A SUMMER AFTERNOON WITH JIMMY CAGNEY – Garry Armstrong

This story goes back to the early ’70s. My mind gets a little bit hazy. I always thought I’d remember everything, but it turns out, you forget. It’s not dementia or Alzheimer’s.

Other stuff happens and the older stuff gets pushed back into the hard drive. We are older computers, you know? We need a faster operating system, bigger drives. Maybe solid state and definitely a much better graphics board, or anyway, that’s what my wife tells me.

I knew he had a house on the Vineyard, but I was a bit shy about personal — non-work meetings — with celebrities, especially Hollywood people. I was ( still am) a serious fanboy. I loved old movies and admire the stars. I grew up with them. I wanted to be them. I settled for reporting, but it wasn’t, as it turned out, such a big step after all.

About James Cagney

I’d just come into Oak Bluffs aboard the Island Queen ferry.Β  It was the first or second year of nearly twenty summers I’d spend on the Vineyard, sharing a home with a small group of other Boston TV friends and colleagues.

Our first summer home was in Edgartown, off Tilton Street. We laughingly called it “The Tilton Hilton.”

I’d been on Channel 7 for maybe 2 or 3 years at that time. My face was just becoming familiar. I was also starting to get used to being recognized in public. This was a long way for a shy kid from Long Island to come in a short period of time. I was growing into myself.

The Island Queen

I had just turned thirty, the end of “kidhood” and the start of being a man.

As I was getting off the ferry, I noticed a familiar-looking elderly gentleman. I couldn’t quite place his name. As I started towards a cab, the gentleman stopped me and said something like, “Hello, young fella. I hope you don’t mind me you interrupting you. I’ve watched you on television and just wanted to say I enjoy your work”.

I looked more closely and the face was suddenly and immediately familiar.

He said, “I used to be James Cagney. Now I’m just another old guy.”

We both laughed. We shared a bit of small talk about the weather, the ‘touristas’ coming to the Vineyard for the weekend, then more about the weather. People in New England spend an inordinate amount of time discussing the weather. It’s a thing.

There was an awkward silence and James Cagney said, “Would you like to have a beverage and some doughnuts. My place is just down the street a bit.”

I stammered “Ye-Yes, thank you.”

We laughed again and walked away to Cagney’s “cottage” which was a respectable residence covered with the light green or gray Vineyard paint color required for all cottages. Really, it was a small farm, but that would have been bragging. He didn’t brag.

Inside, it was a bit sparse. Neat. Just a few paintings and pictures, all depicting Vineyard and Cape locales. No Hollywood stuff. Cagney saw me staring and smiled, “Yeah, I dabble a bit but I’m really just a hack”.

In the kitchen, over tea and cookies, we had a long, rambling conversation with me talking about my then relatively brief career and James Cagney talking about his (long) career. He called them “jobs” or “shows.” That’s how I learned how most working actors and techs described movies.

I wanted to ask so many questions, but he persisted in talking about the “working part” of filming his pictures. He was “wet behind the ears” when he did “Public Enemy,” the film that shot him to stardom.

Originally he had been a supporting player. The director liked his feisty brashness more than the star’s blandness, so the roles got switched and show biz history was made.

We went on for two or three hours, swapping stories about “suits” we despised.

Our bosses. His studio bosses: the Warner Brothers and my news directors and general managers. I told Cagney about the suit I worked for at Channel 18 in Hartford before I came to Boston. My news director used to sit in the dark, mumbling to no one, like a punch drunk fighter.

Cagney cracked that familiar laughter and told me about working with directors he liked and didn’t like. He said he always focused on getting the job done, using the basics.

Show up on time, meet your mark. Know your lines. It sounded like what Spencer Tracy always said. Cagney nodded in agreement. Just before parting, I told him about my love of westerns.

He grinned, saying, “No way, I’m gonna tell ya about the ‘Oklahoma Kid.’ Bogie and I detested that show. We felt like idiots, kids playing grownups … but I enjoyed riding. I love horses. I have a farm hereabouts.

“The invite is open if you wanna come riding.”

I wasn’t much of a rider at that point. I did learn later, but I had little experience then. I should’ve accepted James Cagney’s invitation anyway. I really wish I had.

