James Cagney, the cocky and pugnacious film star who set the standard for gangster roles in ”The Public Enemy” and won an Academy Award for his portrayal of George M. Cohan in ”Yankee Doodle Dandy,” died yesterday at his Dutchess County farm in upstate New York. He was 86 years old.
Mr. Cagney had been hospitalized earlier this month at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. But his wife of 64 years, known as Willie, took him back to the familiar surroundings of his home just over a week ago.
Mr. Cagney had an explosive energy and a two-fisted vitality that made him one of the great film personalities of Hollywood’s golden age.
An actor who could evoke pathos or humor, he invested scores of roles with a hungry intensity, punctuated by breathless slang, curling lips and spontaneous humor.
A former vaudevillian and, in his youth, a formidable street fighter, the 5-foot-8 1/2-inch, chunky, red-haired actor intuitively choreographed his motions with a body language that projected the image of an eager, bouncy terrier. His walk was jaunty and his manner defiant.
But along with his belligerence he displayed a comic zest in inventive, sometimes outrageous actions. He could play a hoofer as adeptly as a gangster, and whether brutish or impish, he molded a character that personified an urban Irish-American of irrepressible spirit.
Mr. Cagney’s streetwise mannerisms were a favored subject for caricature by stand-up comedians. But the actor’s self-image was essentially that of a song-and-dance man.
He became the screen’s top mobster in 1931 in ”The Public Enemy,” which included a bench-mark scene. Angered by his girlfriend’s yearnings for respectability, he suddenly squashed half a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s incredulous face. Audiences were at first stunned, then intrigued by his brash performance, and he won instant stardom.
He followed ”The Public Enemy” with a popular series of gangster movies interspersed with musicals and, in 62 films over three decades, he went on to prove his versatility in a wide range of roles, later mostly within the law and including many military men, all played with conviction. Some of the movies were inferior, but he was consistently praised by reviewers, who often described a movie as ”all” or ”essentially” Cagney.
His favorite role was in ”Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942), a patriotic wartime tribute to George M. Cohan, the showman, actor and songwriter. The performance won Mr. Cagney an Academy Award. Four years earlier, the New York Film Critics Circle voted him best actor for his portrayal of an eventually repentant killer in ”Angels With Dirty Faces.”
Reviewing ”Yankee Doodle Dandy,” Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote: ”Mr. Cagney excels, both in characterization and jubilant song and dance” with a ”buoyant” performance ”that glows with energy.”
Will Rogers remarked of Mr. Cagney, ”Every time I see him work, it looks to me like a bunch of firecrackers going off all at once.”
The actor’s ”irresistible charm” was cited by the author Kenneth Tynan, who wrote in 1952 that ”Cagney, even with a submachine gun hot in hand and corpses piling at his ankles, can still persuade many people that it was not his fault.”
Lauding the ”idiosyncratic verve that marks almost any Cagney film,” Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote in 1973 that Mr. Cagney was ”one of the most intelligent and graceful actors ever to be disguised as a Hollywood star.”
President Reagan paid tribute to Mr. Cagney yesterday, saying: ”Nancy and I have lost a dear friend of many years today and America has lost one of her finest artists.”
Exhibitors voted the actor one of the top 10 box-office money makers in the late 1930’s and early 40’s. After a series of disputes with Warner Brothers in which he charged he was overworked and underpaid, he became the studio’s highest-paid star in 1938, earning $234,000. The next year he was listed as one of the 10 biggest-salaried Americans, with, the Treasury Department said, an income of $368,333.
Cagney the screen hoodlum contrasted sharply with Cagney the man. Offscreen, he was amiable, self-effacing and reflective, a confirmed family man who enjoyed a close circle of friends and avoided the Hollywood party and nightclub circuit. He did not smoke and rarely drank liquor.
He was much admired by colleagues, from directors to stagehands. In 1974, he became the first actor to receive the Life Achievement Award of the American Film Institute for major contributions to films and for timeless artistry.
Among his other honors were a citation for career achievement awarded by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington in 1980 and the Medal of Freedom, the Government’s highest civilian award, in 1984.
