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Measuring Up
With James Cagney

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When Two Young Writers Interviewed James Cagney In 1986, The Result Was A Sojourn Into The World Of Celebrity And Entertainment That Could Be The Script For A Hollywood Movie

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By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

Feb. 8, 2016 — He was 5 foot nothing, but he was larger than life. And he was no “tough guy.”

James Cagney who died on Easter Sunday in 1986 at the age of 86 at his beloved farm in Stanford, New York, was the antithesis of tough. He was a doting husband and father with a penchant for poetry and a soft-spot for song-and-dance men, “hoofers,” he called them. Cagney, more than almost anyone we ever met, was a gentleman of the old school where one’s word was his bond and personal integrity was everything.

It was 1979, on St. Patrick’s Day, when we visited Cagney at his rustic house just off Coldwater Canyon Dr. in Beverly Hills. Cagney had granted just a handful of interviews since filming his last movie, One, Two, Three in 1961. Shortly after our visit, however, he was deluged by reporters with requests for interviews to coincide with his “unretirement” film, Ragtime.

We entered Cagney’s very private life as a couple of college journalists. At the time, we were freelance writers who hustled our stories to any newspaper or magazine that would print and pay for them. In addition, we wrote a regular celebrity interview column for the University of Minnesota’s student newspaper, The Minnesota Daily. Our specialty (as you’ve ascertained if you’ve read any of our “Modern Times Magazine.Com” blogs) was old Hollywood. The previous summer we had cadged a couple of sit-downs with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.

“If Freddie saw you, so will I,” Cagney wrote us in late 1978. We could almost hear his frenetic cackle leap from the letter. He informed us that he would be spending the winter months in his Southern California home and that’s where we could reach him. He preferred to stay year-round at his upstate New York farm, but his wife of more than 60 years, Billie, liked the warmer weather, he explained. That’s all we needed to hear; we planned a spring break trip to Los Angeles.

Immediately upon arrival at our hotel on the outskirts of Beverly Hills, we phoned Cagney’s unlisted number which he had provided to us in the letter. A woman answered.

“Hello, we were told to call Mr. Cagney to arrange a short visit,” Dave told her.

“Who told you and how did you get this number?” she asked, bristling.

“Mr. Cagney,” Dave said.

“Well, he can’t see you.” With that, she hung up.

We had not journeyed 2,000 miles to get the heave-ho from some anonymous voice on the end of a telephone line. We called again. This time, Dave was more assertive.

“Listen,” Dave said. “We’re students from the University of Minnesota and we flew from Minneapolis to see Mr. Cagney at his invitation.”

“Hold on a moment,” the woman tersely replied. The few seconds she was away from the phone seemed like an hour and a half.

“OK, be here in a half-hour. No cameras and no tape recorders,” she commanded. It was like we were trapped in some old 1950s noirish melodrama directed by Sam Fuller and stocked with his hardboiled dialogue.

“We’ll be there,” Dave said trying as much as he could to channel Richard Widmark in Pickup on South Street, and hung up the phone. We quickly hailed a taxi for Coldwater Canyon – a boulevard that bisects the Santa Monica Mountains and links West Los Angeles with the sprawling San Fernando Valley to the north.

When we arrived at Cagney’s house perched on a sloping shoulder of the canyon, a woman who appeared to be in her mid-50s answered the door. She introduced herself as Marge Zimmerman, Mr. Cagney’s assistant. We could tell by the brusque voice that she was the telephone mystery woman. We didn’t know it at the time but Zimmerman was soon to be embroiled in controversy chronicled in a feature story in Life magazine. According to many of Cagney’s old show business friends, Zimmerman had taken complete control of all aspects of his life – professional and personal – in much the same way that Groucho Marx’s “helper,” Erin Fleming had done with that comedian’s life a decade earlier. Some of Cagney’s friends had claimed that Zimmerman was motivated purely by the profit she could make leeching off Cagney.

