Like many contemporaries, Cagney suffered at the hands of his Warner Bros. bosses. They worked him almost mercilessly, intending to wring every possible dollar out of their investment. Cagney made five films each in 1931 and 1933, four in 1934 and six in 1935. 1932, however, was different, because that’s when the notoriously stubborn actor staged the first of several walkouts over money.
The studio eventually caved, but Cagney’s experiences led him to help found the Screen Actors Guild in 1933. (He was Guild president for two years, starting in 1942.)
James Cagney: “Professional Againster”
Overall, Cagney was politically liberal – some insisted radical. But that would change as he aged, in part due to the influence of his close friend, arch-conservative actor Robert Montgomery.
Of his walkouts, Cagney remarked in his autobiography, “I walked out because I depended on the studio heads to keep their word on this, that or other promise, and when the promise was not kept, my only recourse was to deprive them of my services.” (Cagney by Cagney, James Cagney, Doubleday, 1976)
Cagney’s stubbornness extended from entire pictures to specific lines of dialogue he felt were wrong for him. The extremely charitable star even resisted making charitable contributions when they were mandated by the studio. Production chief Jack Warner reportedly was the one who nicknamed the pugnacious performer “the Professional Againster.”
Cagney Wins Oscar as Best Actor in Yankee Doodle Dandy
Throughout the 30s, Cagney’s output ranged across many genres – from gangster epics to comedies like Blonde Crazy and musicals including the remarkable Footlight Parade, featuring Busby Berkeley-staged set-pieces and Cagney’s trademark tap dancing in classic numbers including Shanghai Lil.
But the star hit his professional stride in 1942, earning the Academy Award as Best Actor for Yankee Doodle Dandy. As real-life stage legend George M. Cohan, Cagney electrified audiences with his tap dancing and especially, moving dramatic scenes — in particular one with Walter Huston as Cohan’s father.
In revisionist times, the film has been criticized as simple-minded patriotic blather. And it’s true the film was partly intended as a morale-booster for an America just entering World War II. But Yankee Doodle Dandy was also a superior entertainment, boasting Cohan’s famous musical repertoire, Cagney’s high-energy performance and a heart-tugging storyline.
In his Oscar speech, Cagney said, “I’ve always maintained that in this business, you’re only as good as the other fellow thinks you are. It’s nice to know that you people thought I did a good job. And don’t forget that it was a good part.”
James Cagney Was Extremely Private in Real Life
Offscreen, the intensely shy James Cagney kept his own company, maintaining a few warm friendships – notably with fellow Irish-American actors (and frequent co-stars) Pat O’Brien and Frank McHugh. He was so private that Cagney’s pal O’Brien called him the “faraway fella.”
As a couple, Jim and wife Willie Cagney lived quietly. Their need for solitude even meant the curious banishment of their two adopted children, Jim and Catharine (“Casey”) to a specially-built guest house. Biographer and Cagney friend John McCabe claims the children were effectively raised apart from their famous dad because of the actor’s need for absolute concentration at home while studying his lines. (Cagney by John McCabe, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1997)
White Heat Produces Classic Movie Line
In 1949, Cagney ended a decade-long hiatus from gangster roles with what many consider his best. As the psychotic Cody Jarrett, Cagney in White Heat is a mother-obsessed killer whose fiery death atop an exploding oil refinery produced one of the most famous lines in movie history:
“Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”
By the 50s, the visibly aging Cagney nonetheless remained a vital screen presence. He played a sadistic supply boat captain in the wartime dramedy Mister Roberts, based on the Broadway hit. Cagney reprised the George M. Cohan role for the Bob Hope vehicle The Seven Little Foys, which included a memorable tabletop tap dance with Hope. He was a controlling, violent gangster involved with Doris Day in Love Me or Leave Me. And he brought authority to the role of silent film star Lon Chaney in the fictionalized film biography Man of a Thousand Faces.
James Cagney Walks Away From Films
1961 brought a huge turning point in Cagney’s life. He played a Coca-Cola executive in the Cold War comedy One, Two, Three for director Billy Wilder. But Cagney hated the multiple takes (50 in some cases) and the deliberately fast pace of the dialogue. He also intensely disliked co-star Horst Buchholz. After more than three decades, Cagney decided he didn’t need the movies anymore. And he walked away.
Cagney, who’d developed a love of farms while visiting relatives as a child, retired to one he’d purchased years earlier north of New York City. He and Willie also spent time in Los Angeles and on Martha’s Vineyard.
In 1974, Cagney delighted the audience at his American Film Institute lifetime achievement tribute, telling the crowd, “I never said ‘Mmm, you dirty rat.’ What I actually said was, ‘Judy, Judy, Judy!’” Thus he poked fun at two lines never uttered in films — the first misattributed to him, the second to Cary Grant.
Cagney’s Final Two Performances Anti-Climactic
In failing health, Cagney made two film appearances in the early 1980s, as his health began to fail. In director Milos Forman’s Ragtime, he played a police commissioner, opposite old pal friend Pat O’Brien . And finally, in the television movie Terrible Joe Moran, Cagney was an invalid former boxer.
In one touching scene, he watches on television some old footage of himself in the ring. In fact, the clip is from Cagney’s tenth film, 1932’s Winner Take All.
But by then, the real-life fight had gone out of James Cagney. After surviving a stroke and battling diabetes, Cagney suffered a fatal heart attack on Mar. 30, 1986 at his farm north of New York City. James Cagney was 86.