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James Cagney: Looking Backward

An armchair tour of fifty years in showbiz

James CagneyJames Cagney

James Cagney in 1981.

Ron Galella/WireImage

The window shades are drawn against the late-summer sun, transforming the suite in Manhattan’s genteel old Carlyle Hotel into a lonesome oasis of resignation not unlike the sitting room of a sanitarium. It is perfectly quiet within –— no, there is the faint wheeze of labored breathing. Hunched in a stuffed easy chair at one end of the long living room is a pillowy mound of a man dressed in crisply pressed cotton pajamas and a linen bathrobe, his small feet reposing in scuffed leather slippers, his thin hair neatly combed. He appears to be asleep, his round, pink head pitched forward, chin upon the barrel chest, plump arms laying against his thick waist. If not for his size and the silvery stubble that coats his jaws, he might be one of Maurice Sendak’s man-faced infants, dreaming inside the frames of the illustrator’s pleasantly baroque picture fables.

How does one awaken James Cagney, one of the finest and most versatile talents in the annals of cinema? Surely, at the age of eighty-two, with half a century of stardom (and twenty years of retirement) behind him, he desires and deserves his rest. But the consequences of living so long and rising so high in his profession have conspired against him.

“Jamesy, Jamesy, wake up, you old so-and-so,” whispers Marge Zimmerman, Cagney’s sixtyish aide-de-camp, who has been a close friend of the actor and his wife, Willard (“Billie” to insiders), for a dozen years.

The small, piercing blue eyes pop open with comic suddenness. “Ho!” he shouts. “Falling down on the job, am I? Get with it, Cagney! You’re on!” He extends a large hand with glee and gives what proves to be an absolutely crushing handshake, confirming what his old acting crony Ralph Bellamy recently told me:

“Whenever Jimmy is suddenly afflicted with emotion, he has one of two reactions: he either falls silent and tears appear in his eyes, or he explodes with a distinctively sharp round of laughter to clear the air. They’re the two ways he’s devised for revealing but protecting himself —– and he uses laughter the most.”

Such has been the venerable star’s public demeanor over the last fifteen months as he emerged from self-imposed exile to appear in Ragtime. Reviews have been mixed for director Milos Forman’s interpretation of E.L. Doctorow’s best-selling novei-cum-travelogue of turn-of-the-century New York City, its arabesque of fact and fiction intertwining the lives of a middle-class New Rochelle family and a ragtime piano tinkler named Coalhouse Walker. The negative notices focused on the truncated transferral to the screen of the book’s rich tapestry of famous characters — Houdini, Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman, architect Stanford White, moneyed dissolute Harry K. Thaw and his lovely, unfaithful spouse, Evelyn Nesbit, et al. — while the positive reviews hailed the return of a historic figure no less fabled: James Francis Cagney Jr.

For a time, it seemed as if the country were going Cagney-crazy, with New York City Mayor Ed Koch giving the actor the key to the city, the Yankees inviting him to toss out a ball during the World Series, President Ronald Reagan bestowing grandiose kudos, and life-achievement award dinners springing up across the country like four-leaf clovers. Tributes are much deserved (Cagney earned an Oscar for his song-and-dance sagacity in the 1942 Yankee Doodle Dandy and an honorary Best Actor award from the American Film Institute in the late Seventies). He virtually invented the modern antihero with his portrayal, in The Public Enemy (1931), of Tom Powers, the rum-running slum pug who gets shot down by underworld gunmen after avenging the gangland execution of his buddy.

“He created an entirely new character in film, a villain who was never too simple or entirely repellent,” says Milos Forman. “And he allowed you to like and enjoy such a person without feeling guilty. He never sacrifices personality for craft, or vice versa, and that’s a very rare quality that only a few actors —– Bogart, Gable, Spencer Tracy —– had. Drawing from things that are deep inside him or simply integral to who he is, Cagney is always a character, but always Cagney.”

