Cagney's first job as an entertainer was as a female dancer in a chorus line.
According to his authorized biography, Cagney, although of Irish and Norwegian extraction, could
speak Yiddish since he had grown up in a heavily Jewish area in New York. He used to converse in Yiddish with
Jewish performers like Sylvia Sidney.
Brother of actor-producer William Cagney and of actress Jeanne Cagney.
Films co-starring James Cagney and Pat O'Brien were these nine: Here
Comes the Navy (1934), Devil Dogs of the Air (1935), The Irish in Us
(1935), Boy Meets Girl (1938), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), Torrid
Zone (1940), The Fighting 69th (1940), Ceiling Zero (1936), as well as
their finale together, four decades later, Ragtime (1981).
Interred at Gate of Heaven Cemetery, Hawthorne, New York, USA.
President of Screen Actors Guild (SAG). [1942-1944]
Convinced decorated war hero Audie Murphy to go into acting.
His widow Frances (nicknamed 'Bill') outlived Cagney by eight years, dying aged
95 in 1994.
Father of actor James Cagney Jr.
Pictured on a 33¢ USA commemorative postage stamp in the Legends of Hollywood series, issued 22 July 1999.
Had two adopted children, Cathleen "Cassie" (Born: July 30, 1940 - Stockton, CA;
Died: August 11, 2004 - Agoura, CA) and James Jr. (1939-1984).
Was best friends with actors Pat O'Brien and Frank McHugh.
Earned a Black Belt in Judo.
Extraordinarily (for Hollywood), he never cheated on his wife Frances, resulting in a marriage
that lasted 64 years (ending with his death). The closest he came was nearly giving into a seduction attempt by
Merle Oberon while the two stars were on tour to entertain WWII GIs.
Despite the common perception that he was full-blooded Irish of origin this was not all-together true. His
grandfather was from Norway, but as he told an interviewer shortly before his death in 1986: "My mother's
father, my Grandpa Nelson, was a Norwegian sea captain, but when I tried to investigate those roots I didn't get
very far, for he had apparently changed his name to another one that made it impossible to identify him within the
rest of the population."
Was of Irish-Norwegian origin.
His electric acting style was a huge influence on future generations of actors. Actors as diverse as Clint
Eastwood and Malcolm McDowell point to him as their number one influence to become
He said that his favorite film role was George M. Cohan in the movie "Yankee Doodle
He was 5 feet, 7 inches tall.
He was a diabetic.
Lived in a Gramercy Park building in New York City that was also occupied by
Margaret Hamilton and now boasts Jimmy Fallon as one of its tenants.
Though most Cagney imitators use the line "You dirty rat!", Cagney never actually
said it in any of his films.
According to James Cagney's autobiography Cagney By Cagney, (Published by
Doubleday and Company Inc 1976, and ghost written by show biz biographer Jack McCabe), a Mafia
plan to murder Cagney by dropping a several hundred pound klieg light on top of him was stopped at
the insistence of George Raft. Cagney at that time was president of the Screen
Actors Guild, and was determined not to let the mob infiltrate the industry. Raft used his many
mob connections to cancel the hit.
According to his autobiography his brother Bill (who was also his manager) actively pursued the
role of Cohan in the ultra-patriotic film Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) as a way of
removing the taint of Cagney's radical activities in the 1930s, when he was a strong
Roosevelt liberal. When Cohan himself learned about Cagney's background as a
song-and-dance man in vaudeville, he okay-ed him for the project.
Lost the role of Knute Rockne to his friend Pat O'Brien when the administration
of Notre Dame - which had approval over all aspects of the filming - nixed Cagney
because of his support of the far-left (and anti-Catholic) Spanish Republic in the then-ongoing
Spanish Civil War.
Originally a very left-wing Democrat activist during the 1930s, Cagney later switched his viewpoint and became
progressively more conservative with age. He supported his friend Ronald Reagan's campaigns for the Governorship of
California in 1966 and 1970, as well as his Presidential campaigns in 1980 and 1984. President Reagan delivered the
eulogy at Cagney's funeral in 1986.
Often said that he did not understand the method actors like Marlon Brando.
Cagney admitted that he used his own personal experiences to help create his performances and
encouraged other actors to do so, but he did not understand actors who felt a need to go to the extreme length that
method actors went to.
To protest the quality of scripts he was given at Warner Brothers, instead of violating his
contract by refusing to appear in a picture he reputedly used his appearance to get even. In Jimmy the
Gent (1934) he got an ugly crew-cut to make himself look like the hoodlum Warners wanted him to play.
