“I never said, ‘Mmm, you dirty rat!’” James Cagney insisted during his acceptance speech for the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1974. Surprised? While you may think you know the actor from watching his 1930s gangster films, such as The Public Enemy and Angels With Dirty Faces, there was a lot more to James than his tough-guy image.

“He was funny,” biographer Richard Schickel exclusively told Closer Weekly, on newsstands now. “He was a good guy. Everyone liked him because he was a sweet man.”

James, who died in 1986 at age 86, came by his rough-and-tumble image honestly. He grew up poor in New York City, the son of a saloon owner, and he once admitted, “With me, it was fighting, more fighting and more fighting.” Still, the scrappy kid learned to tap dance and planned to major in art in college before he dropped out and found his way to the stage at age 20.

James Cagney Photos
Hollywood Photo Archive/Mediapunch/Shutterstock

“His New York upbringing contrasted with who he became as an adult,” says actor Robert Creighton, who played the title role in Broadway’s musical Cagney in 2016. “He became this artist, and when he was 53, he moved to the country, he raised horses and painted — that’s who he wanted to be in the world.”

Always a private man, James’ family, including son James Jr. and daughter Cathleen, saw his softer side in a way the public never could, but even the actor admitted he preferred roles that were more “sympathetic and kindhearted.”

Said James: “I don’t understand why the public never tired of those awful hoodlums!” They didn’t because they never tired of James. “You always get the sense that under the tough guy,” said Schickel, “there’s great charm.”

Lisa Chambers

For more on this story, pick up the latest issue of Closer magazine, on newsstands now.