“Frankly,” says the man himself, shifting in his seat at the hotel, “I always felt I was doing what was fashionable at the moment. I was giving them what they wanted but trying to keep it pleasant, at least for me.”

Cagney never intended to become a career actor. “Back in the days when Jim worked as a bellhop in the Friar’s Club,” says Bellamy, “he used to see these actors coming through the doors in flashy suits, telling him, ‘Last week, I earned fifty bucks dancing and singing in a show!’ Jim used to tell me how amazed and jealous he was, thinking, ‘Hell, I can hoof and carry a tune as well as these guys.’ He was driven into show business by the desire to earn money for his family and to escape the poverty of his youth in New York City. I don’t think —– and I’ve known him for fifty years —– that he ever intended to spend almost his whole life acting. He would have been happier remaining a song-and-dance man, so long as it paid his bills.”

Cagney’s first job in the legitimate theater was a stint as a female impersonator in a revue called Every Sailor at Keith’s Eighty-first Street Theater. Most of the cast were fresh off the U.S.S. George Washington, where they’d entertained World War I sailors with a drag sendup of naval life. Female impersonators were the rage at the time, and every vaudeville show had one on the boards. (“My dear mother was a little surprised when I showed up onstage in a dress,” says Cagney, “but she got the family to applaud & – gave ’em a nudge in the ribs.”)

He was thirty-one before he made his first film, Sinner’s Holiday (1930), a sizzling sixty-minute melodrama based on a New York play called Penny Arcade, in which he and friend Joan Blondell had costarred. At Jolson was good enough to buy the screen rights and sell the project to Warner Brothers with the stipulation that Cagney and Blondell repeat their roles in the movie.

And so began a career marked by some of the finest films ever fashioned: Taxi!, Winner Take All, Footlight Parade, Ceiling Zero, Angels with Dirty Faces, The Fighting 69th, Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Time of Your Life, White Heat, A Lion Is in the Streets, Love Me or Leave Me, Mister Roberts, The Seven Little Foys, Shake Hands with the Devil and One, Two, Three, to name a few of his sixty-odd feature-length performances.

To talk with James Cagney over the course of the last few months was to travel back in time inside the mind and heart of one of the most remarkable people this country has produced. Through sepia-tinted photos he tapped with his index finger, intensely rendered oil paintings he singled out from his own workshop, and recollections that he unfurled in careful, halting conversation, he endeavored to provide someone close to one-third his years with at least a preliminary understanding of what it was like to grow up poor, frightened and fired with a determination that transcended ambition, during a time when America was careening around a blind curve and into the twentieth century.

“The whole nation was wide open — wide open,” he says. “So many professions, including film acting, were in their inception. You knew it was a chance to get a big stake that would probably not come again. Big dreams everywhere, but most people had nothing. So you rolled up your sleeves and charged at anything. And [laughing] you prayed.”

Cagney was born on July 17th, 1899 (Warner Brothers publicists would later adjust that date to 1904), the son of a bartender whose forebears had traced his ancestry back to the O’Caignes of County Leitrim in Ireland, and one Carolyn Nelson, the half-Irish, half-Norwegian daughter of a sailor. His first home was near Avenue D and Eighth Street, in an impoverished neighborhood on the Lower East Side, but the Cagneys soon moved to East Seventy-ninth Street and then to East Ninety-sixth Street.

“My father had a saloon at Eighty-first Street and First Avenue, just a little place,” Cagney recalls, sipping a glass of orange juice, “and he was known as the ‘two for one’ bartender, meaning that he drank two for every one he served. Not a wise way to make a living. In those days, my father thought he had something going simply by running the place, but he was wrong, unfortunately.

“He was a bookkeeper, originally —– that was the irony of it. He also liked to play the horses and ran through a lot of what little money we had. He died in 1918 after a quick bout with the flu. His alcoholism had weakened him to where the bug took him like that. He was irresponsible but very good-natured; he had the gift of gab and told a damned good joke. And he had been a good boxer and also a baseball pitcher. People nicknamed him ‘Jimmy Steam.’ But it was my mother who raised us, and she gave us her values: fair play, hard work, a strict Catholic upbringing. We all loved her so.”

