James Cagney

James Cagney

James Francis Cagney, Jr. (July 17, 1899 – March 30, 1986) was an American dancer and actor, both on stage and in film, though it is film where he has had his greatest impact. Known for his consistently energetic performances, distinctive vocal stylings and deadpan comic timing he won acclaim and major awards for a wide variety of performances. He is best remembered for playing multi-faceted tough guys in movies like The Public Enemy and Angels With Dirty Faces and was even typecast or limited by this view earlier in his career. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked him eighth among its 50 Greatest American Screen Legends. No less a student of drama than Orson Welles said of Cagney that he was "maybe the greatest actor to ever appear in front of a camera."

In his first professional acting performance, Cagney danced costumed as a woman in the chorus line of the 1919 revue Every Sailor. He spent several years in vaudeville as a hoofer and comedian, until he got his first major acting part in 1925. He secured several other roles, receiving good notices, before landing the lead in the 1929 play Penny Arcade. After rave reviews, Warner Bros. signed him for an initial $500-a-week, three-week contract to reprise his role; this was quickly extended to a seven-year contract.
Cagney's seventh film, The Public Enemy, became one of the most influential gangster movies of the period. Notable for a famous scene that makes dramatic use of a grapefruit, the film thrust Cagney into the spotlight, making him one of Hollywood's biggest stars as well as one of Warner Brothers' biggest contracts. In 1938, he received his first Academy Award for Best Actor nomination, for Angels with Dirty Faces for his subtle portrayal of the tough guy/man-child Rocky Sullivan. In 1942 Cagney was awarded the Oscar for his energetic portrayal of George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. He was nominated a third time in 1955 for Love Me or Leave Me. Cagney retired from acting and dancing in 1961, deciding to spend time on his farm with his family. He exited retirement, twenty years later, for a part in the 1981 movie Ragtime, mainly to aid his recovery from a stroke. Cagney walked out on Warners several times over the course of his career, each time returning upon much improved personal and artistic terms. In 1935, he sued Warners for breach of contract and won; this marked one of the first times an actor had beaten a studio over a contract issue. He worked for an independent film company for a year while the suit was being settled, and also established his own production company, Cagney Productions, in 1942, before returning to Warners again four years later. Jack Warner called him "The Professional Againster", in reference to Cagney’s refusal to be pushed around. Cagney also made numerous morale-boosting troop tours before and during World War II, and was president of the Screen Actors Guild for two years.