That explosive, in-your-face screen presence, coupled with the ability to convey depth of sensitivity behind a street-hardened exterior, made this bartender’s son from Manhattan’s Lower East Side one of the most enduring and iconoclastic Hollywood leading men ever. Born James Francis Cagney in July of 1899, he would do well in school and enrolled at Columbia University to study art. Abandoning college after one semester to help support his family after his father’s death, the 19-year-old auditioned for and won the role of a female impersonator in a vaudeville revue. For the next decade, Jimmy would hone his acting and dancing skills on the boards and by the late ’20s had obtained his first breaks on Broadway.
In 1929, he assayed the role of a cheap grifter in the short-lived play “Penny Arcade”; Al Jolson sold the property to Warner Bros. under the proviso that Cagney and Joan Blondell reprise their roles onscreen, and both made their film debut in 1930 in the retitled Sinner’s Holiday. After getting an additional pair of supporting performances under his belt, Cagney received his breakout opportunity when director William Wellman, after initial rehearsals, made a casting change for his gangster drama The Public Enemy in 1931. “What not many people know,” Cagney recalled years later, “is that right up to two days before shooting started, I was going to play the good guy, the pal. Edward Woods played it in the end.” Cagney’s gritty turn as hood Tom Powers–who in a classic scene shoves a grapefruit half into the face of girlfriend Kitty (Mae Clarke) at the breakfast table–made him an instant sensation with audiences.
Warners would ride him hard over the next half-decade, with tough-guy vehicles such as 1931’s Smart Money (his only screen pairing with fellow tough guy Edward G. Robinson) and a pair of 1932 features that featured him behind the wheel; as a big-city cabbie Taxi! and a race car driver in The Crowd Roars. 1933 found him in Lady Killer, a Hollywood satire with his Public Enemy co-star Clarke, and The Mayor of Hell, about the brutal treatment of boys in reform school, while the comedy Jimmy the Gent (1934) paired him with friend Bette Davis. He occasionally got to show off his hoofing ability, as 1933’s Footlight Parade with Blondell and Ruby Keeler. It was the production, with musical numbers directed by the legendary Busby Berkeley, that moveigoers discovered Cagney could sing and dance. He later quipped, “Once a song and dance man, always a song and dance man. Those few words tell as much about me professionally as there is to tell.”
As the 1930s continued, he got to engage in war heroics in Here Comes the Navy (the first of his nine screen teamings with pal and fellow New Yorker Pat O’Brien), Ceiling Zero and Devil Dogs of the Air, and audiences saw his multiplicity in the 1935 adaptation of Shakepeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Seeking more diverse opportunities, Cagney bolted Warners to engage in independent production, but the indifferent public response to Great Guy in 1936 and 1938’s Something to Sing About brought him back to the WB lot. Upon his return, the studio seemed more willing to show off his range, with a run marked by cinema classics like Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), where Jimmy makes a memorable walk down Death Row alongside priest O’Brien, and a pair of tough guy crowd-pleasers in 1939, The Roaring Twenties with frequent co-star Humphrey Bogart and Each Dawn I Die with George Raft.
Into the 1940s his star continued to rise with The Fighting 69th and City for Conquest, with Ann Sheridan; The Strawberry Blonde with a host of Warner’s contact players along with Rita Hayworth, and another comedy with Bette Davis, The Bride Came C.O.D., and capped by his 1942 Oscar-winning work as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. However, Cagney was again chafing over his WB assignments, and his output over the balance of the decade was largely spent in another fitful run at self-producing films like 1943’s Johnny Come Lately; Blood on the Sun (1945), about Japan’s hidden involvement in the days leading up to Pearl Harbor; the 1947 espionage thriller 13 Rue Madeleine at 20th Century-Fox; and a 1948 film version of William Saroyan’s hit play, The Time of Your Life.
He followed with a strong return to Warners in 1949 with the flavorful crime opus White Heat, playing psychopathic criminal Cody Jarrett. The film would credit Cagney with perhaps his best-known screen quote, “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” (The “You dirty rat!” line that every Cagney imitator does never appeared in any of his films). He remained active through the ’50s — the WWI tale What Price Glory? (1952); A Lion Is in the Streets (also ’52) as a slick dishonest Southern politician; and the musical/biodrama Love Me or Leave Me (1955), co-starring with Doris Day. His 1955 turn as a very unsympathetic WWII Navy captain in Mister Roberts with fellow screen favorites Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon and William Powell was followed by a dramatic western, Tribute to a Bad Man, in 1956. At Universal, he won well-earned acclaim as Lon Chaney in the biodrama Man of a Thousand Faces (1957).
The 1960s started strong for Cagney as he played Fleet Adm. William F. Halsey Jr. in The Gallant Hours, but after completion of the 1961 Billy Wilder Cold War comedy One, Two, Three, Cagney announced his retirement from acting. Hewed to that promise for almost 20 years, until the lure of a key supporting turn in Milos Forman’s period drama Ragtime brought him back in 1981. With his health in serious decline, Cagney made his final bow with the title role in the 1984 TV movie, Terrible Joe Moran.
In the days before actors routinely earned millions for just one performance, he said about his craft, “You know, the period of World War I and the Roaring Twenties were really just about the same as today. You worked, and you made a living if you could, and you tried to make the best of things. For an actor or a dancer, it was no different then than today. It was a struggle.” Jimmy Cagney will always be remembered as a gentleman — he did it the hard way and did it well.