James Cagney is an actor of contradictions. He made a Hollywood career out of playing murderous thugs, but what he really excelled at was singing and dancing. His rags-to-riches story is equal parts turbulent and bizarre—a life story that needs to be told.
1. He Was Sickly
Born in July 1899, James Francis Cagney grew up as a sickly child. In fact, his mother was so distressed over his poor health, she worried that he wouldn’t even make it to his baptism. But he wasn’t the only one in danger.
Cagney had six siblings, and tragically, two of them passed only months after coming into the world. Later, he gave a harrowing reason for all this heartache.
2. He Came From Nothing
Cagney’s family was dirt poor. At that time, the Lower East Side of Manhattan was poor, treacherous, and had deplorable sanitation. His father was an amateur boxer and bartender, and with so many mouths to feed, the family struggled to get by.
But though Cagney hailed from such meager beginnings, he harbored some big dreams.
3. He Watched It Slip Away
After graduating from high school, James Cagney enrolled at Columbia College, where he planned to study art. He also had the intention to study German. So why were all these plans just intentions? Because none of them came true.
Just when Cagney was on the verge of rising above his sad story, it all came crashing down with one tragic event.
4. He Suffered A Tragic Loss
In 1918, there was a pandemic often referred to as the Spanish Flu. At its worst moment, it had a mortality rate of 287 residents per 100,000 in New York City. Sadly, in the Cagney family that led to the passing of its patriarch. Cagney’s plans to go to college were over.
He headed back home in order to take care of his mother and siblings—but little did he know, fate had another twist in store for him.
5. He Abandoned His Dreams
Instead of attending college, James Cagney had no choice but to take on odd jobs to provide for his family. He worked as a doorkeeper at a luxury residence, and also as a bellhop at a hotel. Somehow, he also got jobs as a junior architect and a copyboy.
However, it was when he took a job at the New York Public Library that his life took a dramatic turn.
6. He Had The Skills
At the New York Public Library, James Cagney met Florence James. She worked in the world of theater and she thought he belonged there too. You see, Cagney had some skills that would make him the perfect performer.
He was a skilled street fighter and an amateur boxer but also knew how to tap dance ’til the cows came home. However, his first introduction to the world of film was another story altogether.
7. He Climbed Over
James Cagney had an aunt who lived in Brooklyn and—just by chance—right across the street from Vitagraph Studios. Cagney was soon obsessed about what was going on over the fence at the studio.
When his curiosity got the best of him, he climbed the wall. That’s when he saw something he’d never seen before: the filming of a movie. This glorious sight ignited a passion within him—and he’d do anything to be a part of it.
8. He Lived In The Shadows
James Cagney couldn’t exactly just waltz into Vitagraph Studios and demand a job. He had to start at the bottom. He soon became a scenery boy for a pantomime show. His brother, Harry was acting there and the show’s director was Florence James—the woman from the library.
Cagney was content to be backstage and actually feared being the one performing in front of the crowd. That was when fate stepped in.
9. He Had A Photographic Memory
It was a usual day and Cagney was preparing the stage for the pantomime show when disaster struck. His brother, who was performing that night, suddenly got sick.
James, the director, asked Cagney if he knew the direction for the show. Cagney said he did, and James convinced him to stand in for his brother. Thanks to his impressive photographic memory, he completely pulled it off. In one fell swoop, he conquered his fear of being in the spotlight—nothing could stop him now.
10. He Got Noticed
Even though Cagney had gone up on stage and succeeded, he still wasn’t sure he belonged there. Instead, in 1919, he took a job at Wanamaker’s Department Store. One day while horsing around, a colleague saw him dancing.
She thought Cagney was pretty good and told him about an audition that she’d heard about. The job paid $35 a week—much more than Cagney would ever see at the department store. There was, however, one pretty major obstacle in Cagney’s way.
11. He Watched And Learned
The problem was this: Cagney actually knew one kind of dance. So, while he waited for his turn to audition, he watched and learned the other dancers’ moves. By the time it was his turn, he’d somehow mastered the routine and miraculously got the job. The show was about servicemen and Cagney was to be in the chorus.
That was when he heard something highly unusual about his job.
