Cagney, James (1899–1986)

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James Cagney (1899–1986)

Film actor James Cagney enjoyed his greatest popularity from the early 1930s to the late 1940s. He was a diverse talent who could play in comedies, dramas, and even musicals with confidence, but he remains best known for his roles as a surly gangster.

In 1931, Cagney played his breakthrough role: gangster Tom Powers in The Public Enemy. Cagney's trademark cockiness and angry snarl are in full effect, perhaps best exemplified in its most famous scene, in which he unexpectedly grinds a grapefruit in the face of his stunned costar, Mae Clarke (1907–1992). Cagney went on to appear as a gangster in a seemingly endless string of films. Although he won an Oscar for Best Actor for his performance as George M. Cohan (1878–1942) in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), the crowning achievement of his career is arguably his turn as gangster Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949). The film, in which Cagney's character suffers from severe headaches and a strange attachment to his mother, was his farewell to gangster roles. His career was up and down afterwards, but Cagney remains revered for the dangerously explosive personality he brought to his on-screen characters.

—Robert C. Sickels

For More Information

McCabe, John. Cagney. New York: Knopf, 1997.

Thomson, David. A Biographical Dictionary of Film. 3rd ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

Warren, Doug, with James Cagney. James Cagney: The Authorized Biography. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983.