James Cagney: a Star for Six Decades

updated 04/14/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/14/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Five years ago James Cagney caught me staring. You'd stare, too. The old man, apparently dozing in his wheelchair in a Manhattan hotel room, bore no resemblance to the gravity-defying hoofer or to the public enemy who'd squash a grapefruit in a moll's face and plug a dirty copper with the same rat-a-tat bravado. Now, work on Ragtime, his first film in 20 years, had exhausted him. Gone from the Cagney repertoire were the bantam bounce, the finger jabbing and the trouser hitching that kept impersonators in business. A debilitating stroke, diabetes and circulatory ailments had robbed the stocky, 5-ft. 8-in. Irishman of his physical grace. The shell was there, but where was the man? "I'm here," came the famous raspy voice, interrupting thoughts he could have been reading. "Don't worry, son, I'm fine." He was, brimful of teasing vigor. Oh, he didn't spring into a somersault and tear off the white hair and makeup the way he did in 1942 before a stunned Joan Leslie in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Old age was a rap even Cagney couldn't beat. "Think I've lost my looks?" he joked. "Ha. Never had 'em." He had something better: energy the camera could pick up and transmit to the pit of an audience's stomach. Funny thing about Cagney, for all the hoods and psychos he played, the public always loved him. His cut-the-bull style had a lot to do with it. The good life for Cagney wasn't Hollywood, but the country home in Upstate New York he shared with Willi, his wife of 64 years. There he could read, paint, write poetry. Aside from the work, his film comeback didn't interest him. "I'm going back to the farm and sit it out," he said. Leave it to the Sean Penns, William Hurts and Richard Geres to analyze the method of their craft. Cagney just did it, superbly, without showing the effort. Around the street-smart crowd that Jimmy grew up with on Manhattan's Lower East Side, a big ego would earn you a bigger shiner. "Acting," said Cagney, "was a job—no more, no less." He was lying, of course. You could tell because right after he said it, he winked. Not just any wink, mind you. This wink was the kind that said mischief was still possible, even probable, and always preferable to bragging.

I saw him for the last time in 1984 when he played the role of an old boxer in the TV movie Terrible Joe Moran. His voice was so weak that most of his dialogue had to be dubbed. But the joy of performance was there in the light of his eyes, just as it was in all 64 of his films. Marge Zimmermann, Cagney's manager, says that her boss "smiled and winked" just before he died, at 86, on Easter morning. You can believe, if you like, that the light went out then. I know better.

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