Columbians Ahead of Their Time
James Francis Cagney Jr.

James Francis Cagney Jr.

"Absorption in things other than self is the secret of a happy life."

James Francis Cagney Jr. (1899–1986)
Columbia College 1918

One of the leading film actors of the 1930s and 1940s, James Cagney modeled many of his characters on people he knew from his old Manhattan neighborhood. In the gangster movies that first made him famous, among them The Public Enemy, Cagney played the quintessential tough guy. But he could also sing and dance, as he proved in the later films Footlight Parade and Yankee Doodle Dandy. (His role in the latter, as George M. Cohan, was his favorite, and won him his only Oscar.) The versatile Cagney starred as Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, as an unrepentant killer in Angels with Dirty Faces, as Lon Chaney in Man of a Thousand Faces, and in light comedies such as The Strawberry Blonde and The Bride Came C.O.D. He was an adept improviser, too: In Enemy, he squashed a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face, whereas the script called for him to slap her with an omelet. With 62 movies behind him, Cagney retired to his upstate New York farm in 1961 to raise Morgan horses, write verse, paint, and play classical guitar. In 1974 he became the first actor to receive the Life Achievement Award of the American Film Institute. Cagney came out of retirement in 1981 to appear in Milos Forman's Ragtime, and his final performance came in 1984, playing the title role in the television movie Terrible Joe Moran.

Cagney was born to an Irish American father and Norwegian American mother in Manhattan's then-tough Yorkville neighborhood. After graduating from Stuyvesant High School, he enrolled at Columbia and enlisted in the Student Army Training Corps. He dropped out in his first year, after the death of his father, and worked at odd jobs to help support his family before drifting into vaudeville. From there he moved on to Broadway and then to Hollywood. Although Cagney never returned to the University, in a 1932 contract dispute with Warner Brothers–First National, he threatened to leave show business to study medicine at Columbia if his weekly salary were not increased to $4,000.

Read more about Cagney in the Columbia Encyclopedia.

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