James Cagney Was An Iconic Silver Screen Gangster – But His Real Fight With The Mob Was Nearly Fatal

James Cagney shot to fame in Hollywood for his portrayal of some of history’s most iconic silver-screen gangsters. But the esteemed actor – whom President Ronald Reagan once described as “the classic American success story” – would eventually become intertwined with the real-life mob. Yes, it was surely some cruel irony that placed Cagney in the firing line of the mafia, in an encounter that would almost prove fatal.

An icon of 1930s Hollywood, Cagney entertained audiences around the globe with his versatile and energetic performances. Indeed, the actor was just as comfortable taking on comedy and musical roles as he was playing gangsters. In fact, he started his career in musicals, eventually making his big break on Broadway in 1929. Yet as Reagan had hinted, Cagney’s start in life had been a rough one.

Born to an Irish bartender and the daughter of a Norwegian ship captain in New York’s Lower East Side, Cagney’s youth was blighted by poverty. He grew up learning to fight, and briefly flirted with the world of bare-fisted boxing to make ends meet. However, he was only 14 years old at the time, and his mother forbade it. Cagney subsequently abandoned the idea, and instead spent his teenage years working a variety of odd jobs.

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Eventually, Cagney learned that he could make serious money working in vaudeville, a type of theatrical variety show. By his own admission he was no showman, once stating, “I didn’t know highland fling from a sailor’s hornpipe and I couldn’t even sing ‘Sweet Adeline.’” Still, he auditioned anyway, and managed to land a role in a chorus line by mimicking his fellow dancers.

Cagney began touring in vaudeville shows around the United States, interrupted by the occasional stint in legitimate theater. Billed as a “song-and-dance man,” he plied his trade for a decade, before eventually finding fame opposite Joan Blondell. The pair co-starred in the 1929 and 1930 productions of Maggie the Magnificent and Penny Arcade, with their performances earning critical acclaim.

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Following the success of Penny Arcade, both actors were drafted in to star in the movie adaptation, retitled Sinners’ Holiday. It was Cagney’s silver screen debut, and it didn’t disappoint: his performance earned him a contract with Warner Bros. studios. He ultimately made a name for himself as gangster Tom Powers in his fifth feature film, The Public Enemy.

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That 1931 motion picture remains iconic among moviegoers for the moment Cagney uses Mae Clarke’s face as an impromptu grapefruit-juicer. But the scene wasn’t scripted: Cagney cooked it up as a prank, inspired by real-life events he witnessed in his childhood. Director William Wellman decided to keep the shot, however – and for years, Cagney’s restaurant visits would invariably come with a side of free grapefruit.

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While that scene would leave a lasting impression on Hollywood, it was Cagney’s performance that proved to be the real gamechanger. Prior to his turn as Powers, American movies operated in black-and-white: audiences were never in any doubt about for whom to root. Villains were out-and-out evil, with no redeeming features; they couldn’t be funny, or charming, or succeed in any fashion.

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In The Public Enemy, though, Cagney presented a complex, multifaceted antihero. Powers simultaneously embodied callousness and charm, upending Hollywood’s steadfast commitment to moral balance. As critic Kenneth Tynan wrote in a 1951 issue of film magazine Sight & Sound, “The result was that in one stroke Cagney abolished both the convention of the pure hero and that of approximately numerical equipoise between vice and virtue.”

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The groundwork laid by Cagney also helped to romanticize the gangster genre among audiences. That was no mean feat, given that the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre – which is generally considered as the work of Al Capone and his goons – was still fresh in the memory. Cagney had a knack for making his characters likeable, though, which he once divulged to Frank Sinatra. “Be as tough as you want but sprinkle the goodies for laughs,” he said. “Anything they can laugh at they can’t hate.”

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Following the release of The Public Enemy, Cagney found himself instantly typecast as a “tough guy.” He then went on to star in similarly violent films, including Taxi!, during which he narrowly avoided being injured for real. Squibs and blanks were beyond filmmakers’ budgets back then, so live bullets were regularly used – and Cagney was almost shot during production. From then on, he refused to work with real ammo ever again.

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Yet Cagney couldn’t forget his musical roots. While he shot to stardom upon the silver screen, he also proved his versatility with an eclectic mix of roles in the early 1930s. For instance, he showed off his dancing feet in 1933’s Footlight Parade, and displayed considerable range in a 1935 adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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In fact, despite his legacy as an on-screen gangster – and all the influence it wrought him in Hollywood – Cagney is perhaps best remembered for a musical role. In 1942 he portrayed Broadway superstar George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, deploying his brash charm to great effect. Indeed, though he was nominated three times over his career, that performance bagged him his only Academy Award.

