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James Cagney

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b. James Francis Cagney, 17 July 1899, New York City, New York, USA, d. 30 March 1986, Stanfordville, New York, USA. One of Hollywood’s all-time great stars, Cagney was a versatile actor with a tough-guy image - he was particularly renowned for his gangster movies - who appeared in several highly entertaining screen musicals. One of five children of an Irish-American father and an Irish-Norwegian mother, Cagney attended Columbia University but left to find full-time work after his father died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. He had a variety of jobs before finding a place in the chorus of the Broadway musical comedy Pitter Patter in 1920. Also in the chorus was Frances Willard Vernon, and the couple were married in 1922 and worked together in vaudeville for a few years before Cagney began to appear in stage melodramas, and musicals such as The Grand Street Follies of 1928 and 1929. In 1930 Cagney joined the Warner Brothers Studio in Hollywood and proceeded to make the classic gangster movies for which he is so famous, includingPublic Enemy, Angels With Dirty Faces and The Roaring Twenties. In 1933 he played the lead in one of the best musicals of the decade, Footlight Parade, and in 1937 kicked up his heels in the lively Something To Sing About. The musical high spot of his film career came in 1942 with Yankee Doodle Dandy, in which Cagney’s magnetic portrayal of the master-showman George M. Cohan won him an Academy Award. He played Cohan again in 1955 when he and Bob Hope (as Eddie Foy) combined in splendid fashion for ‘Mary’s A Grand Old Name’ and ‘Yankee Doodle Boy’ in The Seven Little Foys. Also in the 50s he co-starred with Doris Day in two musicals, The West Point Story and Love Me Or Leave Me. In the latter, the screen biography of torch singer Ruth Etting, Cagney gave a brilliant performance as Martin ‘The Gimp’ Snyder, Etting’s jealous husband and Svengali. In 1960 Cagney retired from films, and despite repeated pleas for his return (Jack Warner, head of Warner Brothers, is said to have begged him to play Alfred P. Doolittle in the 1964 film version of My Fair Lady), he emerged only occasionally during the next 20 years to accept honours such as the second American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award and a Kennedy Centre Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1981, at the age of 82, he was tempted back for Ragtime, a story of 1906 America in which he played (somewhat ironically in view of his early roles) a New York police commissioner. Parts of the film were shot in Britain and Cagney made a poignant appearance at a Royal Variety Show that was attended by the Queen Mother. He continued to play the occasional role on US television until shortly before his death in 1986.

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