Famous American film actor James Francis Cagney, Jr. lived from July 17, 1899 to March 30, 2011. Cagney was born on the lower east side of Manhattan in New York. He grew up on a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, and could speak fluently in Yiddish although he was not Jewish. His father was Irish American and his mother was half Irish and half Norwegian.
Cagney had six siblings; two that died shortly after birth. He was not a healthy child, and his mother was concerned that he, too, would not survive.
Cagney was red haired, blue eyed, and a mere 5’6” tall. He attended Stuyvesant High School, and then went on to Columbia College. He dropped out of school after one semester when his father died in 1918 during a flu pandemic. Cagney worked hard at many diverse jobs and gave much of his money to his family.
James began his performing arts career doing scenery backstage where his brother performed. One night when his brother didn’t feel well Cagney stepped in for him. He was not an understudy, but he remembered all of his brother’s lines from the dress rehearsals. After that evening Cagney joined several performance companies in a variety of roles. He often worked several jobs at one time.
In 1922 Cagney married Frances Willard Billie Vernon, a 16 year old chorus line performer. He joined several vaudeville troupes, as did his wife, and occasionally they would reunite and perform together as Vernon and Nye (Nye being a rearrangement of the last letters in Cagney’s name). Cagney also joined a troupe called Parker, Rand and Leach, taking over the position of Leach when he left the troupe. Leach later changed his name to Cary Grant, another American film actor icon.
His career grew slowly and he continued sending money home to his family. He opened up a dance school for professionals, leaving him exhausted running the school and acting at the same time. Eventually, the movie studio used Cagney as a choreographer. Meanwhile, his acting career grew and he commonly played roles as the tough guy.
In real life, Cagney also was gaining the reputation of a tough guy. He often argued for what he believed in, and won the nickname of “The Professional Againster”. He often “walked out” on the studio to force them into keeping their word about arrangements.
While most impressionists commonly portray Cagney saying “You dirty rat”, he never actually said that line in any of his roles. The closest line is from the film “Taxi”, where he said, “Come out and take it, you dirty, yellow-bellied rat, or I’ll give it to you through the door!”
After many successful years, Cagney went into retirement in 1961. He and Billie spent winters in Los Angeles and summers in Martha’s Vineyard or Verney Farms (named after the first syllable in Billie’s maiden name and the last syllable in Cagney’s surname) in New York. After having trouble with his vision, he was diagnosed as a diabetic. He lost 20 pounds and his vision improved.
In 1977 he had a minor stroke. He had to give up his favorite hobbies, horseback riding and dancing, and as depression set in he gave up painting too. To get him out of his slump, his wife and caretaker convinced him to accept an offer to star in “Ragtime”. After twenty years of seclusion, he took back his role as a star with ease.
Cagney died of a heart attack at his farm in Stanfordville, NY in 1986. His widow Billie outlived him by eight years, and died at age 95 in 1994.