Cagney, a teetotaler, forgave his father’s failings and excelled at pursuits that embodied the best of his parents’ traits. A natural boxer, albeit with a streetfighter’s abandon, James trained in his teens with local pros like Arnold “Jimmy” Kelly and Patsy Cline (“He was Italian,” Cagney instructs with a smile). And while he held jobs that ranged from working as a custodian at the New York Public Library to waiting tables in a tearoom, he often found that his greatest currency —– literally and symbolically —– could be won in a sidewalk slugfest. Red-blooded as well as red-haired, he never flinched from the opportunity.

“I was sitting on a curbstone one day as a boy,” he says in his gentle rasp, “playing this matchbox game for pennies, when a fella came along and said, ‘Cagney! Red! I got a guy here who’ll put up a quarter to fight you!’ I stood up, threw a punch at my opponent, and we were at it. Money was where you made it, eh? I won the fight, by the way.

“I’d been fighting since I was six,” he notes, “and I practiced often. Years later, it helped my dancing. One time I was in a fight that had been going, off and on, for three days with this guy, and somebody yelled out, ‘Where are these boys’ mothers?!’ Well, my mother was standing there watching, making sure it was square.”

That particular marathon match was with a scourge named Willie, whose merciless punishment had sent James’ brother Eddie into a convalescent bed. Cagney had gone looking for the mug, and after challenging him, they went at it.

“Things calmed down by the third night, when I broke my hand,” says Cagney, “and we agreed to a rematch once it healed.” Shortly afterward, Willie landed in jail on some since-forgotten offense, bouncing from there to Sing Sing and then Dannemora prison.

“Never saw him again, but he wrote me once,” Cagney says. “Last I heard of him, he had slit some poor inmate’s throat. But this was my environment, these were my neighbors and friends.”

Ragtime is still a month away from its premiere when I visit Cagney one day at his quaint stone farmhouse, which perches on a bluff overlooking a glassy pond in a lightly wooded corner of his Dutchess County estate in upstate New York. Casually dressed in a light-blue work shirt and baggy black slacks, he begins to talk of the battles he fought once he’d made it to Hollywood. He wanted to ensure his fair treatment by the architects of the notorious “studio systems” that severely restricted the salaries and creative motives of actors under rigid multipicture contracts. Signed to Warner Brothers, Cagney’s chief adversary was Jack Warner.

“Want to know about Warner, eh?” he says with a grin. “Well, he was a good-looking young producer who was in charge of the actors as far as the studio was concerned. Not much older than I when we first shook on our deal, but acted like he was my old man. A hard fellow, very hard. A tough nut.

“I used to like to walk out on him, frankly, whenever my contract didn’t suit me. I’d cuss him out in Yiddish, which I had learned from Jewish friends in my days at Stuyvesant High School. Drove him wild. ‘What’d he say?!’ he’d yell. ‘What’d he just call me?!’

“People now see me as being tough, but it had nothing to do with being tough and everything to do with being stubborn. The point in life is to get what you want. There’s no gain in getting things you don’t want, and there’s no gift in settling for something.”

Cagney’s problems with Warner Brothers were not so different from the ones other actors were having around town. “When the Screen Actors Guild got started in 1935, I joined right up, because I knew most actors were getting less than a hundred bucks for six-and seven-day weeks. People think all the movie people were rich, but it just wasn’t true. The producers were rich. The top actors either got a fortune —– $100,000 or more for a picture — or they got $400 a week because the studios had them sewn up. All we wanted was an eight-hour day and payment that reflected our talent and our box office. Years later, when I first heard that Steve McQueen was offered 3 million bucks for a picture, I almost fainted. He was a helluva actor, but 3 million bucks! That’s nuts!”

