James Cagney was born on July 17, 1899 in New York City. After graduating from Stuyvesant High School, he enrolled at Columbia University in 1918.
During his college years, he began acting in the local theater and Broadway productions. During his time on stage he met a woman named Frances Vernon and he married her on September 28, 1922. They later adopted a son, James Cagney Jr., and a daughter, Cathleen Cagney.
James' acting in the play "Penny Arcade" caught the attention of Warner Brothers Studio and they purchased the rights to the play. They decided to hire James as the lead role and released the film in 1930 under the name "Sinner's Holiday". In the film, he plays a murderer who tries to frame an innocent man for his crime.
In 1931, he was selected to play the lead role of Tom Powers in the film "The Public Enemy" alongside blond bombshell Jean Harlow. In the film, he played a criminal who becomes rich during prohibition by smuggling alcohol. His brother Mike, on the other hand, is a stand up guy and tries to get him to leave the underworld.
When the Screen Actors Guild was started in 1933 to improve the working conditions of actors, James joined and encouraged many others to join. He later served as president of the guild from 1942 through 1944.
In 1938, he was cast in one of his most famous roles, playing William Sullivan in "Angels with Dirty Faces". In the film, he portrays a notorious gangster who takes the dark path while his friend, Jerry Connolly, becomes a priest instead. The film shows the two friends reuniting and focuses on the conflict Cagney's character feels between his criminal background and desire to do good.
The next year, he was cast alongside Humphrey Bogart in the film "The Roaring Twenties". In the film, Cagney plays Eddie Bartlett, who starts a fleet of taxicabs after returning from World War 1. He teams up with Bogart's character, George Hally, and uses the cabs to smuggle liquor around town.
In 1942, James portrayed patriotic entertainer George M. Cohan in the film "Yankee Doodle Dandy". The film was a massive success and arguably the highlight of Cagney's career. He was nominated for that year's Academy Award for Best Actor and won it, along with the many other awards given to people involved with the film.
In 1949, Cagney portrayed another gangster in the film "White Heat". In the film he played Arthur Jarrett, a leader of a gang who escapes from prison and tries to pull off a giant heist. The film features one of his most famous quotes, "Made it Ma! Top of the world!"
Cagney's next notable film was 1955's "Mister Roberts". In the film, he plays a lunatic ship captain who runs his ship like a tyrant. The film was nominated for numerous awards and was a major box office hit.
In 1974, he was awarded the American Film Institute (AFI)'s Lifetime Achievement Award for his work in motion pictures. He was also honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the 1984 Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented by Ronald Reagan.
In 1981, he made his final film appearance in the film "Ragtime". The film followed the stories of three groups of people and how their lives intertwined in the United States. In the film, Cagney played the role of a New York City police commissioner named Rheinlander Waldo.
By this time, Cagney's health was deteriorating rapidly due to his diabetes. He died on March 30, 1986 of a heart attack and was buried in Hawthorne, New York.