12. He Had A Feminine Touch
The chorus of men in Every Sailor had an odd twist: They were all going to dress as women. The usually shy Cagney, however, seemed to have no problem wearing a wig and dress. In fact, he felt no embarrassment about the role whatsoever. He later said that when he was on the stage, he wasn’t Cagney anymore.
It sounds like Cagney was ready for some serious acting, but that was still a ways off.
13. He Needed More Money
James Cagney’s mother was proud as punch of her dress-donning son, but she knew that working in the theater wasn’t a real job. She wanted her son to get an education. Well, Cagney didn’t go back to school, but he did get a real job. He worked at a brokerage house as a runner. However, in his off hours, he went to auditions.
He soon got a part in Pitter Patter and his salary increased from $35 to $55 a week. From this salary, Cagney sent a good portion to his mother—he kept only $10 a week for himself. He knew that he needed more money and he had to find a way to get it.
14. He Played Multiple Roles
Cagney played more than one role in Pitter Patter—but the others were off-stage. He was a dresser for a lead character, he carried luggage around, and he also became the understudy for the lead. Of course, his time on the Pitter Patter set also fired up his love life in a shocking way.
15. He Fell In Love
While working, James Cagney set his eyes on one of the chorus line performers. Her name was Frances Willard Vernon and by 1922, the two were married. Little did Cagney know, this marriage would last his entire life.
After marrying, the newlyweds traveled the Vaudeville circuit. They were working steadily, but sadly, money was still tight.
16. He Faced Rejection
To find their fortunes, Cagney and his wife made their way to California to check out the opportunity to make movies. They saw the palm trees and bright lights of Hollywood and thought they’d arrived in heaven. Sadly, Hollywood didn’t see them as anything special.
They packed their bags and headed back to New York City. Hollywood had been a bust. There would, however, be a second chance.
17. He Was Red
Cagney had proved that he could dance with ease in front of an audience, but what about his acting? Once he was back in New York—this was 1925—he auditioned for his first non-dancing role. The play was Outside Looking and Cagney thought he had no chance of getting the part.
But he did have one thing going for him: his red hair. The character he was auditioning for was called Little Red and he was a hobo with red hair. Cagney got the part and was soon making $200 per week. There were, however, much greater things to come.
18. They Packed Their Bags
The reviews for Outside Looking were positive, especially of Cagney’s performance. This led him to another part. The show had the title Broadway and they wanted Cagney to join the cast as it moved from New York to London’s West End.
Cagney and his wife gave up their apartment, packed their bags, and loaded them onto the ship that would take them to the UK. Before the couple set sail, however, Cagney received a devastating message from the show’s producer: they didn’t want Cagney after all.
This news devastated the actor—and left him and his wife homeless. Cagney was on the brink of giving up his dream for good.
19. He Didn’t Give Up
Well, Cagney couldn’t throw in the towel just yet. Instead, he opened a dance school. This took an enormous amount of energy to keep going, and then something happened that would take even more effort: he got a big part.
The show was Women Go On Forever and between it and the dance school, Cagney didn’t have an ounce of energy left.
20. He Had To Promise
After Women Go On Forever, and while still running the dance school, Cagney got a role in a show called Penny Arcade opposite Joan Blondell. The critics basically hated the show, but they loved Cagney and Blondell.
Vaudeville star Al Jolson thought the play had great potential to be a film, so he bought the rights. When Jolson sold the play to Warner Bros he had only one demand: They had to cast Cagney and Blondell in their roles. Warner was not happy with the arrangement but agreed to Jolson’s terms.
It was finally official: Cagney was going to be in his very first film.
21. He Had No Potential
Jack Warner of Warner Bros really didn’t want to cast Cagney and Blondell in the film version of Penny Arcade—which was now called Sinners’ Holiday. Jack Warner’s reason for his reluctance was that he thought the actors were never going to make it in Hollywood.
Warner would later have to eat his words as both Cagney and Blondell went on to big careers in Hollywood. In spite of Warner’s lack of faith, this was a huge break for Cagney. He got a three-week contract from Warner Bros for $1,500. He also got something he couldn’t put a price tag on.
