James Francis Cagney, Jr. Was born July 17th, 1899 on the Lower East side of Manhattan. Cagney graduated from Stuyvesant High School in 1918, and attended Columbia College of Columbia University, but dropped out after one semester.
He started working in Vaudeville in 1919, initially dancing dressed as a woman in the chorus line.
In September of 1922, Cagney married Frances Willard “Billie” Vernon.
He continued as a hoofer and comedian, and eventually obtained his first major acting part in 1925. After rave reviews in the 1929 play Penny Arcade, Warner Bros. Signed him for a $500 per week, three week contract, which was soon extended to a seven year contract.
Cagney, made many significant movies, including The Public Enemy, an influential gangster movie, with its famous grapefruit scene. This movie ushered Cagney into the spotlight, and made him one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
Cagney’s film credits included Angels with Dirty Faces, and his Oscar winning portrayal of George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy.
Cagney was one of the first actors to win a law-suit against a major movie studio, and Jack Warner called him “The Professional Againster” due to Cagney’s unwillingness to be pushed around.
In 1961, Cagney retired for 20 years, returning to the Screen in 1981 for a small role in Ragtime. He then made a few other small appearances on TV and on the stage.
In 1986, on Easter Sunday, Cagney died at his Stanfordville, NY farm in Dutchess County. He had suffered a few strokes, and at least two years before his death was confined to a wheelchair. He was interred in the Cemetery of the Gate of Heaven in Hawthorne, NY. His eulogy was given by the then incumbent President Ronald Reagan, a close friend of Cagney.
Cagney was survived by his wife, and an adopted daughter. His adopted son died two years before Cagney.
It should be noted, he never actually said, “You dirty rat!” in any of his movies, though in 1974, at his American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement award ceremony, he noted to a noted impressionist, Frank Gorshin, “Oh, Frank, just in passing, I never said ‘MMmmm, you dirty rat!’ What I actually did say was ‘Judy, Judy, Judy!” A reference to another trademark quote that was never said by Cary Grant.