making. It also made him one of the most imitated actors in history.
The short, red-haired actor, who always maintained he was a song-and-dance man first and an “actor fella” second, seldom had been seen publicly since his surprise retirement in 1961, while still very much a star.
Since then, Cagney—always an extremely private man, but never a recluse--had spent his days in what he once called the “sheer contentment” of being a gentleman farmer. That meant living in a small but comfortable stone house he had built with his own hands, busying himself in the things he had always held most dear—painting a little, writing verse (“Shakespeare wrote poetry—I write verse”) and, until confined to a wheelchair in recent years, getting up at 7 a.m. to make breakfast for himself, his wife and anyone else on the premises.
Never Lost Magic
But despite his long absence from show business and the public, his name never lost its magic. Directors and producers had tried, with only limited success, to woo Cagney back into the spotlight.
The exceptions were “Ragtime” in 1981, in which Cagney received more plaudits than the film itself, and “Terrible Joe Moran,” a 1984 TV movie that made critic and fan alike wish their hero had stuck to his original retirement decision.
Still, nothing could dim the luster.
Even after all the years of invisibility, just his last name—heard anywhere in the world—remained enough. Enough for instant identification. For immediate recall of the stuff that the fame and the legend were made of--but that Cagney somehow never seemed to take all that seriously, either as an actor or as a man.
. . . The banty-rooster-tough gangster, Tom Powers, who shoved that famous half grapefruit into the astonished face of his gun moll (played by Mae Clarke) in “The Public Enemy” in 1931. The scene, one of the most famous in Hollywood history, made Cagney an overnight sensation.
. . . The hoodlum, Rocky Sullivan, whose squirming, sensuous shrug (it seemed to start at his feet and writhe uncontrollably up through his shoulders) in “Angels With Dirty Faces” in 1938, became not only Cagney’s trademark, but kept generations of Cagney mimics off bread lines as well.
. . . The hard-as-nails psychotic killer, Cody Jarrett, in “White Heat” in 1949 who, as a twisted adult nearing the end of his insane endeavors, could still sit believably in his mother’s lap, sniffling like a baby. Critics always said nobody but Cagney could have pulled off that scene—then, or now.
And the other portrayals that established the 5-foot, 8-inch former vaudeville hoofer not only as one of the industry’s most versatile performers, but as an extremely gifted actor capable of subtle and deeply moving characterizations:
. . . As the song-and-dance genius George M. Cohan in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” in 1942, a role for which the actor had been picked by the dying Cohan, and for which Cagney won an Academy Award.
. . . As the memorable, palm-tree-crazy ship captain in “Mister Roberts” in 1955, whose emotional imbalance and paranoid pettiness was blended with just the right amount of comic undercurrent to become the perfect foil for Jack Lemmon’s hilarious, Oscar-winning romp as Ensign Frank Pulver.
. . . And as the tormented Lon Chaney in “Man of A Thousand Faces” in 1957, a role that Cagney threw everything he had into to create the many-faceted portrait of the silent film star whose personal life was as painfully twisted as were the bodies of the monsters he brought to life on the screen.
But for all the acclaim, the money and the applause, Cagney remained a man strangely untouched by Hollywood and its often destructive siren’s song of egomania.
Even during the years of his greatest success (he first entered the Top 10 list of the most-popular box office stars in 1935, then remained in that elite company for five consecutive years, beginning in 1939), Cagney was different.
A man who didn’t smoke and who rarely drank, he never joined the party circuit, preferring, instead, to simply go home to his wife after a day’s work before the cameras. After completion of a picture, the actor was usually on the first sleeper train (he hated planes) back to the East, either to his New York State farm or to his beloved house (built in 1728) on Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts.
Hollywood, to Cagney, was and remained simply a place where he could sell his wares, a place to do his job:
“In the theater (New York) we had our sharpies, but when you got to Hollywood, you knew at once you had arrived in the big league for con men and frauds,” he wrote in his autobiography.
“My very first impression of Hollywood was the same for any other town I had encountered in vaudeville—just a place to do your job. But after a while, I began to realize how sadly obsessed these Hollywood people were with their careers.
