Screen great "tough guy" James Francis Cagney, Jr. (1899-1986) was born on this day on the rough Lower East Side of New York City. He grew up poor and followed his dad's footsteps, learning to box with a vengeance as a youngster.
"He was the embodiment of big-city scrappiness, a mean-streets survivor who got ahead on a good grin, good moves, and better hustle," described writer Richard Lacayo.
After appearing on vaudeville and Broadway as a singer and dancer, the 5' 8" powerhouse made his film debut in 1931. That same year the film The Public Enemy won him instant notoriety when his gangster character shoved a grapefruit half into the face of Mae Clark.
"Frankly, I always felt I was doing what was fashionable at the moment," Cagney explained. "I was giving them what they wanted but trying to keep it pleasant, at least for me."
Cagney made 38 films between 1930 and 1941. He won an Oscar for his singer-songwriter portrayal of George M. Cohan in the sentimental wartime classic, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).
Humorist Will Rogers once said of Cagney, "Every time I see him work, it looks to me like a bunch of firecrackers going off all at once."
The talented and artistic Cagney, who wrote poetry, played classical guitar, and painted, never said "you dirty rat" in any of his movies. His advice on acting? "Plant your feet, look them in the eye, and tell the truth."
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