Looked With Disdain On Method Acting
The actor was self-taught and a keen observer who varied his roles with mannerisms and eccentricities of men he had known. He did all his own, sometimes brutal, fight scenes, learned judo and occasionally used Yiddish humor he had learned in his youth. He was not impressed by adulation, believing, ”One shouldn’t aspire to stardom -one should aspire to doing the job well.”
He dismissed Method acting with disdain. ”You don’t psych yourself up for these things, you do them,” he said. ”I’m acting for the audience, not for myself, and I do it as directly as I can.” He made these observations in his 1976 autobiography, ”Cagney by Cagney.” He said he wrote it because of errors in unauthorized biographies.
His early characterizations included a dynamic vaudeville director speeding his cast from theater to theater and singing and tap-dancing with Ruby Keeler as Shanghai Lil in ”Footlight Parade” (1933), the comic Bottom in Shakespeare’s ”Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1935), a wharf-rat turned gang leader in ”Frisco Kid” (1935), a scenarist in a Hollywood spoof, ”Boy Meets Girl” (1938), a blinded boxer in ”City for Conquest” (1940) and a naive dentist in ”The Strawberry Blonde” (1941).
Other roles included a newsman turned counterspy in ”Blood on the Sun” (1945), a master espionage agent in ”13 Rue Madeleine” (1947), a barroom philosopher in William Saroyan’s ”Time of Your Life” (1948), a psychopathic murderer with a mother fixation in ”White Heat” (1949) and a political demagogue in ”A Lion Is in the Streets” (1953).
He also played the hoodlum husband of the singer Ruth Etting, played by Doris Day, in ”Love Me or Leave Me” (1955); a quirky Navy captain in ”Mister Roberts” (1955); Lon Chaney, the long-suffering silent-film star, in ”Man of a Thousand Faces” (1957); an Irish rebel obsessed with violence in ”Shake Hands With the Devil” (1959) and the celebrated Adm. William F. Halsey in ”The Gallant Hours” (1960).
In 1961, Mr. Cagney starred in Billy Wilder’s ”One, Two, Three,” a razor-sharp satire of East-West relations. Then, though at the top of his talent, he announced his retirement from the screen.
The actor was born and raised in Manhattan, but he was smitten with country living while on a childhood visit to the then pastoral Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Accordingly, he retired with his wife to their farm near Millbrook in Dutchess County, New York, and raised Morgan horses. In 1936 he had also bought a farm in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where the Cagneys spent as much time as possible between films.
For two decades, the actor received many offers to return to the movies, including many from major directors, but he steadfastly refused them.
However, in 1981 Mr. Cagney ended his retirement. He had been increasingly troubled by several ailments, and his doctors advised him to be more active.
Out of Retirement In Forman’s ‘Ragtime’
The director Milos Forman persuaded him to play a cameo role in the movie ”Ragtime,” based on the best-selling novel by E. L. Doctorow. The actor played a combative turn-of-the-century New York City police chief, prompting Vincent Canby of The Times to write that the Cagney ”manner and the humor are undiminished.” The actor, the critic said, ”does a lot with very little.”
In his early 80’s Mr. Cagney suffered from diabetes and the effects of several strokes, and he mostly used a wheelchair. Nonetheless, he made his first made-for-television movie in 1984, playing the protagonist, a crotchety but generous former boxing champion, in ”Terrible Joe Moran.” Despite the actor’s infirmities, John J. O’Connor of The Times reported that ”the old Cagney magic comes through.”
James Francis Cagney Jr. was born July 17, 1899, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and grew up there and in the Yorkville section. His father was of Irish descent, a bartender and, briefly, a saloon owner who died in a flu epidemic in 1918. His mother, the former Carolyn Nelson, who was of Norwegian stock, was the mainstay of the family of five children.
Yorkville was then a street-brawling neighborhood, and Jimmy became a champion battler. As a catcher for a Yorkville amateur baseball team, he played a game in 1919 at Sing Sing prison, where five former schoolmates were serving terms. Eight years later, one was executed in the electric chair.
The Cagneys were poor, and from the age of 14 Jimmy worked simultaneously as an office boy for The New York Sun, stacking books at a library and doing odd jobs at the Lenox Hill Settlement House. On Sundays, he sold tickets for the Hudson River Day Line.
