James Cagney - Actor (Public Enemy, Angels With Dirty Faces, Yankee)
James Cagney Biography
Claim to Fame: Actor (Public Enemy, Angels With Dirty Faces, Yankee Doodle Dandy)
DOB: July 17, 1899
Date of Death: March 30, 1986
Diabetes Type: unknown
Ironically, James Cagney, the man who spent his entire career typecast as a tough guy, won his sole Academy Award for playing composer George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). Cagney began his career in vaudeville, then headed to Broadway. Cagney’s first stage appearance coincided with his introduction to chorus girl Frances Wilard “Billie” Vernon, who in 1922 would become his wife. The couple later adopted two children.
Cagney made his film debut in Sinner’s Holiday (1930), when he and actress Joan Blondell reprised their roles from the stage version, Penny Serenade. Soon after that, Cagney was signed to a contract by Warner Brothers and rose to stardom as delinquent Tom Powers in The Public Enemy (1931). This marked the beginning of a successful but tumultuous career with the studio. Constantly at odds with his bosses over being typecast in films with weak scripts, Cagney left and returned to the studio on several occasions. Always a fighter for actors’ rights, Cagney served as president of the Screen Actors Guild (an organization he helped to form) from 1942 to 1944.
Among his trademark “tough guy” roles were Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), The Roaring Twenties (1939), and ,em>White Heat (1949). Occasionally, Cagney did get to stretch as an actor in films like the Shakespeare adaptation A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1936), Billy Wilder’s fast-talking comedy One, Two, Three (1961), and musicals like Footlight Parade (1934), and the Academy Award winning Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).
Cagney’s involvement in Yankee Doodle Dandy was a political move, a role taken to address persistent rumors that the actor harbored Communist loyalties. Cagney lost the lead role in Knute Rockne All American (1940), because he signed a petition in support of the anti-Catholic Republican government in the Spanish Civil War. Contrary to the rumors, Cagney entertained at several USO shows.
After making One, Two, Three (1961), Cagney retired to a life of farming. He continued to be offered film roles, but the only one he even considered was that of Alfred P. Doolittle in My Fair Lady (1964). Cagney was back in the public eye in 1974 when the American Film Institute honored him with the first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award. Two years later, he released his autobiography, Cagney by Cagney. More awards followed, including the 1984 Presidential Medal of Freedom (presented by one-time Cagney co-star Ronald Reagan). In 1981, Cagney made his acclaimed return to film with a small role in Ragtime. His final role was in the made-for-television movie Terrible Joe Morgan (1984). Two years later, Cagney died of a heart attack combined with complications from diabetes (which with he struggled throughout his early eighties) on his farm in upstate New York.
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