Happy Birthday

James Cagney, jimmy cagney, cagney public enemy
United Artists/AP
Cagney in the 1931 film “The
Public Enemy.”

Happy Birthday, James Cagney, Hollywood “Tough Guy”

July 17, 2010
by Lindsey Chapman
As one of Hollywood’s most famous “tough guy” actors, James Cagney was known for the exuberance he poured into his roles. His passion for acting earned him considerable accolades, including a Life Achievement Award, an Oscar and a Medal of Freedom.

James Cagney’s Early Days

Perhaps James Cagney’s early reputation as a tough guy in the Yorkville section of Manhattan was a prelude of things to come. Born July 17, 1899, he was one of the best young boxers in the area by age 14, writes the Kennedy Center.

During high school, James worked for $16 a week wrapping packages at Wanamaker’s Department Store. He spent a semester at Columbia University but had to withdraw for financial reasons. In 1921, Cagney met actress Frances Willard. They married and stayed together for 64 years.

Cagney supported his family by working as a waiter, a poolroom racker and a female impersonator. He later moved on to act in some Broadway roles, and also participated in a vaudeville tour.

As for his Hollywood appeal, Cagney’s looks didn't exactly fit the bill for a leading actor. He was “a small, rather plain looking man,” according to All Movie Guide. “Yet, inside, he was a dynamo, able to project a contentious and arrogant confidence that made him the ideal Hollywood tough guy.”

Cagney’s Film Career

"The Public Enemy" was Cagney's fourth film and in it, he was able to help create a memorable film moment when he smashed part of a grapefruit in Mae Clark's face. See the dramatic scene between Clark and Cagney on YouTube.

Cagney's films may have been characterized by his ability to play the tough guy, but his role as song-and-dance man George M. Cohan in "Yankee Doodle Dandy" is considered the most famous part he ever played. His performance in this film earned him an Oscar, Encyclopedia Britannica reports.

In 1974, Cagney won the second Life Achievement Award ever presented by the American Film Institute. Charlton Heston offered the tribute address. Of Cagney, Heston said, "One of the most significant figures of a generation when American film was dominant, Cagney, that most American of actors, somehow communicated eloquently to audiences all over the world."

The Rest of the Story

One movie quote misattributed to Cagney is the line, “You dirty rat.” Cagney denied ever saying this, however. The correct line, found in the film “Blonde Crazy,” is "Mmmm, that dirty, double-crossing rat.” Watch Cagney poke fun at the “dirty rat” confusion on YouTube.

Suffering from recurring strokes, diabetes and circulatory problems, Cagney's health only continued to deteriorate after he retired. At the urging of his doctors, he made a comeback with a small role in “Ragtime” in 1981.

In 1984, Cagney was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor given from the U.S. government.

When Cagney passed away on his upstate New York Farm in 1986, “longtime friend and colleague President Ronald Reagan delivered the eulogy, noting that ‘America lost one of her finest artists,’” according to All Movie Guide.

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