The harder Cagney worked, the more intransigent he became in his attitude toward the people he perceived as his exploiters. By 1936, he was one of the top-ten box-office attractions in the country and expected to be compensated accordingly. Few other actors had the moxie to follow in the footsteps of the “Tough Guy” when he refused to work under existing conditions, and the practice became known in the film community as “doing a Cagney.” But, as he is quick to remind: “I never left in the middle of a picture; I finished up the job first. And I usually split because of a violation of my contract.”

Whenever he could brush Hollywood aside, his focus usually shifted to the bucolic life of leisure he had sought since boyhood. His first exposure to rural living had come at the age of four, when his father hired a horse-drawn rig to take the family out to a relative’s house in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, for a two-week summer vacation. James never forgot the lush property, with its morning glory-draped fences and flowering shrubs. In 1936, he bought a farm in Martha’s Vineyard (which he no longer owns), and in 1955, he purchased the property in Dutchess County. He made similar attempts to secure rustic hideaways in the West, although with mixed results.

“Jim hates this story,” says Ralph Bellamy, “but I’m going to tell you it anyway because it says so much about the earnest nature of the man. He loves the outdoors and is an accomplished naturalist and an informed conservationist, right? Well, back in the mid-Thirties, he got himself eleven acres in Coldwater Canyon, just over the hill from Hollywood, in a place that had no house near it for a mile in any direction. He was going to create a paradise. He builds a stable for trotting horses, including a track, and buys ducks and geese and makes a pond for them. Then he gets some goats to run up and down the hillsides, and he puts up a chicken coop and fills it with twenty-six hens and four roosters! He goes up one day to check everything out, but he’s still not satisfied. It’s not quite right, and he wants to find a way to improve it. He goes down to the henhouse and sees that he’s got just four roosters and figures, ‘Well, this won’t do,’ so he goes and gets another twenty-two of them, so that every chicken will have a mate. The next thing you know, there’s a commotion you wouldn’t believe, with every chicken in the place on the roof of the coop and the roosters diving at them from the sky. It was hilarious! There were feathers all over every inch of Coldwater Canyon. The story spread around town, and he still isn’t over the embarrassment.”

This agrarian indiscretion notwithstanding, Bellamy has nothing but respect and deep affection for his pal.

“He’s a very retiring person,” says Bellamy, “and he’s inclined to a kind of melancholia that he’s had to strain to overcome. Crowds, I think, have always frightened him, and they were an aspect of this business that he always hated. He never really liked the business much, especially the corporate side. ‘They can’t level with you!’ he’d always say, very hurt. But show business has kept him in touch with the outside world. He’s always there for his close friends, but he’s not outgoing.”

Slowly, Cagney cultivated a support system of intimate male-actor companions consisting of Bellamy, Pat O’Brien, Frank McHugh, Spencer Tracy and Frank Morgan, all of whom had known one another from their days on the New York stage. Whether working or not, they found time each Thursday to meet at Los Angeles restaurants like Chasen’s, Romanoff’s and Lucey’s, or at one another’s homes. They dubbed themselves the Boys Club, but director Frank Capra preferred the Irish Mafia, even though Bellamy was English and Morgan was German. In time, the clique expanded to include others.

Of the bunch, Pat O’Brien beam Cagney’s chief confidant. They had met in the Twenties while appearing in stock companies in Asbury Park and went on to make some eight pictures together, the first being Here Comes the Navy in 1934, and the last (prior to Cagney’s asking O’Brien to be cast as Harry K. Thaw’s lawyer in Ragtime), The Torrid Zone in 1940. They still speak with each other at least once a week.

“Pat and his wife, Eloise, always liked the nightclubs and the parties,” says Cagney. “They loved to stay out to all hours, and as a matter of fact, they still do. He and I were direct opposites, but there was never a problem. He always called me the Faraway Fella, and I always called him the Bull of the Woods. I called him that because when he got started on a project, you had to get the hell out of the way or be run over by him, he was so wildly determined.”

Why did O’Brien call him the Faraway Fella?

