James Cagney Biography

(One of the Greatest Male Stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood)

Birthday: July 17, 1899 (Cancer)

Born In: Lower East Side, New York, United States

James Cagney was an American actor. He was the second of seven children born to James Francis Cagney, Sr. and Carolyn Nelson. He attended Columbia College, but had to drop out to take up a job after his father’s death. After many odd jobs, including working as a scenery boy, he landed a role in a pantomime. He then auditioned, and won the role of a chorus girl in the play “Every Sailor”. He was an amateur boxer, and was typecast as a gangster in many movies including “The Public Enemy”, “Smart Money”, “Angels with Dirty Faces”, “Love Me or Leave Me”, for which he won a Best Actor Academy Award nomination, and “White Heat”. He tried to shrug off his gangster image in the following years. He started Cagney Productions with his brother, and was also president of the Screen Actors Guild. “Taxi!” was the movie in which he danced on screen the first time, and the last time he allowed himself to be shot at with live ammunition which was a common practise then. His other acclaimed movies were “The Gallant Hours”, and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” which won him an Academy Award for Best Actor.
Quick Facts

Also Known As: James Francis Cagney Jr.

Died At Age: 86


Spouse/Ex-: Frances Willard

father: James Cagney Sr.

mother: Carolyn Cagney

siblings: Edward Cagney, Harry Cagney, Jeanne Cagney, William Cagney

children: Cathleen

Actors American Men

Height: 5'5" (165 cm), 5'5" Males

Died on: March 30, 1986

place of death: Stanfordville, New York, United States

Ancestry: Irish American, Norwegian American

Cause of Death: Heart Attack

U.S. State: New Yorkers

More Facts

education: Columbia College

  • 1

    What were some of James Cagney's most famous movies?

    Some of James Cagney's most famous movies include "The Public Enemy," "Angels with Dirty Faces," "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "White Heat," and "The Roaring Twenties."
  • 2

    Did James Cagney have any background in dancing?

    Yes, James Cagney was known for his dancing skills and showcased them in several of his movies, notably in "Yankee Doodle Dandy," for which he won an Academy Award for Best Actor.
  • 3

    Was James Cagney known for playing a particular type of character?

    Yes, James Cagney was known for playing tough, no-nonsense characters, often portraying gangsters or anti-heroes with a quick wit and explosive temperament.
  • 4

    Did James Cagney ever take a break from acting?

    Yes, James Cagney took a break from acting in the 1960s, but later returned to the screen in the 1980s, with his final film role in "Ragtime."

  • 5

    Did James Cagney have any impact on the film industry?