And, that’s a wrap. One of those wonderful afternoons. Just talking. Not business. No cameras. A summer afternoon on Martha’s Vineyard. Two guys, cookies, and tea.

Author: Garry Armstrong

As a reporter for Channel 7 in Boston for 31 years, I was witness to most of the major events affecting the region. I met a lot of people ... politicians, actors, moguls, criminals and many regular folks caught up in extraordinary situations. Sometimes, I write about the people I've met and places I've been. Sometimes, I write about life, my family, my dogs and me. Or what might otherwise be called Life.

42 thoughts on “A SUMMER AFTERNOON WITH JIMMY CAGNEY – Garry Armstrong”

    1. Yes, Steph. Cagney was such an affable fella. Curious because I just finished a Hal Wallis bio. Wallis was a very prominent producer in old Hollywood. Worked at Warner Brothers and then Paramount. Wallis described James Cagney as “cold and aloof”. Not the same kindly old gent I met. Makes you think twice about these Hollywood books and stories.

      Funny bit: Cagney looked at me and then we stood back to back — we were the same height. Cagney laughed. I smiled broadly. So much for the insults about short guys. Hey, I’m even shorter now.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. And what a lovely, beautiful tale this is (although I have mostly no idea who all those people are….). Itβ€˜s just that these Real Life Stories ring so authentic and true.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kiki, James Cagney was one of the biggest stars in old Hollywood. Cagney was one of the first stars honored by the American Film Institute for his amazing body of work. He and Edward G. Robinson were the models for all the movie gangsters that would follow over the decades. Cagney was a prominent figure for impressionists. Frank Gorshin used to do a great Cagney. But – again – Cagney insisted he never said that oft-attributed line, “You dirty rat!”. You can print the legend on that one.

      The first words I taught my Godson, Owen, were “You dirty rat!”. He was such a cute tot. Whenever he saw me, he would gurgle, smile and say, “You dirty rat!” I’m not sure his parents were pleased.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Kiki, James Cagney was okay with the “Dirty Rat” line. Many stars have been misquoted over the years. Bogie never quite said, “Play it again, Sam”. Unless it was/is something very inappropriate, the stars accept it as part of their celebrity.
          It’s the “print the legend” syndrome.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. Becky, I could never initiate conversation with these legends. No way. My television work was usually my entree to conversation. Most of the stars bonded with me talking about the working hours, egomaniacal “suits” and the difficulty in getting projects done the right way. Cagney was truly proud of “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. It was his personal favorite film. He was happy with his work in that film and described the long hours and physical grind in his famous dance scenes.
      Cagney was George M. Cohan’s first choice to play the old time stage star. James Cagney showed me a couple of his classic dance moves. He stared at me. No way I was gonna try to imitate him.
      This was before Blockbuster and the advent of video tapes now discs that allow us to repeatedly watch our favorite films. Marilyn and I frequently watch :”Yankee Doodle Dandy”. We replay his dance down the white house steps scene 3 or 4 times. It’s incredible and infectious. I wish I had discussed this with James Cagney.
      Cagney did tell me he enjoyed retirement and didn’t miss the grind of shooting movies. He wasn’t fond of the early and very long hours. I was very sympatico with him on that subject. When I told him I usually did my “standups” in one or two takes, his eyebrows shot up. He was impressed. In movies, you can get it right on the first take but directors often want to do myriad takes to satisfy THEIR egos. Michael Curtiz was a prolific director at Warner Brothers. He helmed most of Errol Flynn’s movies and used to drive Flynn bonkers with multi takes. Cagney said Curtiz used to make him want to use “the old Irish” but he usually maintained his demeanor. Cagney said his most difficult movie “job” was “One, Two, Three”. That’s the film where he has to rattle off dialogue in machine gun fashion in one scene as he’s ordering wardrobe for Horst Buccholz. Cagney said the difficulty of that scene made him realize he was near the end of the road. If you haven’t seen “One, Two, Three”– watch it and you’ll be amazed by Cagney.
      Becky, this was truly a memorable and enjoyable afternoon.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful memory, and sharply written. You haven’ forgotten much! It’s a heartwarming experience when we realize that actors are people doing their jobs, living their lives just like us. It reminds me of a story of my Aunt Betty, whose father (my grandfather) was a stage actor. He was appearing in a show where he was playing a scary heavy. She was about twelve years old when he took her with him to see the play, and they traveled to the theatre by bus. After, on the way home, she looked at him reading the newspaper, and thought, “That’s the monster that scared me, but that’s my FATHER!” Yes, it was just a job.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wonderful anecdote about how we often think movie roles reflect the actor’s real life personality. I must admit I felt that way as a youngster. Later, as I began to meet the legends, I was able to seperate reel from real.
      The most jolting is when you discover your favorite comic actors are anything but funny in real life.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, some comics are hiding a lot of pain. The only one I knew who still played practical jokes and was funny was Red Skelton until his son died. Jimmy Durante could be funny off screen, too, but he was always surrounded by his entourage. One time he came by himself with my father to see me and my baby. I remember he took her on his lap and she just yelled, which startled all of us. But when we went out to dinner with him and if there was a piano near, he would sit down and just start singing. One night, he was playing “Nothin’ Could Be Finer Than To Be In Carolina,” when a voice from the next room entered singing it. It was Bill Frawley. Naturally, they had to go singing old tunes. The patrons of the restaurant, a lot of them show business people, were treated to a free floor show. I loved those spontaneous moments.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. That’s a good one and of course there is the internet! According to Roger Ebert it was one take only: “Cagney later said he dreamed that up five minutes before the scene was shot: β€œI didn’t consult with the director or anything, I just did it.” “