“There was a party given by the Masquers’ Club for Frank McHugh in the Fifties. Pat knew I didn’t like parties, so he calls me up and says, ‘You’re gonna be there, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘Hell, yes!’ He said, ‘Don’t gimme that. Just be there. It’s for Frank.’ I said, ‘Why do you doubt me, my boy?’ He said, ‘Well, Jim, you’re one of those faraway fellas.’ “

The kindest thing he ever did for me was to get me into Ragtime; I hadn’t done a picture in forty years,” says O’Brien. “Jimmy doesn’t go out and make friends haphazardly. He has to know you pretty darn well before he decides to stand by you. But once he crosses that line, you’re his man forever.”

“I like friends who last,” Cagney confirms. “There’s an art to picking them, and I’m not a casual person. I’m the kind who needs to go his own way; I’m not one who feels the need for much attention. Now some say Cagney’s aloof. I don’t think so, really [chuckling]. I wrote a little verse about it one time. It went:

Mine not the searching eye
Mine not to ask the why
Mine not to vie with wit
Mine not to give a —

“I think you can guess what the last word is,” he says with a booming laugh.

Enigmatic on a personal level, Cagney the professional is equally elusive, and the few anecdotes that are now trickling out about his on-set demeanor reveal an utterly serious but often insecure man who occasionally seemed disoriented by his station in life.

“We were three days into shooting Boy Meets Girl in 1938,” says Bellamy, “when Jim decides to go to see all the rushes, something he rarely did. Afterward, he comes back, a frown on his face.

“‘What’s wrong?’I ask.

“‘You know that I’m a fast talker,’ he answers in his rapid-fire way.

“‘Yeah, I know.’

“‘Well,’ he says, ‘I just saw three days’ rushes, and I can’t understand a single word I spoke!’

“Before I could really sympathize, Hal Wallis [the studio executive] sent out a note telling us to start the picture over and make it louder, faster and funnier!

“Incidentally,” Bellamy confides, “Jim was never really happy with his work beyond Yankee Doodle Dandy [1942] and the other few pictures he danced in. He was a severe critic of his own work, and he also had a serious weight problem that runs in the whole family. He used to spar with a prizefighter for a few weeks before each of his films to try to lose weight. On the dancing films, it usually wasn’t necessary, because he dropped the weight in the course of rehearsal.”

A slam-bang flag-waver that galvanized the country’s patriotic wartime resolve, Yankee Doodle Dandy can be viewed in retrospect not only as the idealized film biography of showman George M. Cohan but also as a haunting reflection of Cagney’s own picaresque professional unfolding. True to the script, the film star himself had risen up through the vaudeville ranks to embody the best showmen of his age; like Cohan, he was a traditionalist who drew his family closer to him with each success; he had also married a showgirl, whom he immediately coaxed into retirement. And the time would come when Cagney would follow Cohan’s example and abruptly withdraw from the spotlight.

Whether or not Cagney was conscious of the personal correlations in the Cohan role, he says that he was always “looking for a personal touch,” something derived from his own experience, to flesh out his characterizations. “I always planned it so that people would leave the theater with vivid memories of the characters, some detail to nail them with. In the case of Angels with Dirty Faces, for instance, I thought back to this pimp, this cokey I used to know in Yorkville, who was forever hitching up his pants, and I stole that from him to enhance the role.”

“One of the keys to Cagney’s superiority as an actor is that he’s a master of observation,” says Jack Lemmon, who starred opposite him in Mister Roberts (1955). “Every actor who’s worked with him has a Cagney-on-acting story, but I think mine has got to be one of the best. Back in the early Fifties, when I was doing a lot of live television, I did a Kraft Theatre show where, as an exercise in discipline, I did everything left-handed. It took weeks of practice, but when I did the show, no one noticed it; not my wife, not even the director. I considered it a big achievement. About two years later, I meet James Cagney as we’re beginning to start work on Mister Roberts, and he says to me, ‘I’ve seen kinescopes of some of your stuff with the Kraft Theatre. You were very good.’ I was completely thrilled with the compliment. Cagney turns to go, and then he looks back at me and says, ‘By the way, you’re not still pretending you’re left-handed, are you?’ “I almost shit. That marvelous son of a bitch was that observant.”