But Zimmerman (as Fleming had been) was not without her defenders. Many testified that she helped keep the ailing Cagney stay vital by pushing him back into film and television roles. To this day, her motives and the exact role she played in the actor’s life are unclear.

In fairness to her, Zimmerman was friendly and cooperative to us in person. She ushered us into the den where Cagney was waiting. “Cag, I’d like you to meet two young men from Minnesota,” she announced.

“Minnesota,” Cagney said with astonishment. “What brings you here?”

“We came to meet you,” Tom said. Seated on a rocking chair, dressed in a terrycloth bathrobe and with a severe case of morning bed head (his red hair had turned white and stood almost straight up as if at attention), Cagney replied: “Hell, you must be a six-footer!” What immediately struck us was the classic, instantly recognizable (and often parroted) Cagney voice. Age had not diminished that high-pitched, Irish-by-way-of-Yorkville, New York City pitch and the machine-gun cadence that came with it.

We scanned the room. Like the rest of the house, it used a lumberyard’s worth of wood paneling and was decorated in what might best be described as Western Americana. We saw a Frederic Remington sculpture as well as a large oil painting of Cagney in his role as Admiral William “Bull” Halsey from the 1960 film, The Gallant Hours. It was painted, Cagney told us, by his good friend and instructor, Sergei Bongart.

To us, Cagney looked every bit his 80 years. He suffered from diabetes, intermittent strokes and a heart condition. Shortly after our visit, he entered a hospital for treatment of sciatica, a painful lower back disorder. But like the characters he portrayed on the screen, he still seemed larger than life.

“What can I do for you boys,” he asked.

“We’d like to talk to you a little about the musical films you made.” His face lit up with a broad grin.

He told us that as a self-taught dancer, when he was young, he would “acquire” steps from stage performers as he sat in the audience watching vaudeville acts, and then immediately swap them with other aspiring hoofers on the streets of Manhattan.

There was nothing remotely deviant in this and it was considered an accepted, widespread practice, Cagney told us, provided one used the proper discretion and didn’t cop an entire routine outright.

Tom mentioned that he had read an anecdote about how the great black tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson once gave a recital for a group of dance experts who all stared intently at his feet during the performance. “They should have been lookin’ at my face, ‘cause that’s where I was sellin,’” Bojangles said.

“Right, right!” Cagney laughed. “He knew!”

Cagney said that in the early days, choreographers charged large amounts to tailor a routine for a dancer, and it was just common sense for those less flush to pay a 15-cent admission to the local vaudeville house and get it secondhand at a more affordable price.

It was during those early years – in the 1920s – that Cagney formulated his distinctively stiff but rhythmic style of dancing and his raspy enunciation of song lyrics. The combination was potent enough to win him an Oscar as Best Actor for his portrayal of George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, which he told us was his favorite screen role bar none.

Besides the flag-waving patriotism of the film (Cohan wrote “Over There” which became a galvanic rallying cry for soldiers going off to World War I) and coming as it did in the dark, early days of World War II, the movie was a revelation to many moviegoers showing a side of Cagney that didn’t include smashing grapefruits into molls’ faces or peppering coppers with a tommy-gun.

Seeing Cagney on the hoof was always an odd treat. His stocky torso was like a cinder block with arms and legs that flailed centrifugally about as when he ran up the proscenium wall or buck-and-winged his way down the White House staircase in Yankee Doodle Dandy. At times, watching Cagney dance, was like viewing the top half of a swathed mummy whose bottom half was hyper-animated, almost like a cartoon.

Cagney cited veteran hoofers Johnny Boyle and Harland Dixon as brilliant all-around dancers who had great influence on his personal style, but he acknowledged “Freddie” Astaire to be “the master of us all.”

He said that he and Astaire had talked of making a musical together in the early 1950s, but due to previous commitments (Astaire was contracted to MGM at the time); their schedules never coincided long enough to make it a reality.

In 1961 Cagney retired as a movie actor and, when we met him, still felt no great urge to perform in front of the cameras. He did intimate to us that the only film offer he felt a tinge of regret in turning down was the role of Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s ne’er-do-well father in My Fair Lady, a character whose tremendous joie de vivre had impressed Cagney when he saw the original Broadway production.