    Yes, James Cagney is considered one of the greatest actors in the history of Hollywood and is credited with helping to define the tough guy archetype in cinema.
Childhood & Early Life
James Cagney was born on July 17, 1899 to James Francis Cagney, Sr. and Carolyn Nelson. His father was of Irish descent, and worked as a bartender and amateur boxer. His mother was part Norwegian and part Irish.
He was the second of seven children. He graduated from Stuyvesant High School in New York City in 1918, and attended Columbia College of Columbia University, but dropped out after his father died.
His brother Harry was performing in a pantomime directed by Florence James. When Harry fell ill, Cagney, working as a scenery boy, stood in for him since he was able to recall lines without mistake.
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Career & Later Life
In 1919, Cagney auditioned for the role of a chorus girl in “Every Sailor”, a wartime play. The only dance he knew was the Peabody dance. It convinced the producers that he could dance.
His first significant non-dancing role was in 1925 when he played a young tough guy in the three-act play “Outside Looking In” by Maxwell Anderson, earning $200 a week.
He built a dance school for professionals. Reputed as an innovative teacher, he won an opportunity to choreograph and star in “Grand Street Follies of 1928”, followed by “Grand Street Follies of 1929”.
In 1931, he played Matt Doyle with Edward Woods as Tom Powers in “The Public Enemy”. Later, the roles were interchanged.
He and Edward G. Robinson teamed in “Smart Money”. After the US Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 was introduced, he got a break from portraying violent characters in the comedy “Blonde Crazy”.
He acted in 1932’s “Taxi!” with a $1000-a-week contract with Warner Brothers. It was the first time he danced on screen, and the last time he allowed himself to be shot at with live ammunition.
His only Shakespearean role was in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. He completed a decade in movies with “The Roaring Twenties”. In 1942, he founded Cagney Productions. He was elected president of Screen Actors Guild.
In 1943, Cagney Productions rolled out its first movie “Johnny Come Lately”. For “Blood on the Sun”, he underwent judo training to do his own stunts. However, the movie was a box office failure.
With Cagney Production in financial turmoil, he signed a deal whereby Cagney Productions became a unit of Warner Brothers. His portrayal of Cody Jarrett in “White Heat” in 1949 is considered his most memorable.
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In 1955, he worked with MGM on the Western film “Tribute to a Bad Man”. He received praise for his performance, and was offered a role in “These Wilder Years” with Barbara Stanwyck.
He accepted a role in the film “Ragtime” in 1981 directed by Milos Forman. Three years later, he appeared in his last role in the TV movie “Terrible Joe Moran”.
Major Works
Cagney starred with Doris Day in “Love Me or Leave Me” as Martin Snyder, a lame gangster from Chicago. His performance earned him another Best Actor Academy Award nomination.
In his 1960 critically acclaimed movie “The Gallant Hours”, he played Admiral William F. "Bull" Halsey. His penultimate film “One, Two, Three” was a comedy in which he played a Coca-Cola executive.
Awards & Achievements
Cagney played Rocky Sullivan in 1938’s “Angels with Dirty Faces”. He earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor for the role.
In 1942, he played George M. Cohan, considered his best, in the musical biography “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, and won three, including Best Actor for Cagney.
In 1974, he received the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award. He also received the Kennedy Center Honors, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan.
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Personal Life & Legacy
When auditioning for “Pitter Patter”, Cagney met sixteen-year-old Frances Willard Vernon. They married in 1922. The couple adopted a son whom they named James Cagney, Jr., and later a daughter, Cathleen “Casey” Cagney.
In 1955, he bought a 120-acre farm in Stanfordville, Dutchess County, New York, and named it Verney Farm. He expanded it to 750 acres gradually. He also raised horses on his farms, especially Morgans.
He was diagnosed with glaucoma, and began taking eye drops. Later it was discovered that he had been misdiagnosed, and that he was actually diabetic. In 1977, he had a minor stroke.
Cagney died following a heart attack on March 30, 1986. A funeral mass was held at Manhattan’s St. Frances de Sales Roman Catholic Church. He was interred in the Cemetery of the Gate of Heaven in New York.
Facts About James Cagney
James Cagney was a skilled dancer and showcased his talents in several musical films, surprising audiences with his agility and grace.
Despite his tough guy on-screen persona, Cagney was known for his kindness and generosity towards his fellow actors and crew members, earning him respect in the industry.
Cagney had a great sense of humor and loved to play practical jokes on set, keeping the atmosphere light and fun during filming.
He was an avid painter and enjoyed spending his free time creating art, showcasing a different side of his creative talents outside of acting.
Cagney was a dedicated family man and prioritized spending time with his loved ones, showing a softer and more personal side to his public image.

James Cagney Movies

1. White Heat (1949)

  (Film-Noir, Crime, Drama, Action)

2. Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

  (Film-Noir, Drama, Thriller, Crime)

3. One, Two, Three (1961)


4. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

  (Musical, Drama, Biography)

5. Mister Roberts (1955)

  (War, Comedy, Drama)

6. The Roaring Twenties (1939)

  (Crime, Thriller, Film-Noir, Drama)

7. The Public Enemy (1931)

  (Crime, Drama)

8. Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

  (Romance, Biography, Drama, History, Adventure)

9. Footlight Parade (1933)

  (Romance, Musical, Comedy)

10. The Strawberry Blonde (1941)

  (Romance, Comedy)


Academy Awards(Oscars)
1943 Best Actor in a Leading Role Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

See the events in life of James Cagney in Chronological Order

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