Naturally adept at his job, Cagney was disinterested in reviewing the finished product once he’d fulfilled his responsibilities. “I’ve never seen seventy-five percent of the films I’ve done,” he says bluntly. “Good or bad, I knew in my heart that I had always given it my best shot, so there was no point in watching myself make the effort.”

Considering his attitudes on acting, it’s not surprising that he expected a similar perspective from his coworkers, especially directors. For Cagney, a good director was both decisive and unobtrusive on the set, and his favorite, Lloyd Bacon, possessed both of these qualities.

“Lloyd Bacon, son of Frank Bacon, the old stage actor, would get a script, like the one for Footlight Parade [1933], and he would never read it. The day we’d start shooting, he’d open the script, mark out our lines for the day; he might change the setups from a long shot to a close-up, or vice versa; that was the extent of his commitment to the script. His technique was to trust the actors, and it worked. Bacon once said to me, ‘I tried for two years to make a go at acting, and I couldn’t figure it out. How the hell am I going to tell you how to do it?’ Sounds funny, I know, but he wasn’t joking. He knew enough to keep a simple thing simple.

“I also loved Howard Hawks. He had a wide-open personality. When we were doing Ceiling Zero in 1935, I played a footloose airplane pilot. He came to me with a few ideas about the role, and after we discussed them he said, ‘Your ideas are better than mine. Let’s shoot it.’ And that was the extent of it. No haggling, no nonsense.”

“Jimmy hated directors who constantly gave orders instead of directions,” says O’Brien. “He felt that if you were shouting orders all the time, it was because you’d chosen the wrong cast.”

But it was Billy Wilder who drew his outright disdain.

“Billy Wilder was more of a dictator than most of the others I worked with,” Cagney explains. “We worked together in 1961 on One, Two, Three, and he was overly bossy, full of noise — a pain. Still, we did a good picture together. I didn’t learn until after we were done that he didn’t like me, which was fine as far as I was concerned, because I certainly didn’t like him. He didn’t know how to let things flow, and that matters a great deal to me.”

One, Two, Three was Cagney’s last picture until Ragtime. After beefing for three decades about the dull rigors of acting, he nonetheless astounded even his closest friends with the firmness of his decision to quit.

“He was not happy with Wilder at all,” says Bellamy, “and the pace of the film got to him, too. He was not a young man at the time, and it was a nonstop picture in which he had long speeches and was on camera for almost the whole time. When he finished, he came back and told me the experience had disturbed him, but he wasn’t all that specific.”

Bellamy was visiting the Dutchess County farm in the late Sixties when a letter arrived from Charles Bluhdorn, head of Gulf and Western, Paramount Pictures’ parent company. Enclosed was a blank contract and a request to fill it in for any amount the actor wished. Cagney showed it to Bellamy.

“I asked, ‘What are you gonna do, Jim?’

“He said, ‘I’m gonna forget it. I’m through, but these people refuse to believe it.”’

As the sun dims in the slate-colored sky, the conversation shifts from a lot of breezy chatter to contained contemplation as the actor ponders his future.

Cagney expects his next film project to be Eagle of Broadway, a script about the last three months in the life of the gunslinger-turned-newspaperman Bat Masterson and his friendships with Damon Runyon and Louella Parsons.

“He was a sensible man, Bat. Very sensible. And he wasn’t the crazed killer the lore has made him out to be. He killed only when necessary. Although, when he’d add up the number of men he’d killed, he never counted Indians or Mexicans, which doesn’t speak too well of him.

“He was a kid, a young buck, when he killed his first man. And by the time he went to Dodge City and helped Wyatt Earp clean up the town, he was used to killing. It was a fact of life in the Southwest that he had utterly accepted. In later years he became a sportswriter, of all things.”