            Liked by 1 person

                1. Rich, me too. It almost happened when I did a video..last year, I think. I was walking down steps from a church. Walking and talking and I stumbled but didn’t fall. We did a couple more takes with me sneaking looks at where I was going.
                  Not like the old days when I could walk THIS way without any problems.

                  Liked by 1 person

    1. Mom, killin’ you with good stuff, right? Have you seen “One, Two, Three”? If not, see it. You’ll be amazed by Cagney’s ratta-tat-tat non stop dialogue as he orders clothing for Horst Buccholz. Absolutely amazing.

      I just noticed TCM is running “Inherit The Wind” again right now. Spencer Tracy is the interview I always wanted but never got.

      Gary Cooper is another. Mom named me after Coop who was one of her favorite actors. There was a screw up with my birth certificate and Gary was spelled Garry. I’ve always liked it that way. A few people have asked me if Garry Armstrong is my real name or a stage name. I’ve never had a good “come back” for that question. Maybe there were expecting Roosevelt Washington Jefferson??

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That must have been a big shot of adrenalin to the ego for an up and coming TV reporter! πŸ™‚ Especially for a ‘Fanboy’ πŸ˜‰

    Sounds like a real gent, inviting someone he’d never met before to his home hide-away? Did he bring out the whiskey while you were there, or was it tea and donuts all along?

    I wonder if Mr C. had always been so hospitable or if he may have mellowed from the times in Hollywood when he could not be seen in public without being mobbed?

    Like

    1. Bob, good questions.

      – No alcohol with James Cagney. Just tea and soda (soder?) crackers. Not all my celeb encounters involved booze. Shocking, eh? Cagney may have had doughnuts. My mind isn’t clear on that.
      – I think Mr. Cagney had mellowed with his retirement. He hadn’t worked (done a movie) in over a decade when I met him. He looked very relaxed. It’s the same look you get after one or two weeks of vacation from work. A decade changes the personality. I’m in my 18th year of retirement. No more jitters about phone calls to cover calamity and heartbreak. What a wonderful world —oh, yeahhh.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Nice One, Satch!

        Nice too to know not ALL your Celeb encounters required some ‘lubrication’. πŸ˜‰

        Yeah, it sure is true you get mellow when work pressure is no longer an issue. Some folk still manage to find ways of keeping the pressure ‘on’ though… never understood that myself! πŸ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Bob, some of my former work colleagues now retired — don’t seem able to let it go. Despite complaints about our health and finances now, I really do NOT miss the stress that went with work.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Getting old(er) is not a lot of fun! But working yourself into an earlier grave and not having time to enjoy your retirement is worse in my opinion! πŸ˜‰

            Now if we could find a job where we decide when and what we work on, with little to no stresses, (that pays a decent income!) it JUST might be worth it. πŸ™‚

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