Besides musicals, Cagney’s other interest was raising Morgan horses on his farm. He told us that Morgans are utilitarian and good for both hard work and riding. Tom mentioned that his Irish great-grandparents raised horses on their farm in Greene County, Iowa.

“Well I’ll be damned, my wife’s from Iowa,” Cagney said. His marital status was rare in Hollywood: he and his wife “Bill,” as Cagney called her had been married for 58 years.

We had noticed Cagney’s wife when we first came into the room. She was a tiny, unprepossessing woman wearing dark glasses who seemed to disappear into the chair in which she was sitting. Tom began to talk to “Bill” about Iowa and that the family farm grew mostly soybeans and corn but had once had quite a few hogs – “And not just the hired hands who crowded the kitchen table during lunch breaks,” he said.

Cagney loved it! Not the conversation about his career, but the “farm talk” (which had moved on to an impassioned discussion about corn futures) between his beloved wife and a Midwestern teenager. It was evident that during Cagney’s many years of stardom, it had been expected during public appearances and press junkets that “Bill” dutifully melt into the background. He was obviously delighted that a bit of that spotlight was now trained on her.

“Farmers are the backbone of this country,” he said joining in. “We drive across America each fall from New York to Los Angeles because I love to see this country and you can’t see it from 28,000 feet in an airplane.”

“My grandmother always said that farmers are the biggest gamblers on earth dealing as they do with Mother Nature and what can happen at any time,” Tom said.

“Vegas high-rollers are nothing compared to them,” Cagney intoned. “Say, would you fellas like to have dinner with Bill and I tomorrow night?”

“Is that a rhetorical question?” we asked, caught flat-footed. Of course we accepted.

Because we had traveled to Cagney’s house by taxi, we planned to make the two-mile walk down the canyon to Sunset Blvd., but Zimmerman wouldn’t hear of it. Instead, she insisted on driving us back to our hotel in Cagney’s 1961 Bentley. And here’s a shameful confession, we got purposely lost so that Zimmerman could drive us around for a few extra blocks as we waved to pedestrians from the back seat acting all the while like half-assed Beverly Hills grandees.

Zimmerman told us to come to the Gingerman Restaurant the next night. Cagney, she said, loved to go there when the Beverly Hills Unlisted Jazz Band played, featuring actors George Segal (The Owl and the Pussycat with Barbara Streisand) and Conrad Janis (Mork and Mindy). We learned it was a weekly tradition for the Cagneys to dine there on those nights when they were in town.

Next night, when we arrived at the Gingerman, we found a line that extended around the block. After name-dropping to the hostess why we were there, we were promptly seated. A few minutes later, Zimmerman arrived.

“Order anything you want,” she said, “and enjoy the tunes.”

After dinner, Zimmerman returned. It was time to meet the Cagney party. Sitting next to Cagney and his wife was the owner of the Gingerman, “Archie Bunker” himself – Carroll O’Connor, who sized us up silently with a penetrating glance with would have stiffened even “Meathead.” Cagney, wearing a Russian sailor’s cap and blue blazer was having a grand time as he tapped his foot in time to the Dixieland stylings of the band. (What wasn’t grand was the procession of tipsy well-wishers that crowded the table, including a soused character dressed in full-on yachting regalia who was a dead ringer for “Thurston Howell III” of Gilligan’s Island.)

Due to Zimmerman’s urging, public excursions had become commonplace for Cagney during the last couple of years. After we exchanged pleasantries, Cagney wordlessly reached over and gave us a couple of signed postcards made from one of his own paintings, a still life of a vase of flowers, doubtless painted under the close tutelage of his instructor, Bongart. It was a touching gesture from a man famed – at least in the movies – for being a hard case; a tough guy.

We returned to our table to listen to the jazz feeling 10 ft. tall.

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at david.fantle@gmail.com or tjohnsonca@aol.com
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