James Cagney was born in the tough Yorkville section of Manhattan, to James Cagney Sr. and Carolyn Nelson Cagney. His father was a bartender and an accomplished amateur boxer.
Cagney learned at a young age how to use his fists. By the time he was 14, he had earned a reputation for being one of Yorkville's best young fighters. During high school, he worked wrapping packages at Wanamaker's Department Store, earning $16 a week. He also attended Columbia University for a semester before withdrawing because of financial considerations.
After the end of World War I, a fellow employee at Wanamaker's informed Cagney of a vaudeville troupe who paid its players $35 a week. Cagney went to audition, saying that he could sing and dance, when he could actually do neither. Nonetheless, his audition was successful, and his very first role was as a member of a chorus of servicemen dressed as girls in the wartime revue, Every Sailor.
Cagney met the actress, Frances Willard, during a play called Pitter Patter, in 1921. They were married a year later and remained together for 64 years.
After years of working in vaudeville and musical shows, Cagney finally got his big break, starring on Broadway with Joan Blondell, in Penny Arcade in 1929. Soon after, the two were both invited to Hollywood for screen tests, and Cagney made his film debut in 1930 with Sinner's Holiday.
Audiences everywhere were astonished by his portrayal as a gangster in his fifth film, Public Enemy, in 1931. The unforgettable "fruit facial" scene, in which he rams a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's nose is exemplary of Cagney's spontaneity, for the script called for him to slap Clarke with an omelette.
Throughout the 1930s, Cagney demonstrated his extraordinary versatility by playing a race car driver in The Crowd Roars in 1932, a boxer in Winner Takes All and a press agent in Hard to Handle, both in 1933. In 1935 he played both a dock rat in The Frisco Kid and Bottom in Max Reinhardt's film of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Cagney was most often cast as a tough guy, whether it be a gangster of a more law-abiding person, who was constantly challenging anyone around him.
From 1934 to 1940, Cagney and Pat O'Brien teamed up eight times to make such films as Ceiling Zero (1935), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), and Torrid Zone (1940). Angels with Dirty Faces, one of their best efforts, also starred Humphrey Bogart.
Cagney continued to effectively play the jaded individual battling with the world around him in several more films. He played a wrongly imprisoned newspaperman in Each Dawn I Die (1939), a gangster who guns down Bogart in The Roaring Twenties (1939), and a blinded prizefighter in City for Conquest (1940).
In 1942, Cagney got the chance to abandon his tough guy personna and tackle a role dear to his heart. He played George M. Cohan, the multi-talented, super-patriot showman, in Yankee Doodle Dandy, a role for which he won an Academy Award and a Critics Circle Best Actor Award. After completing Yankee Doodle Dandy, Cagney broke away from Warner Brothers to form his own production company with his brother, Bill. Together, they made four films: Johnny Come Lately (1943), Blood on the Sun (1945), 13 Rue Madeleine (1946), and The Time of Your Life (1946).
In 1949, Cagney returned to Warner Brothers to make the gangster epic, White Heat, in which he played a psychotic mobster with an odd fascination for his mother. He improvised to create the intriguing scene where he crawls into his mother's lap. He went on to star in such memorable hits as Come Fill the Cup (1951), Love Me or Leave Me (1955), Mister Roberts (1955), and Man of a Thousand Faces (1957).
Cagney retired in 1961, after playing the manic Coca-Cola executive in Billy Wilder's One Two Three. He spent his later years living with his wife on their 800-acre farm in Dutchess County, NY, relaxing, reading, playing tennis, swimming, and even writing poetry. In March 1974, he was presented with the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award.
In 1980, Cagney emerged from retirement to star in Milos Forman's film version of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime with his old friend, Pat O'Brien. His last appearance was in the 1984 television movie, Terrible Joe Moran. The actor died on Easter Sunday 1986 at the age of 86.