Born in Yonkers, New York City. He worked in vaudeville and on Broadway, marrying the dancer Frances Willard (aka: "Billie") Vernon on September 28, 1922. When Warner Brothers bought the film rights to the play Penny Arcade they took Cagney and his co-star Joan Blondell from the stage to the screen in Sinner's Holiday (1930).
Cagney went on to star in numerous films, making his name as a 'tough guy' in a series of crime films such as The Public Enemy (1931), Blonde Crazy (1931) and Hard to Handle (1933). He went on to better things including Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), a Academy Award winning role in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), White Heat (1949, "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!"), and Mister Roberts (1955).
He was one of the founders of the Screen Actors Guild and president of the Guild from 1942-44.
Cagney's final appearance on film was in Ragtime in 1981, capping a career that covered over seventy films, although his film prior to Ragtime had been in 1961 with One, Two, Three. In 1974 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Film Institute and in 1984 his friend Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
James Cagney is interred in the Gate of Heaven Cemetery, Hawthorne, New York.
The stereotypical impression of James Cagney involves wearing a trenchcoat and a hat and sneering the line "You dirty rat!". The origin of this is from the 1931 film Taxi! where Cagney delivered the line "You dirty rat, I'm going to get rid of you just like you gave it to my brother" often misquoted as "You dirty rat, you killed my brother".