James Cagney was a force of nature. Quiet and introspective off camera, once the camera rolled he exploded like an untethered pit bull. He spoke in a rat-a-tat machine gun cadence with deadpan comic timing and ruthless wit. Orson Welles called him "the greatest actor to ever appear in front of a camera."
He was born in 1899 on New York's lower east side. His father was an Irish bartender, his mother a Norwegian ship captain's daughter. Raised in poverty, he helped the family survive by earning money in bare-fisted boxing matches.
Cagney's breakout movie performance came in 1931 when he played vicious killer Tom Powers in Public Enemy. The film featured the famous grapefruit scene where Cagney smashes a grapefruit into co-star Mae Clark's face. The scene was actually a practical joke Cagney and Clarke played on the crew. Director William Wellman loved the scene so much he left it in the film. (Cagney claimed he was offered free grapefruits in restaurants for the next 20 years.)
In those days, film gunplay involved live ammunition. Producers hired skilled marksmen to shoot low velocity bullets through windows and into walls. In the 1932 film Taxi, Cagney was nearly shot. He refused to work with live bullets again.
Cagney once told Frank Sinatra the secret to creating likable gangsters. "Be as tough as you want but sprinkle the goodies for laughs. Cause anything they laugh at they can't hate."
Cagney was one of the founding members of the Screen Actors Guild. In 1935, he sued Warner Brothers for breach of contract becoming the first actor to win a lawsuit against a Hollywood studio. Jack Warner promptly dubbed him "The Professional Againster."
In 1938, Cagney starred with Pat O'Brien in Angels With Dirty Faces. Cagney played a gangster, O'Brien a priest. The film had a gritty realism with supporting roles played by Humphrey Bogart and the Dead End Kids. The final scene where Cagney is dragged screaming to the electric chair is an iconic moment in film history.
Cagney gained a reputation as a leftwing radical due to his support of Franklin Roosevelt and his ongoing battles with the studios. Yearning to change his image, he pursued the role of song and dance man George M. Cohan in the ultra-patriotic Yankee Doodle Dandy. The part won him a Best Actor Academy Award.
From 1942-44, Cagney served as president of the Screen Actors Guild. He was determined to prevent the mafia from infiltrating Hollywood unions. According to Cagney's autobiography, the mob planned to murder him by dropping a 200-pound klieg light on his head. The plan was stopped at the insistence of actor George Raft who used his mob connections to cancel the hit.
In 1949, Cagney appeared in White Heat, arguably the greatest gangster movie ever made. His character, the psychotic killer Cody Jarrett, suffers from an unresolved Oedipal Complex making him prone to headaches and violent outbursts. The prison scene where Cagney goes berserk and fights an army of guards shows him at the peak of his powers. The film ends with Cagney atop a gas storage tank yelling one of his most famous lines, "Made it ma! Top of the world." A moment later the tank explodes in an apocalyptic mushroom cloud.
Cagney never actually uttered his other famous film line, "You dirty rat!" The closest he came was the film Taxi when he says, "Come out and take it you yellow-bellied rat."
Several Hollywood stars including Marlon Brando and Clint Eastwood have claimed Cagney as their inspiration to become an actor. Cagney's eccentricities were copied by Jack Nicholson in The Shining, by Malcolm McDowell in Clockwork Orange and by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. Clint Eastwood said the scene in Dirty Harry where he eats a hot dog during a shootout is a direct copy of Cagney eating a chicken leg and shooting a guy in the trunk of a car from White Heat.
Cagney retired from acting in 1961 after appearing in Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three. He turned down the role of Hyman Roth in The Godfather, Part II. In 1981, he played a small part in Ragtime despite ongoing battles with diabetes and sciatica.
Cagney spent his final years on a farm in Dutchess County, New York. He raised horses, sailed boats and wrote poetry. His political views became more conservative and he helped his friend Ronald Reagan run for president. He remained married to his wife Frances for 64 years until his death by heart attack in 1986. Ronald Reagan delivered the eulogy at his funeral. (5" x 7", black ink print)
Thursday, February 16, 2012
Lee Montgomery began his acting career at age 10 in the Disney film "The Million Dollar Duck." He went on to appear in more than 50 films and tv shows, acting with such legends as Bette Davis, Walter Matthau, Peter Fonda, George C. Scott & Peter Falk. Lee and I met in 1983 while working on the zombie movie "Night Shadows." We quickly became great friends and spent the next decade tooling around Los Angeles making experimental videos. One of our sojourns brought us to LA International Airport after hours (this was pre-911). Feeling courageous (and a bit stupid) we climbed up the baggage carousel and ventured onto the runway with our camera gear. With no security present to stop us, we made it to where planes were taxying for takeoff. We videotaped the entire experience up to and including the moment where we were both arrested for trespassing. "60 Minutes" had just aired a piece on shoddy airport security and authorities wanted to make an example of us. Fortunately, our video included a baggage handler telling us on camera to "be careful up there" as we climbed up the luggage carousel. Our lawyer argued this was "implicit permission" for us to explore the airport grounds and we were let off with "misdemeanor trespassing." Lee and I remain friends to this day. He is a true spiritual acolyte who has taught me that belief in God and healthy skepticism can co-exist. In addition to his acting chops, Lee is a talented musician and songwriter. (5" x 7", black ink print)
Monday, February 6, 2012
Though his karma is stained with the blood of innocent poultry, Colonel Harland Sanders is an American legend. He may look like a beady-eyed, mint-julep swilling racist, but his story is quite inspirational. He had a small service station in Corbin, Kentucky when he began cooking for hungry travelers who stopped for gas. At age 62, a new interstate highway snatched away his restaurant traffic. With nothing but a $105-a-month Social Security check and a secret recipe for fried chicken, Sanders sought to reinvent himself. Less than 10 years later, he had more than 600 Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises across the country. His fame grew quickly as he appeared on tv shows and his ubiquitous "finger lickin' good" commercials. He soon felt like the sweet slave-holding grandpa you never had. One of my childhood highlights was meeting my football hero Los Angeles Rams Quarterback Roman Gabriel in a KFC. He autographed the side of our family chicken bucket, the signature a mix of blue ink and sloppy grease. KFC was one of my four basic food groups through my teen years and college. Only when I stopped smoking pot did the Colonel's chicken lose its lustre. Colonel Sanders died at the age of 90 after a prolonged illness (bird flu?). By the end of his life, KFC could be found in more than 100 countries. Not bad for a man who started at retirement age. (5" x 7", black ink print)