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Cagney: tough on screen, gentle off

In the 1942 movie ``Yankee Doodle Dandy'' someone referred to George M. Cohan -- played by the late James Cagney in his best-known role -- as ``the whole country squeezed into one pair of pants.'' In some ways, this is what Cagney himself represented. His contribution to pop culture went far beyond his tough-guy screen image. Through his dancelike body language and stylized swagger, he reflected a certain vital spirit lodged in the American character. Audiences who see this fighting-cock dynamism on screen sense that it transcends the gangster of the moment, and that recognition accounts for much of Cagney's enduring appeal.

This vitality -- felt in his honesty, friendliness, and joyful pursuit of life -- was part of his highly respectable real-life personality. But even more evident was a quiet, soft-spoken, highly ungangster-like gentleness. Through members of my family who knew him well over many decades, I learned how much things like his lifelong marriage to his wife, ``Bill,'' meant to him. Family, friends, nature, painting, and writing poetry -- these were among the interests of the real Cagney.

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I spent a couple of evenings with ``Jimmy'' and his friends over the years and discovered a warm and generous personality. He loved to talk of horses, had once actually applied to an agricultural school, and, before his passing Sunday had spent years on his farm in New York State.

The screen Cagney, of course, was something else -- brilliantly symbolized in the famous ``berserk'' scene in the 1949 film ``White Heat.'' In a prison dining hall he gets a message that sets him off on a virtuoso exhibition of despair and rage that masterfully penetrates a tortured personality, regressing finally to infantile babbling.

While Cagney is justly renowned for scenes like these -- beyond the grasp of any but the finest actors -- most of his roles were not gangsters, and there's a moment from one of these other films that more closely reflects something of the real Cagney.

It's in the 1960 film ``The Gallant Hours'' -- one of the last he made. As Admiral William F. (``Bull'') Halsey Jr., Cagney gives a wartime pep talk to his some of the staff. Later, on deck, he's privately asked how he can do everything he has promised. ``I don't know,'' answers Halsey in a slow, reflective reading, whose enormously evocative thoughtfulness comes much closer to Cagney the man than most of his roles allow.

In person, the actor who mashed the legendary grapefruit in Mae Clark's face in ``The Public Enemy'' (1931) was, in fact, sensitive to the needs of people and ready to help a friend. When my young sister happened to be on the West Coast on New Year's Eve some years ago, she was welcomed to the Cagney party -- which despite some famous names in attendance was a low-key, family-like affair -- with a hearty hug from Jimmy, followed by the kind of solicitude not always seen in stars of his stature.

Physically, that stature was short, and, along with early type-casting, it tended to deny Cagney the breadth of roles that his huge talent would otherwise have allowed. Yet critics generally recognized him as one of the great actors of our generation, and when he ranged beyond the underworld, his work was often a revelation.

And there is also, of course, Cagney the dancer. He was a dancer in his early days, and he and his wife even ran a dance school once in New Jersey.

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Physically, it was a natural transition from dancing to the ``choreographed'' style he made so memorable on screen in nondancing roles. The hiking-up of his pants, the flip of his hands, the head nods -- gestures picked up, in part, from New York's mean streets, where he grew up -- these were a whole visual subtext, sending messages to a movie audience along with the words. And dance was at the heart of them.

During a private showing of ``Yankee Doodle Dandy'' some time ago, his late sister, Jeanne -- herself an actress -- told me what a treat it was to see ``Jimmy kicking up his heels again,'' as she put it.

All his life, in effect, with discipline and dedication, he kicked up his heels -- to the permanent delight of audiences around the world.

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