22. He Was Typecast
Besides earning a hefty salary, James Cagney got something else from appearing in Sinners’ Holiday: a character type. In the film, Cagney plays a tough guy with a bad childhood. This bad guy who gets sympathy from the audience became the backbone of Cagney’s early career.
Surprisingly, the actor wasn’t worried about getting type cast, he was just happy to know that when a film needed a character like this, they’d turn to him.
23. There Was A Switch
Cagney quickly moved forward through Hollywood and ended up with a supporting role in a huge film: The Public Enemy. Here he was playing the best friend of the lead actor Edward Woods. After a few days of filming, the director took Cagney aside for a chat.
Cagney likely feared there was something wrong with his performance. Instead, he got some truly surprising news: The director wanted Cagney to switch roles with Woods. Cagney was now the lead actor in a huge Hollywood movie—and he was about to be in an iconic scene.
24. He Nailed Her In The Face
There’s one scene in The Public Enemy that some feel is one of the most famous in film history. In it, Cagney is angry at his wife while they’re sitting at the breakfast table. He picks up a grapefruit and squishes it into the face of his wife, played by Mae Clarke.
Where the idea came from is a hotly debated mystery. One thing we do know is that Clarke’s real-life husband went to the cinema countless times just to watch it happen again and again—and laughed uproariously every time. Cagney may have been squishing grapefruits for the camera, but he was also a pain off-camera.
25. He Got A Reputation
During the filming of The Public Enemy, Douglas Fairbanks Jr started a charity drive. The famous actor expected everyone working on The Public Enemy to donate money to his cause. While Cagney had no problem throwing his few bucks in, he did have a problem with the fact that his participation was mandatory.
It was instances like this one that led to Cagney’s nickname: “The Professional Againster”. We’ll soon see how this nickname came to be the calling card of the difficult James Cagney.
26. His Aggression Was A Hit
Cagney’s famous grapefruit scene ignited audiences. They were growing to love this kind of spontaneous brutality in films. To capitalize on that, Warner Bros created another scene that they hoped would catch the public’s eye.
In Smart Money, Cagney slaps his female co-star Evalyn Knapp in the face. But little did he know, his image in Hollywood was about to undergo a makeover.
27. He Had To Change
Around the time that Cagney’s characters were manhandling women, Hollywood movies were making a huge change. Some moviegoers thought that the content of movies was morally questionable. In an effort to confront this issue, the film industry decided to abide by a list of rules.
With these rules—known as the Hays Code—Cagney’s career as a bad guy may have been over. For this reason, Warner Bros decided to change gears with Cagney and send him hurtling in a completely different direction.
28. He Had A Funny Bone
Warner Bros plan to keep Cagney in movies was to put him in a comedy. The film was Blonde Crazy and it reunited him with Blondell. It turned out that audiences loved Cagney in a comedy. But he wasn’t completely happy. Though his star continued to rise, his salary continued to be a huge source of disappointment.
29. He Wanted More
Cagney had a number of very successful films under his belt and started to do a little math. He realized that he was making a bundle for Warner Bros and yet not really receiving a bundle for his efforts. When he asked Warner Bros for a raise, they flatly refused him.
They also insisted that Cagney promote Warner Bros films—even when he wasn’t in them. Cagney had had it. He left Hollywood and moved back to New York City.
30. He Got An Offer
While Cagney was licking his wounds in New York, his brother Bill was house-sitting for him in LA. Bill, however, was doing something else as well.
He became his brother’s agent and was more successful at getting Cagney a raise. When Cagney heard he would now receive $1,000 a week, he returned to Hollywood. His first film with his new salary was Taxi!
31. He Didn’t Say It
In 1932’s Taxi!, Cagney played an angry cab driver. There was one pretty serious problem, however: Cagney had never learned how to drive. So, before he could star in this movie, he had to take driving lessons.
Taxi! was also famous for one of Cagney’s most misquoted lines. Many impressionists quoted him saying, “MMMmmm, you dirty rat!” However, he actually said, “Come out and take it, you dirty, yellow-bellied rat…”
Clearly, Cagney had a problem with rats—but, actually, he had much more lethal things to worry about.
32. They Were Fully Loaded
Back in the 1930s, blank cartridges for revolvers were very expensive. To save money, the studios would make actors use actual live shells when making movies. The idea, of course, was not to hit the actor when filming the scene.