Missed His Pictures
“A solid number of my pictures I’ve never seen,” he wrote long after his retirement, “and some of the ones I have seen satisfied my curiosity about them in a single showing or even halfway through.
“I was asked once if I suddenly woke up one day to realize I was famous, a star. Nothing of the sort!
“I never gave it a thought, never thought of it at all. Whatever was going on in my Hollywood life I regarded as completely transitory. I looked on it only as doing a job, and that job happened to work out. . . .”
James Francis Cagney was born July 17, 1899, on New York’s Lower East Side, the son of an easygoing Irish saloon keeper and an Irish-Norwegian mother, whose shimmering red hair he adored as a boy and remembered often as a man.
The second of five children (two others died young), Cagney was sickly as a baby but soon grew into an energetic youngster with a strong drive to help keep the family in groceries and to maintain his reputation as one of the most obliging, quick-fisted toughs on the block.
Indeed, snapshots of Cagney as a boy—a tough-looking mug, staring straight at the camera with an expression blending cocky conceit with cool charm—differ little from the thousands of studio photographs that were turned out decades later.
When he was 8, the family moved to 96th Street on the northern tip of Yorkville, a tough, working-class section of the city. The locale, he said years later, always stuck in his memory “as a street of a stark tragedy, somehow. It seems, as I look back, that there was always crepe hanging on a door or two somewhere on the block. There was always the clanging of an ambulance bell. Patrol wagons came often. . . .”
The Cagney clan, the actor recalled, “was surrounded by trouble, illness, and my dad’s alcoholism, but we just didn’t have time to be impressed by all those misfortunes.”
“Time” meant money, and money meant food. Young Jimmy had his first regular job at 14, working as an office boy at the New York Sun for $5 a week. He never really stopped working until his retirement in 1961, an agile, vibrant man of 62.
Holds Three Jobs
During one vacation from studies at Stuyvesant High, he wrapped bundles at Wanamaker’s Department Store (a job he held for several years) during the day and worked as a switchboard operator and as a pool hall attendant at night. On Sunday, his “day off,” Cagney sold tickets for the Hudson River Day Line.
“It was good for me,” he once said of his early work habits. “I feel sorry for the kid who has too cushy a time of it. Suddenly, he has to come face to face with the realities of life without any papa or mama to do his thinking for him.”
His early life not only taught him devotion to work and trust of family and friends, but gave him many of the unique mannerisms, moods and language of the street that he later took to the screen with so much success.
For example, the shrug used in “Angels With Dirty Faces” did not come from the actor’s imagination but was an acting out of the gestures habitually employed by a “heroin-addicted pimp” he used to watch on a street corner as a boy of 12.
“He (the pimp) worked out of a Hungarian rathskeller on 1st Avenue, between 77th and 78th streets,” Cagney once recalled, “a tall dude with an expensive straw hat and an electric-blue suit.
“All day long, he would stand on that corner, hitch up his trousers, twist his neck and move his necktie, lift his shoulders, snap his fingers, then bring his hands together in a soft smack.
“I did that gesturing maybe six times in the picture—that was over 30 years ago—and the impressionists are still doing me, doing him,” Cagney wrote in 1975.
The Cagney stance—elbows close to his hips, and hands hanging over his thighs, rather than loosely at his sides—also was a legacy from his early days, but perhaps not in a way many critics assumed.
Rather than an actor’s “tough guy” pose, the stance was simply Cagney’s natural posture—the result of a “great deal of weightlifting from boyhood on.”
“I simply can’t straighten my arms,” the actor confided years before his death.
Perhaps it should not be surprising that Cagney would consider his years of stardom “just a job.” He had gotten into show business in the first place because he desperately needed a job that paid more money.
His father had died in 1918, a victim of a flu epidemic and “the inroads of all that booze,” and, in addition to helping meet the acute financial needs of his family, Cagney also was trying to earn enough to pay his tuition at Columbia University, where he was studying art.