In movies like He Was Her Man (1934) he grew a thin mustache to upset thin-mustachioed studio boss
Jack L. Warner.
Encouraged by his mother to take up boxing as a hobby. She thought it was a necessary skill to have, especially in
the rough Eastside section of New York City where he grew up. She would often show up and watch
him take on neighborhood kids in a street fight. However when he wanted to become a professional boxer, she
disapproved. She started to put on a pair of boxing gloves and told him "If you want to become a professional
fighter, then your first fight will have to be against me". He abandoned the idea of doing boxing professionally
from that moment on.
Inspiration for the Madonna song, "White Heat", from her album, True
Turned down Stanley Holloway's role as Eliza's father in My Fair
Turned down the lead role in The Jolson Story (1946), which went to Larry
At the time of filming of White Heat (1949), Special Effects were not yet using squibs (tiny
explosives that simulate the effects of bullets). The producers employed skilled marksmen who used low velocity
bullets to break windows or show bullets hitting near the characters. In the factory scene, Cagney
was missed by mere inches.
Broke a rib while filming the dance scene in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) but continued dancing
until it was completed.
He once claimed that problems with Horst Buchholz had convinced him to retire from acting.
Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan at a ceremony at the
White House on 26 March 1984.
Along with Rita Hayworth, is mentioned by name in the Tom Waits song
"Invitation To The Blues".
In his autobiography, he mentions that while in the chorus of the musical "Pitter Patter", he
earned $55 a week, of which he sent $40 a week home to his mother. As his salary increased, so did the amount he
sent back home. In The Public Enemy (1931), he earned $400 a week, sending over $300 back home.
Until his mother passed, he never kept more than 50% of his earnings.
Often left the set early claiming he was too ill to continue filming in order to ensure an extra day of filming so
that the extras and the film crew, whom he thought woefully underpaid, could get an additional day's salary.
Wrote that of the sixty-two films he made, he rated Love Me or Leave Me (1955) costarring
Doris Day among his top five.
Two grandchildren, from daughter Cathleen, Verniey Lee and Christina May
He is the father-in-law of screenplay writer Jack W. Thomas, who married his daughter
Cathleen on February 17, 1962.
Grandfather of actor James Cagney IV.
Great grandfather of actress Fiona Cagney.
Film and TV actor Michael J. Fox, who idolized Cagney, narrated a TV special
called James Cagney: Top of the World, which aired on July 5, 1992. This 60-minute program is
included on the Special Editon of the Yankee Doodle Dandy DVD.
As acting techniques became increasingly studied and taught during his lifetime ("Method Acting", etc.)
Cagney was asked during the filming of Mister Roberts about his approach to
acting. As co-star Jack Lemmon related in the abovementioned special, Cagney said
that the secret to acting is simply this: "Learn your lines... plant your feet... look the other actor in the
eye... say the words... and mean them."
The stereotypical impression of James Cagney involves wearing a trench coat and a hat and sneering
"You dirty rat!". In his AFI speech, he evoked much laughter by saying that he never said that line; what
he really said was, "Judy, Judy, Judy!" (another over-stereotyped line, attributed to Cary
Grant). The actual origin of the "dirty rat" phrase is the 1932 film Taxi!, in which
Cagney delivered the line "Come out and take it, you dirty, yellow-bellied rat, or I'll give
it to you through the door!" often misquoted as "Come out, you dirty rat, or I'll give it to you through
In Ragtime he evoked memories of his tough-talking gangster-role heyday, albeit as a Police
Commissioner this time, with this comment to a thug, in his one-of-a-kind voice, "They tell me you're a
worthless piece of slime!"
Ranked #45 in Empire (UK) magazine's "The Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time"
list. [October 1997]
American Film Institute Life Achievement Award 
He was voted the 14th Greatest Movie Star of all time by Entertainment
He was voted the 11th Greatest Movie Star of all time by Premiere Magazine.
Named the #8 greatest Actor on The 50 Greatest Screen Legends List by The
American Film Institute
His performance as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) is ranked
#6 on Premiere Magazine's 100 Greatest Performances of All Time (2006).
His performance as Tom Powers in The Public Enemy (1931) is ranked #57 on
Premiere Magazine's 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time.
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) is ranked #88 on the American Film Institute's
100 Most Inspiring Movies of All Time.