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James Cagney Wasn’t So Tough Off-Screen

Although James Cagney may be best known for the gangster films he appeared in during the 1930s, the actor had a softer side to him that not many got to see before his 1986 death. Known for his roles in films such as Angels with Dirty Faces and The Public Enemy, James became one of the most intimidating figures of Hollywood’s Golden Age. However, the way he appeared on the screen wasn’t anything like how the actor aspired to be in real life. While he started life as a brawler on the streets of New York, he ended it peacefully on his farmland. Join Facts Verse as we explore how James Cagney wasn’t so tough off-screen.


James Cagney was a legendary actor that rose to fame during the early days of Hollywood’s Golden Age, playing intimidating characters in such 1930s gangster classics as Angels with Dirty Faces and The Public Enemy. These films took advantage of James’ innate tough-guy image, which he had honed while growing up on the streets of New York. Despite the fact that James had authentically developed a reputation for being a tough guy over the course of his lifetime, there was a softer and more understated side to the man that many didn’t get to see. In later years, the actor tried to abandon the tough guy persona that had been thrust upon him during his early years. However, his intimidating presence on screens has proved impossible to overshadow.

After a long and fruitful life, James died in 1986. At the time of the actor’s death, he was 86 years old. The actor had overcome a great deal to achieve the success that he did during his lifetime. James had grown up in New York City. His father was the owner of a saloon, though the work didn’t bring in much money. The family was poor, and James often found himself without anyone to guide him and without much to do. Because of this, he turned to a life of crime at an early age. He could often be found brawling with other kids and was always getting into trouble in one way or another.

James’ time growing up on the streets of New York without much parental influence caused him to develop a tough exterior. He learned to hold his own in a fight, and he also learned how to talk his way out of one if he needed to. Despite the fact that James seemed to fit right in within New York’s seedy underbelly, there was still another side to the youth that he would begin exploring more when he got older.

While James had learned to fight and act tough on the streets, he had also learned to dance during his childhood. The young man excelled at the art of tap dance and began to develop plans to go to college and major in art as he got into his older teens. However, the young man found that college wasn’t for him soon after he was accepted and instead decided to drop out of school with the intention of becoming an actor on the stage.

Although James didn’t graduate from college, he ended up becoming one of the most respected artists of his time regardless. Once accepted into the acting scene, James gradually tried to do his best to leave behind his days as a street ruffian in New York. However, those days had left a permanent stain on the man, and it was this stain that made the actor stand out amongst many of his contemporaries.

As a result of James’ upbringing brawling on the New York City streets, he had an authentic tough-guy demeanor that few of his peers could even begin to match. It was this spark that caught the eye of the audience when James began performing, and it would make him a major star. Because of this, there were always two conflicting sides to James over the course of his career. Those two sides were the intimidating side that was most often shown on the screen and the softer side that fewer people got the chance to see.

Although James started out his life brawling on the streets of New York City, he ended it raising horses and peacefully painting on his farmland upstate. The actor could never shake his tough-guy image, but there was always a great deal more to him. If you’re enjoying this video so far, be sure to hit the like button to show your support! While you’re at it, subscribe to the channel if you’d like to be among the first to know when more Facts Verse videos are on their way!

Although not many people got to see the softer side of legendary Golden Age actor James Cagney, his son and daughter count themselves amongst the lucky few. According to them, their father was an incredibly kindhearted and gentle man. Although James was most often given roles that showcased his harder side, he tried to take on roles that showcased his lighter side whenever he got the chance.

James’ most enduring feature arguably remains 1938’s Angels with Dirty Faces. The background of the film also showcases another hidden side of James Cagney: that of the well-intentioned political activist. Around the time of being offered his big role in Angels with Dirty Faces, James had found himself a bit of an outcast in the entertainment industry due to a misunderstanding about a certain political group.

In 1936, James was asked to become involved in a group that was known as the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. Of course, based on the name, one would assume that there would be nothing wrong with such a group. However, the group was secretly a front for the Soviet Union’s Communist International. Unaware of this, James agreed to sponsor the group. When the Soviet Union origins of the group were revealed, James was caught in a great deal of controversy.

James’ accidental aligning with the Soviet Union wasn’t the only thing that was affecting the man’s career during the time. James had also made himself known as an advocate for the increase of general actors’ salaries. James didn’t even have much to gain from his advocacy, as he was already one of the highest-paid actors in the industry at the time that he began campaigning about the issue. However, he still did it because he believed that his fellow actors deserved more. James felt that lesser-known actors were getting taken advantage of by the studio system, and he was trying to use his clout in the industry to solve the problem.

While James’ work to get actors bigger salaries was admirable, it didn’t make him very popular with the executives. Because of this, and the aforementioned accidental affiliation with the Soviet Union, the actor, had found himself at a bit of a low point when he was offered to star in Angels with Dirty Faces. He gladly accepted the role, and it has gone on to become one of his most iconic!

Although James’ work in Angels with Dirty Faces was very well received at the time, the actor still ended up losing the Academy Award that year to Spencer Tracy. James had been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor thanks to his performance in Angels with Dirty Faces, and he was up against Spencer for his performance in Boys Town. Michael Curtiz, who would later go on to direct Casablanca, had directed Angels with Dirty Faces. In addition to James Cagney, the film also starred Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, and Pat O’Brien.

At the time that James was performing in Angels with Dirty Faces, the actor had enough clout that he could say no when asked to use live ammunition in a film. It was common practice in Hollywood at the time to use real bullets on film sets, as it wasn’t quite as easy at the time to fake it. James refused to be on camera during any scene in Angels with Dirty Faces that called for live ammunition to be used, and this request ended up saving the actor’s life!

In one scene that was supposed to have James in it, an accident with a gun being used caused a bullet to ricochet to the exact position where James would have been standing. If he hadn’t insisted on not being present for the scene, he would’ve been shot! James thankfully survived and ended up living for nearly 50 years after giving his classic performance in the film. Angels with Dirty Faces became a massive hit for Warner Bros., with it being one of the studio’s most profitable films of the year.

Besides aligning himself with the Soviet Union, 1936 had also seen James buy his aforementioned farmland in upstate New York. The actor spent as much time as possible there during his lifetime. Two decades after purchasing the farm, he retired for a period of time and spent nearly all of his time there for a number of years. Eventually, James came back out of retirement in 1981. The actor had been experiencing some health problems, including a diagnosis of diabetes. The doctors had encouraged the man to become more active, which caused him to start considering taking on some more film roles. The actor subsequently appeared in the film Ragtime, which was directed by Milos Forman.

James’ last role before his death was in a made-for-television feature by the name of Terrible Joe Moran. The actor’s cause of death was a heart attack, and he died in 1986. At the time of the actor’s death, he was 86 years old.


Although James Cagney may have been a sweet guy when the cameras weren’t rolling, audiences will always best remember him as the intimidating figures that he portrayed in such classics as Angels with Dirty Faces. Comment down below to share which of James’ performances you think defines him the most, or if you were surprised to learn about the actor’s softer side beneath his tough-guy demeanor. As always, like this video to show your support, and subscribe and hit the notification bell if you’d like to be among the first to know when more Facts Verse videos are on their way!

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