While working at Wanamaker’s for $12 a week, he heard about a vaudeville act called “Every Sailor” at Keith’s Eighty-first Street Theater. The act needed a dancer. It paid $35 a week.
That was all the young Cagney needed to know.
Having only one dance step in his repertoire—the complicated Peabody, which he had learned from a neighborhood friend—Cagney appeared, unannounced, at the theater.
“It was a female impersonation act, I found to my great surprise,” he wrote years later. “Six guys in skirts serving basically as a chorus line and one of the ‘girls’ was quitting.”
“I faked it to begin with,” the actor said later. “I would stand in the entrance, catch the real dancers and steal their steps. Thereafter, in all the dancing shows and acts I did, I learned by watching.”
His stint in “Sailor” lasted eight weeks. But the tough Irish kid with a natural talent for dancing and acting had found his niche. He never returned to Columbia, and he resumed the study of art (with private lessons) only after he was a star.
In 1920, a year after his first exposure to vaudeville, he appeared in the chorus of “Pitter Patter” at the Longacre Theater in New York and quickly became the show’s specialty dancer.
To earn extra money, he also acted as the company’s baggage checker during tours and took care of the wardrobe for the show’s leading man, Ernest Truex. Cagney’s salary had jumped to “an astounding sum” of $55 a week, $40 of which he faithfully sent to his mother.
The show’s most important contribution to Cagney’s “welfare,” as he often quipped, came in the form of a member of the chorus named Frances Willard (Billie) Vernon—her parents had wanted a boy—whom Cagney married in 1922.
Times were tough during most of the 11 years that Cagney spent in vaudeville and in the theater. But the experience was there, too—varied roles, performed in dozens of small towns on the East Coast.
However, he occasionally played Broadway as well and, in 1929, he showed up in “Penny Arcade,” which also featured another newcomer, Joan Blondell—and that exposure made the difference for the young Irish actor/dancer.
Al Jolson bought a motion picture option on the play, then sold it to Warner Brothers, with the recommendation that Cagney and Blondell be hired for the film version (ultimately released in 1930 as “Sinner’s Holiday”).
So, in April, 1930, Jimmy Cagney went to Hollywood—for $400 a week and a three-week salary guarantee. The monetary inducement also included train fare from the East Coast. Upon Cagney’s insistence, the train tickets were round-trip.
“I came out for three weeks,” he once said, in all seriousness, “and I stayed, to my absolute amazement, for 31 years!”
Cagney made two films that were released in 1930, including “Sinner’s Holiday” with Blondell. He was featured in five releases the next year. One of them (his fifth film) was “The Public Enemy"—and it made him a star.
His performance as Tom Powers, a hoodlum who had grown up in pre-World War I slums with no regard for law and order, shocked moviegoers, especially women in the audience who didn’t appreciate Cagney’s penchant for mauling (via grapefruit smashes or otherwise) his female film companions.
But his portrayal of Powers was unique and riveting and Cagney conveyed every emotion presented by the demanding role with his entire body, moving about the set with the quickness and sureness of the dancer that he, in fact, was.
Wrote film historian Homer Dickens:
“It was Cagney’s complete comprehension of the kind of boy that produced the man that made the murderer who would inevitably end up with his bullet-riddled body tottering into his mother’s foyer which made this the shattering, brutal manifestation of gangster glory that it was.”
The tough, cocky, rebellious characters that Cagney came to immortalize were cheeringly accepted by an audience whose personal lives had been ripped apart by the uncertainty and chaos that was post-Depression America.
Relates to Fans
And when Cagney, his mouth snarling, his fingers jabbing, got tough—lashing out, ultimately, at a society that he, too, had not created—his characters seemed to personify the anger and frustration felt by many of his fans.
Perhaps the times, as much as his undeniable talents as an actor, combined to create one of Hollywood’s first major “anti-hero” stars. Surely, few film personalities of any period could have survived what film historian Dickens called the “major destructions on their own charm by the types of men they played” as did Cagney during the 1930s and ‘40s.
