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James Cagney

James Cagney
Publicity headshot of James Cagney
Personal information
Birth nameJames Francis Cagney, Jr.
Birth dateJuly 17, 1899
Place of birthNew York City, New York, U.S.
Date of deathMarch 30, 1986(age 86)
Death placeStanford, New York, U.S.
Years active1919 - 84
SpouseFrances Vernon
(1922-86) (his death)

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James Francis Cagney, Jr. (July 17, 1899 - March 30, 1986) was an American actor, first on stage, then in film, where he had his greatest impact. Although he won acclaim and major awards for a wide variety of performances, he is best remembered for playing "tough guys." In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked him eighth among its 50 Greatest American Screen Legends.

In his first professional acting performance, he danced dressed as a woman in the chorus line of the 1919 revue Every Sailor. He spent several years in vaudeville as a hoofer and comedian, until he got his first major acting part in 1925. He secured several other roles, receiving good notices, before landing the lead in the 1929 play Penny Arcade. After rave reviews, Warner Bros. signed him for an initial $500-a-week, three-week contract to reprise his role; this was quickly extended to a seven-year contract.

Cagney's seventh film, The Public Enemy, became one of the most influential gangster movies of the period. Notable for its famous grapefruit scene, the film thrust Cagney into the spotlight, making him one of Warners' and Hollywood's biggest stars. In 1938, he received his first Academy Award for Best Actor nomination, for Angels with Dirty Faces, before winning in 1942 for his portrayal of George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. He was nominated a third time in 1955 for Love Me or Leave Me. Cagney retired for twenty years in 1961, spending time on his farm, before returning for a part in Ragtime, mainly to aid his recovery from a stroke.

Cagney walked out on Warners several times over the course of his career, each time coming back on better personal and artistic terms. In 1935, he sued Warners for breach of contract and won; this marked one of the first times an actor had beaten a studio over a contract issue. He worked for an independent film company for a year while the suit was being settled, and also established his own production company, Cagney Productions, in 1942, before returning to Warners again four years later. Jack Warner called him "The Professional Againster", in reference to Cagney’s refusal to be pushed around. Cagney also made numerous morale-boosting troop tours before and during World War II, and was president of the Screen Actors Guild for two years.

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