After graduation from Stuyvesant High School, he enlisted in the Student Army Training Corps at Columbia University. But, with money needed at home, he dropped out, worked as a waiter and wrapped packages at Wanamaker’s Department Store.
Needing more money, he drifted into vaudeville as a dancer at 19. He had to fake it at first, studying professionals, stealing their steps and modifying them to mold his own style. Unexpectedly, the street tough’s first role was a ”chorus girl” in a female-impersonation act.
In 1920 Mr. Cagney started in the chorus of a Broadway musical, ”Pitter Patter,” and graduated to specialty dancer. A co-player was Frances Willard (Willie) Vernon, whom he married in 1922. Two decades later they adopted two children, James Jr., who died in 1984, and Cathleen.
The actor toured in vaudeville with his wife and occasionally performed in short-lived Broadway shows. Through the 1920’s, often out of work and money, he attended every cast call he could, occasionally being dismissed, he recalled, ”because I had exaggerated my abilities.”
But in 1930 he played a cowardly killer in a melodrama, ”Penny Arcade,” with Joan Blondell gamely offering comedy relief as his girlfriend. Warner Brothers took the two to Hollywood to film the play as ”Sinners’ Holiday.” They both won contracts and co-starred together in half a dozen movies over the next several years.
‘Direct Gutter Quality’ In Gangster Role
After playing supporting roles in three movies, Mr. Cagney got the second lead in ”The Public Enemy.” However the keen-eyed director, William Wellman, insisted that the actor switch roles with the scheduled lead, Edward Woods, because Mr. Cagney could project what Mr. Wellman termed the ”direct gutter quality” of the tougher of the two street chums who turn to crime. The picture was a commercial blockbuster that opened an era of realistic gangster movies.
Many of the actor’s other early movies for Warner were made cheaply and quickly, within a few weeks, with the crews sometimes working 18 hours a day, 7 days a week.
”Talent was not nurtured, it was consumed,” Mr. Cagney observed. ”We did our job. If anyone was practicing art, I never saw it.” Many of his directors, he wrote, were ”pedestrian workmen, mechanics,” some of whom ”couldn’t direct you to a cheap delicatessen.”
But the young performers, led by Mr. Cagney, varied the formula scripts with clever improvisations and made the lean melodramas effective and entertaining.
The actor’s affectionate jabs on actresses’ chins were gestures his father had used. In ”The St. Louis Kid,” weary of punching, he slammed antagonists with his forehead. In ”Angels With Dirty Faces” he imitated a hoodlum neighbor in Yorkville, hitching up his trousers, twisting his neck, snapping his fingers and bringing his hands together in a soft smack.
The Cagney clan was tightly knit. The actor’s brother William was his business manager. They produced some Cagney films independently, and their sister Jeanne, who died in 1984, acted in several Cagney movies.
Politically, the actor was a longtime New Deal Democrat who, in later years, became a conservative because of what he perceived as a moral confusion threatening Americans’ values.
In 1940 he was accused of Communist sympathies by a Los Angeles politician before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He appeared before the committee, which exonerated him. The issue arose from contributions he had made and his fund-raising activities for many causes, including providing food for striking California farm workers and an ambulance for the Loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War.
The actor did not generally speak out on public issues, except one, ecology. In 1958 he made radio appeals for preserving the nation’s resources. ”Outside of my family,” he said, ”the prime concern of my life has been nature and its order, and how we have been savagely altering that order.”
In World War II, Mr. Cagney was chairman of the actors’ group of the National Victory Committee, appearing in many benefits to sell War Bonds and in long tours to entertain the Armed Forces in this country and overseas. At the time, he was also president of the Screen Actors Guild.
In retirement, Mr. Cagney read widely, wrote verse, painted, played classical guitar, satisfied his longtime zest for sailing and farming and limbered up by dancing a chorus or two to ragtime music.
”Absorption in things other than self,” he observed, ”is the secret of a happy life.”
- July, 17, 1899
- New York, New York
- March, 30, 1986
- Stanfordville, New York
Cause of Death
- heart attack
- Gate of Heaven Cemetery
- Hawthorne, New York