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Cagney sought out his role in the ultra-patriotic biopic for a reason. You see, he was desperate to change his standing in Hollywood. By the time of the film’s release, he’d gained a reputation in Tinseltown as a left-wing radical, having butted heads with studios while simultaneously supporting then-Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Almost a decade prior, labor unions had arrived in Hollywood, and Cagney had quickly become instrumental in their success.

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The economic impact of the Great Depression was not lost on Hollywood, as theater attendances plummeted by a third. Ticket prices dropped in turn, and profits soon turned to losses. As a result, studios attempted to force actors under contract to take heavy pay cuts – some as much as 50 percent. The movie stars responded by forming the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), operating in secret to minimize the risk to their careers.

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The actors initially involved in the guild’s formation were not household names, however. Consequently, media outlets including The Hollywood Reporter attempted to downplay the strength of the movement. For example, that magazine’s July 12, 1933 front page claimed that “no interest could be generated among top-notch stars and featured players.” While such a claim may have been true at first, the tide would soon turn.

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Over the months that followed, major stars began signing up to the SAG – among them Spencer Tracy, Groucho Marx, and James Cagney. Each and every one boosted the guild in its fight for union recognition, as it attempted to take Hollywood’s execs to task. The biggest issues on the table were limited pay – particularly the cut prompted by the Depression – and harrowing schedules.

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Cagney joined as the SAG’s 50th member in October 1933, and immediately took a seat on the board of directors. Even at that point, he was no stranger to disputes with movie studios, having walked out on Warner Bros. on multiple occasions over contract issues. Following the success of The Public Enemy, for instance, Cagney had demanded a pay rise. When Warner refused, he simply headed back to New York.

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Cagney’s brother (and de facto agent) stepped in, securing the star a substantial salary raise to $1,000 per week. It was then that he filmed Taxi! – and again buoyed by its success, attempted to negotiate even better terms in his contract. When Warner Bros. again refused, Cagney followed suit by once again walking out. The actor wanted $4,000 per week, bringing him in line with the likes of Kay Francis and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

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Eventually, Cagney agreed to a salary of $3,000 per week, on the condition that he starred in a maximum of four movies per year. This stipulation resulted from Cagney witnessing fellow actors working horrific hours to churn out films, and was one of his primary motivations behind joining the SAG. However, Warner Bros. breached this aspect of his contract in 1934 when he made five films, causing Cagney to launch legal proceedings.

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Cagney’s tussles with Warner Bros. eventually earned him the nickname “The Professional Againster,” as he was dubbed by one of the studio’s four founders, Jack Warner. While his suit was settled, Cagney spent time on his farm, and produced two movies for an independent studio. When the courts ruled in his favor in 1935, he became one of the first actors to successfully sue a studio. Warner Bros. still wanted him back, though; now, however, he could command even better terms.

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Almost a decade after he’d joined the board – and months after the release of Yankee Doodle Dandy – Cagney was elected president of the SAG. Membership in 1942 was down on the previous year by roughly 1,500, primarily owing to members fighting overseas. In fact, World War Two would ultimately shape Cagney’s early presidency.

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The most pressing issue was the government’s imposition of a salary ceiling on actors of $25,000 per year. The measure was part of an initiative to prevent inflation and stabilize wages, but it had the side-effect of limiting the bargaining power of non-contracted actors. At the same time, background actors – or “extras” – were becoming increasingly vocal about their own representation.

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You see, despite being members of the SAG, extras weren’t actually given a say on guild business. As a result, some of these background players broke away, and formed their own group: the Screen Players Union (SPU). A bitter struggle followed this schism, as the SPU fought for autonomy. The issue wouldn’t be solved during Cagney’s reign, which lasted just two years.

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Cagney was succeeded in the SAG presidency by George Murphy, an actor contracted to RKO Pictures, in 1944. During his tenure, Murphy oversaw the founding of the Screen Extras Guild, which resolved what Cagney had called “one of the guild’s most serious internal problems” at his farewell address. In the years that followed, Cagney served two more three-year stints on the SAG’s board.

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And yet, perhaps the most interesting – or at least the most ironic – detail of Cagney’s time with the SAG came years before his presidency. That’s because the movie star who had forged his career playing gangsters somehow managed to get mixed up with the real-life mob. For a brief spell, then, he ended up finding himself in serious mortal danger.

