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. 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.
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.”
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.