James Cagney Biography
Find out how James Cagney became known as the best 'tough guy' actor of his era, despite his diminutive stature.
James Cagney was born in New York in 1900, and was brought up in a tough area where he quickly had to learn how to defend himself. His father, of Irish descent, was a capable amateur boxer, and had a liking for alcohol. From the reputation that James Cagney rapidly gained as a competent street fighter, it is highly likely that he received lessons of some nature from his father.
During the 1920’s, Cagney managed to work himself onto the Broadway stage. His first assignment was singing as part of a choir, dressed up as a woman. The beginning of his career was hardly indicative of the main role he would play in later films!
After securing several lead roles on Broadway, James Cagney debuted in his first film in 1930, ‘Sinner’s Holiday’. A year later he achieved massive success, playing a merciless gangster in ‘The Public Enemy’. It was this ‘tough guy’ role that Cagney would become extremely adept at playing, and what most people remember him as. He made up for his lack of stature with his rough, gritty, New York accent and a tremendous energy as an actor. What many people tend to forget though, is the diversity that Cagney showed in his work. The only Oscar he won was for his role as a song and dance man in the 1945 musical, ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’. He even tried his hand as a Shakespearian dramatist in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.
For the most part of his career, James Cagney worked as an actor for Warner Brothers. However, from 1942 to 1949 he broke away and formed a production company with his brother. They made four films together including ‘Johnny Come Lately’ in 1943.
In 1961, Cagney retired, to concentrate on the things he loved best in life, living on a farm in New York, and being at one with nature. Twenty years later he was lured back to acting, and appeared in Milos Forman’s ‘Ragtime’. Encouraged to go back to work by his doctors due to ill health, Cagney went on to make another movie in 1984 ‘Terrible Joe Moran’. Two years later he died of a heart attack.
James Cagney was the first actor to receive the Life Achievement Award of the American Film Institute, and in 1984 he received The Medal Of Freedom, the highest possible civilian honour for a United States citizen.