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To understand the full context of the mafia’s role in early 20th-century Hollywood, you first need to know how Los Angeles came to be the movie capital of the world. You see, the west-coast city was chosen primarily as a response to Thomas Edison’s Motion Picture Patent Company (MPPC). The inventor held more than 1,000 patents during his lifetime, many of which involved the technology needed to make movies.

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Edison and his cronies at the MPPC controlled raw film stock, projectors, cameras, and even licensing agreements with distributors and theaters. Simply put, the inventor had a stranglehold on the movie industry. And according to author Steven Bach, the MPPC even hired the mob’s goons to ensure its patents were enforced.

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Rather than stand for Edison’s militant control over their business, independent filmmakers instead fled to California to start anew. The place had its own benefits, of course: good weather, diverse scenery, and cheap land and labor were all important motivations. But more importantly, judges in California were seemingly less inclined to enforce Edison’s patents. And the sheer distance from New Jersey, where the MPPC was based, made it difficult for any thugs to come knocking.

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Once Hollywood was firmly established as the new home of cinema, then, its moguls became resolute in keeping the mob from its doors. A combination of internal security and overt friendliness with the L.A.P.D. did the job. By comparison with other U.S. cities at the time, Los Angeles was abnormally free of gangs and gangsters.

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Almost all the mob’s attempts to prosper in Hollywood were promptly shut down by the L.A.P.D.’s “Hat Squad,” a fearsome foursome of strong-armed detectives. But a small number of criminal enterprises did find success, including the racket run by George Browne and Willie Morris Bioff. Together, they controlled the International Alliance of Theatrical State Employees (IATSE) – and in doing so, practically ran Hollywood.

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The pair had plenty of schemes in place, including extorting cash from distributors under the guise of a commission on film stock. They also took bribes in exchange for holding down IATSE members’ wages, while simultaneously charging those same members ever-increasing fees. And when the IATSE began swallowing up other unions, any members who complained were beaten up or fired.

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Eventually, though, the industry decided to take a stand against mob rule. As the 1930s rolled on, the press, public and Hollywood all hardened against gangsters. The romanticizing fueled by Cagney’s roles in the early part of the decade was replaced by vilification. And by 1935, Cagney found himself playing an FBI agent in G Men. But the actor also found himself running up against the real-life mob, as he became one of the first SAG members to publicly stand against the mafia.

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Cagney consequently found himself in the mob’s firing line. IIndeed, the organization apparently intended the actor to meet a violent end to present a cautionary example to others. His wife Willie began receiving phone calls suggesting he’d suffered some grave misfortune; in one instance, she was informed he’d died in a car accident. Each and every time, she would call the studio and discover that it was a lie.

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Apparently, this psychological torture was intended to ramp up to the day when Cagney actually met his fate at the hands of the mob. Willie would then one day phone the studio and find that the anonymous caller was telling the truth. In his autobiography, Cagney revealed that the plan was to drop a 200-pound light on his head. However, his co-star George Raft intervened and called the hit off.

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Raft tells the story a little differently. According to author Tim Adler, the Some Like It Hot actor saw Bioff acting conspicuously on set – but he didn’t call the hit off himself. Nevertheless, in this version of events, Raft was still responsible for saving Cagney’s life, even if only indirectly.

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You see, Bioff reportedly said that he had spared Cagney for fear the hit would hurt Raft’s career. According to Adler’s 2011 book Hollywood and the Mob, Bioff told Raft in New York, “The studio wasn’t going to pay off and we were going to take care of Cagney. We were all set to drop a lamp on him. But I got word to lay off because you were in the picture.” Cagney would later describe Raft as “the only genuinely tough man he had ever met in show business,” according to Adler.

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Bioff’s reign of terror would eventually unravel when he tried to take on the SAG in 1939. His attempts to intimidate its members and officials with threats of violence proved in vain, with the guild’s leadership standing strong. Finally, Cagney – along with then-SAG president Robert Montgomery and others – called for an investigation into the leadership of the IATSE.

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Montgomery partnered with Arthur Ungar, then the editor of the Daily Variety newspaper, to expose Bioff’s crimes. Backed by William Randolph Hearst’s media empire, the pair turned up a $100,000 check Fox CEO Joseph M. Schenck had written to Bioff to launder his ill-gotten gains. In the end, both Bioff and his cohort Browne were convicted on charges of extortion and racketeering.

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Cagney ultimately survived his run-in with the mob, and lived to see his 86th year. Yet the entire experience could easily have gone very differently for the outspoken actor. Nonetheless, it’s incredible to think that a man so renowned for playing gangsters in movies could have found himself targeted by the real-life characters from whom his iconic roles took inspiration.

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