The description of Masterson sounds tinged with a double-edged fascination —– not just with the character but also with the idea that Cagney’s actually readying another performance. There is general agreement among family and friends that aide Marge Zimmerman was crucial in creating the climate that got Cagney involved in his craft again.

Zimmerman and her husband, Don, became part of the actor’s tiny inner circle in the late Sixties. Neighbors of the Cagneys, the retired restaurateur and her civil-engineer husband met the couple while antique hunting. A casual social acquaintance was solidified when Marge, concerned about the actor’s faltering health, insisted on escorting him to a doctor, where he was diagnosed a diabetic. Shortly thereafter, a stroke shook James to his foundations, “scaring him into giving up,” as Zimmerman puts it. She conferred with his wife and physician and then took it upon herself to get him “back into the land of the living.” Her husband oversaw the building of a swimming pool next to the farmhouse to augment his fair-weather exercise, and he was gently coerced into resuming his habitual strolls. The next logical step was the selection of a film role that would befit his time-honored status but not overtax him.

Cagney had met Milos Forman while the Czechoslovakian director was working on Hair with Treat Williams, and all three became quite chummy. In the meantime, the task of directing Ragtime had shifted —– amid controversy fired by producer Dino De Laurentiis’ misgivings with Robert Altman — to Forman.

“My wife and Marge asked if I would come out of retirement to appear in the film,” Cagney explains. “First I said no, then they talked me into it with Forman’s help. They offered me the part of Grandfather, then the part of Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo. I spoke to my doctor, and he said, ‘Do it. You need the activity. It’ll keep you going strong.’

“I want you to realize,” he emphasizes, “that the murder of Stanford White by jealous Harry K. Thaw, which opens the picture, was the first really major murder case in New York when I was a kid. It was 1906. In 1920, Evelyn Nesbit, Thaw’s ex-wife and White’s old mistress, was on a vaudeville bill with me! She had a song-and-dance act with her then-current husband. She seemed okay, nothing special. But everybody knew her reputation, all right.”

Near the end of my visit, I ask Cagney to clear up the mystery concerning his decision to retire in 1961.

“I’ve never fully explained that to anyone,” he murmurs, bowing his head as he leans forward in his chair. “It was a very personal decision. I had had it, but I’ll tell you exactly what I meant by that. Most of the shooting took place at Bavaria Studios outside of Munich, right in the middle of the German countryside. Being a city boy, I’ve always loved the country, and this landscape was magnificent. I began to realize that I was happiest when I was outside, roaming around the hills. One day, after finishing a scene, I walked out of the studio to get some exercise. A few moments later, one of the crew yelled, ‘Ready, Mr. Cagney!’ They were ready to light the set again. I walked back into this cavernous studio, which was pitch black, and on impulse, I turned back to look at the sunshine I had left behind. I stood there, very upset, thinking, ‘Darkness before me, sunlight behind me. This is it; no more. I want to be in that light.’

“That was the whole point, son,” he says, gripping my hand firmly. “A man can’t earn his living walking into darkness, separated from the real world and its beauty. I followed my heart, away from acting. I love to make people happy, of course, but Cagney has to come first, right?”

“Why did you return to acting?” I ask.

“Those closest to me told me that my chief occupation had become daydreaming, which is true,” he says with the small, shy smile of a child. “I’d become a daydreamer and a spectator, the faraway fella Pat O’Brian always accused me of being.”

“Ever think you’d still be acting at your age?”

“My God, no! That’s the wonder of this business: people constantly coming and going and coming back again, each having a particular thing to offer at a particular time. People billed over me disappeared the next year, and extras later became costars. It’s all a little nutty.”

“However, you’ve been a box-office star for virtually your entire film career.”

“For the first two years, 1930 and 1931, I was just making a living doing nothing significant. Near the end of ’31, I did Public Enemy, and that was the turning point. I became a draw.”

“Well, that’s fifty solid years of stardom, by my count.”

“Let’s just say,” he says, chuckling softly, “that I think I might do all right in this business.” 

In This Article: Coverwall, James Cagney


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