During the filming of Taxi!, Cagney had a very near miss. This issue, along with the usual salary problems, made Cagney want to walk away from Warner Bros again. Unfortunately, his contract made this completely impossible.
33. He Made A Deal
To get out of his contract with Warner Bros, Cagney offered to do something few actors have done: work for free. He said he’d do three movies for zero dollars if he could get out of his contract. Surprisingly, Warner Bros refused Cagney’s offer.
At this point, director Frank Capra stepped in to help. He got Cagney’s salary raised to $3,000 a week, and he also got Cagney’s number of films reduced to just four a year. He also got a special promise from Warner Bros: The actor would get top billing in all four movies.
You’d think that Cagney would be happy with this arrangement. But don’t be too sure.
34. He Wanted To Help
James Cagney wasn’t just out to help himself when it came to the studios. He saw actors burning themselves out, working a whopping 100 hours a week. To make matters worse, some of these young actors were still teenagers. Cagney had had enough.
He and some other actors—including Humphrey Bogart—got behind the Screen Actors Guild, which was like a union for Hollywood workers. Hang on to your hats, because these guys were about to go head-to-head with the most powerful people in Hollywood.
35. He Took A Risk
After helping to form the Screen Actors Guild, James Cagney continued to make movies for Warner Bros. In 1934, however, Warner Bros had Cagney make five films, which broke his contract. They also gave him second billing in one of them—also a breach of his contract.
Cagney, along with his brother William, did something that most actors were afraid to do: They sued Warner Bros. The court case would go on for months. Which gave Cagney some time to pursue other hobbies.
36. He Took A Break
For many years, Cagney had had an interest in farming. While his brother did battle against Warner Bros in LA, Cagney worked a small farm in upstate New York.
Cagney enjoyed the simple life on the farm, but there’s some evidence that perhaps he was a little bored. The moment he got a call to appear in a movie, he dropped the farm and went back to Hollywood.
The call, however, hadn’t come from Warner Bros: There was a new kid on the block.
37. He Got A call
The film that brought Cagney off the farm was for Grand National Films. This would be different from the Warner Bros payment system. Instead of a weekly salary, Cagney would get $100,000 for the film. He would also get 10% of the profits. This was exactly what Cagney had been hoping for.
As long as the films were good, Cagney would be happy. Sadly, Grand National Films could not compete with Warner Bros.
38. He Broke The System
While Cagney was slumming it with Grand National Films, his brother was still fighting with Warner Bros. The result of the trial came in and—big surprise—Cagney had won. Not only had he won the trial, Warner Bros wanted him back.
They offered him $150,000 per film, with a maximum of two films per year—and as a cherry on top, Cagney was able to choose the films he wanted to do. Winning against the powerful studio was a huge boon to Cagney himself, as well as other actors who struggled with unacceptable contracts.
39. They Took His Pants
In 1938, Cagney appeared with Humphrey Bogart in Angels with Dirty Faces. As well, the cast included a group of actors known as the Dead End Kids (DEK). These were performers that, like Cagney, grew up on the mean streets of New York City.
The DEK had a reputation for being wild on the set. While filming Angels with Dirty Faces, the young men went as far as to run off with Bogart’s pants. When they tried to mess with Cagney, however, things went differently.
40. He Put Him In His Place
Another thing that the DEK liked to do on set was ad-lib their lines. Leo Gorcey had his first scene with Cagney and right away, he began getting creative with the script. What Gorcey didn’t count were Cagney’s own street smarts.
To stop the kid’s relentless ad-libbing, Cagney let him have it right above the nose. Once that had happened, the DEK behaved themselves. Cagney was a tough guy on and off the screen—but that was about to change.
41. He Changed His Character
Many audiences saw Cagney solely as a hoodlum movie star. Well, he was about to surprise them with his next role. Producer Hal Wallis wanted to make a movie about George M Cohan who many called “the man who owned Broadway” and the father of American Musicals.
The film was Yankee Doodle Dandy, and there were going to be no lines like, “You dirty rat!” Cagney was going to be singing and dancing—something he hadn’t done in a long time.