Murderers, braggarts, cowards, bullies—men of cruelty and violence—were among the portraits etched by the fiery actor on the screen, and the motion picture public loved it. Yet, the man himself was the opposite of all that--a modest, retiring fellow of deep sensitivity, capable of unflinching commitment to his personal beliefs.
How did he manage the metamorphosis?
“All I try to do is to realize the man I’m playing fully,” Cagney said once. “Then, I put as much into my acting as I know how. To do it, I draw upon all that I’ve ever known, heard, seen or remember.”
Acting, he said, is a simple matter: “You walk in, plant yourself, look the other fella in the eye, and tell the truth.”
The actor said he never employed so-called “method” acting, or any other device required by some latter-day performers to work themselves up emotionally for a particular scene.
While he never evidenced a particular interest in directing, Cagney remained a shrewd judge of shadings of his own performances. There is a classic moment in “White Heat,” for example, in which the actor, as Cody Jarrett, hears in the prison cafeteria that his mother, whom he worshiped insanely, has died.
In the scene, Jarrett responds to the news by first burying his head in his hands for a silent moment and, then—wailing like a wounded animal—going on a rampage.
“I looked down,” Cagney once told a reviewer who had asked about the scene, “because that first agony (any person feels) is private. If I’d looked up right away and started bellowing, it would have been stock company 1912.”
Again, too, the scene demonstrated Cagney’s reliance on his boyhood memories to create “reality” on the screen:
“I knew what deranged people sounded like,” he wrote in his autobiography, “because once as a youngster I had visited Ward’s Island where a pal’s uncle was in the hospital for the insane.
“My God, what an education that was! The shrieks, the screams of those people under restraint! I remembered those cries, saw that they fitted (the requirements of the scene), and I called on my memory as required. No need to psych up.”
While he was nominated for Academy Awards for his performances as Rocky Sullivan in “Angels With Dirty Faces” (1938) and as Martin (The Gimp) Snyder in “Love Me or Leave Me” (1955), it was his dazzling portrait of song-and-dance man Cohan in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942) that won Cagney his only Oscar.
The lavish film, based on the life of the famous vaudeville hoofer, dramatist, actor, songwriter and flag-waver, remained Cagney’s personal favorite from his long and varied career.
“The answer is simple,” Cagney wrote in 1976, “and it derives from George M. Cohan’s comment about himself: Once a song-and-dance man, always a song-and-dance man. In that brief statement, you have my life story; those few words tell as much about me professionally as there is to tell.”
Engrossed in Project
As he did in all his professional projects, Cagney threw himself mightily into the Cohan role. He had Warner Brothers hire as his dancing “coach” Johnny Boyle, who had worked with George M. and who knew Cohan’s dance style from the inside out.
Said Cagney, no slouch as a dancer himself:
“From Johnny, I learned Cohan’s stiff-legged technique and his run up the side of the proscenium arch. Johnny and I had a great time rehearsing together, but it was hard, hard work—so hard that Johnny hurt one foot badly enough to be virtually incapacitated for dancing the rest of his life.”
The film, like many other Cagney vehicles, drew praise from the critics, including Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who wrote that “the truly remarkable nature of Mr. Cagney’s accomplishment turns not so much on a literal imitation of Mr. Cohan as it does on a shrewd and meticulous creation of a lusty, spontaneous character. Indeed, Mr. Cagney’s Mr. Cohan is not so much an image of George M. as it is an exhilarating portrait of a spirited trouper and a warmly emotional man.”
But the “critic” that Cagney had hoped to please the most had given his approval months before the film was released. Shortly before his death from cancer, Cohan had reviewed the film and had given it his blessing.
“I like to think,” Cagney wrote in his autobiography, “that this only contact we (he and Cohan) had was professionally appropriate: One song-and-dance man saluting another (Cohan), the greatest of our calling.”
The remaining 19 years in show business were as good to Cagney as any man could have wanted. But, unlike many stars, when the time came to quit, Cagney was the first, rather than the last, to know.
In Munich in 1961, while on the set of “One, Two, Three,” an assistant director had walked up to Cagney, who had been standing out in the sunshine contemplating what he really wanted from his remaining years.