42. They Had To Get It Right
Yankee Doodle Dandy is a patriotic film, but they made it at an odd time in American history, just as WWII was heating up. In fact, the first day of filming followed an infamous day: Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
Getting this movie right suddenly seemed extremely important. Would it be the last movie made from a free America? Of course, it wasn’t, but this urgency to get things right, made for a hugely popular film.
43. He Kept On Dancing
Cagney poured his heart and soul into Yankee Doodle Dandy. In one scene, he broke into a tap dance that was not in the script. In another scene, he fractured a rib and just kept on dancing. Nothing was going to stop Cagney from making this film into a hit. Well, it really paid off.
Cagney received the best actor Oscar, and with that, he was a first: No one had won for a musical performance before. After taking home gold, Cagney was about to get very busy in Hollywood.
44. He Went Rogue
With an Academy Award under his belt, Cagney felt ready to “go rogue” in Hollywood. What this meant was that he and his brother William started their own production company called Cagney Productions. It was a busy time for Cagney.
In addition to creating his company, he was also entertaining servicemen involved in WWII and becoming president of the Screen Actors Guild. Things were really looking good for Cagney, and his production company—and then suddenly they weren’t.
45. He Faced Failure
Cagney Productions had some success but ultimately met a sad end. Cagney reluctantly signed the company over to his old enemy Warner Bros. This meant that Cagney was back to playing his usual roles: bad guys with bad childhoods. But if you thought that appearing in musicals had tamed Cagney’s off-screen temper, you’re wrong.
46. He Called His Bluff
In 1955, Cagney appeared in Mister Roberts. The director was the problematic John Ford, who’d already directed The Grapes of Wrath. When Ford met Cagney at the airport, he voiced a shocking prediction: He warned Cagney that they’d eventually “tangle”.
Later, Cagney took him up on his offer to fight. He said, “When I started this picture, you said that we would tangle […] before this was over. I’m ready now‚are you?” Ford, on the verge of a meltdown due to Cagney’s poor punctuality, took the high road—and just walked away.
His next on-set squabble, however, didn’t end so well.
47. He’d Had Enough
Cagney continued to make quality movies up until 1962. However, it was a comedy that inspired his retirement. Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three pitted Cagney against German actor Horst Buchholz, who kept trying to upstage Cagney. This was the last straw—and after the film wrapped, he retired. But sadly, there were rough waters ahead for him.
48. His Health Suffered
In 1955, James Cagney suffered a minor stroke—and afterward, he fell into a spiraling depression. For the first time, he found himself incapable of enjoying his beloved pastimes: dancing, horseback riding, and even painting. But despite these hardships, there was a silver lining on the horizon.
He only came out of retirement for Ragtime in 1981. Cagney had to travel to the UK for his Ragtime scenes. Once there, he made quite a scene.
49. He Made A Comeback
In 1981, James Cagney came out of retirement to star in one last film, Ragtime. He had to travel to the UK for his Ragtime scenes—and once there, he created quite a stir.
It had been 20 years since Cagney had made a movie, but when he arrived in the UK aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2, there was a mob of elated fans that security had never seen before. But there was more in store for Cagney in the UK.
50. He Impressed The Queen Mother
When he appeared at the Queen Mother’s birthday performance something unprecedented happened. The Queen Mother gave him a standing ovation and then even went backstage to meet him—something she wasn’t supposed to do. Time had not dampened Cagney’s fame, but he had very little of it left.
51. It Was A Mixed Bag
It was Easter Sunday, 1986 that marked the end of Cagney’s long and successful life, after he passed from a heart attack. The pallbearers at his funeral were a rather mixed bag of people: They included director Milos Forman, ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, boxer Floyd Patterson, and New York governor Mario M Cuomo.
To top it all off the President of the United States—Ronald Reagan—read the eulogy. The real shocker, however, came after the funeral.
52. His Will Was A Scandal
Because of infertility issues, James Cagney and his wife adopted two children. Surprisingly, Cagney’s son passed before his father did—of a heart attack. This left Cagney with his only daughter. The truth is, Cagney wasn’t on speaking terms with either of his children once they’d become adults.
Cagney left nothing to his son’s family and nothing to his daughter. It all went to his wife who had been by his side for a remarkable 64 years.