“Mr. Cagney, we are ready,” the assistant had said—and Jimmy Cagney had followed him, because it was his job, back inside the studio.
“I found myself in that great black cavern with just a few spotlights dotted here and there,” Cagney wrote years later, “and I said to myself, ‘Well, this is it. This is the end. I’m finished.”’
He said he quit “for the simplest of reasons: Psychologically, it had become something of a bore instead of an exciting thing. I’d had 40 years of it. Enough was enough.”
Cagney made no announcement, knowing to do so would bring crowds of reporters and dozens of questions. “I just let it (his career) slide off into nothing,” he said simply.
In 1974, when a chance presented itself for Cagney to add his prestige to a good cause (the American Film Institute wanted to bestow upon him its Life Achievement Award), he, at the urging of close friends, agreed to come out of retirement--briefly.
During interviews surrounding receipt of the award, Cagney answered questions about his career, but always with a subdued detachment that said the Hollywood part of his life had merely been a means toward an end, not a goal in itself.
“Acting was always a second choice with me,” he wrote in 1976. “I was always aiming at the farm. Not long ago, I drove down Ventura Boulevard, past Warner Brothers, where I made over 40 of my 62 movies, and I didn’t turn a hair. It (Hollywood) didn’t interest me one damn. In thinking about all my reasons for quitting, I can boil them down to one: When I stopped caring, I stopped acting.”
Before he received the AFI award, interviewers pressed Cagney for his feelings about being a “legend,” a “superstar.”
“Silly words,” he retorted. “I hate the word ‘superstar.’ Who hung it on the business, anyway? I have never been able to think in those terms. They are overstatements. You don’t hear them speak of Shakespeare as a ‘super-poet.’ You don’t hear them call Michelangelo a ‘super-painter.’ They only apply the word to this mundane market.”
Nonetheless, during one of Hollywood’s most warmly feeling evenings, Cagney marched into the ballroom of the Century Plaza to the strains of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” on March 13, 1974, to accept the film institute award, given to the individual:
”. . . whose talent has in a fundamental way contributed to the film-making arts; whose accomplishments have been acknowledged by scholars, critics, professional peers and the general public; and whose body of work has stood the test of time.”
In making the presentation, George Stevens Jr. said: “Honor follows him who flees it and tonight it catches up with a fugitive.”
Cagney, Stevens said, “sang, acted, danced and machine-gunned his way into our hearts. He is a man of many talents who has made the most of them.” The actor’s work, he added, was a “mosaic of the American character.”
Cagney, amazingly spry for 74, did a little dance for the crowd and television audience (the evening was being filmed for a network special presentation) then, later, rose to accept one of the industry’s highest honors.
As in his younger days, he could still break up an audience. Turning to the many impressionists in the crowd, Cagney singled out his favorite, Frank Gorshin, to say:
“Oh, Frankie, just in passing. I never said, ‘Mmm, you dirty rat!’ ”
(The line was delivered as Cagney doing Cagney.)
“What I actually did say was, ‘Judy! Judy! Judy!”
Cagney’s own impersonation of Cary Grant (it was close to perfect) brought down the house.
Then, as the laughter died away, Jimmy Cagney thanked them for the high honor—and, only half kiddingly, also thanked his childhood, “a stimulating early environment which produced that unmistakable touch of the gutter without which this evening might never have happened at all.”
Throughout his career, James Cagney always played down his individual achievements and shied away from taking personal credit for his success.
“What I have I was born with,” he once said. “I had nothing to do with it. You can’t take bows for having red hair or blue eyes.
“And the drive is part of what you receive, too. I had the drive; it was part of me. And I’m glad and grateful it all happened, but you have to keep the perspective.
“My parents were a gift, and so was my family; I was lucky enough to marry the girl I did, and have the children I did; my good friends came to me unbidden; my job was one I enjoyed; and I’ve lived my life trying to be true to all these.
“It sounds bromidic as hell, but your heart lets you know.”
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.