Wednesday, April 10, 2013

James Cagney Blogathon: Roles Cagney Turned Down

How James Cagney might have looked in
The Adventures of Robin Hood.
The history of cinema is filled with movies not made and actors who turned down intriguing roles. Once he achieved stardom, James Cagney got typecast in tough-guy roles--but he was always looking for characters that stretched him as a performer. Ironically, many of the parts he turned down were ones made famous by other actors.

The most famous role that Cagney rejected was the one that cemented Errol Flynn's superstar status: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). I have great difficulty imagining the 5' 6" Cagney as the charismatic bandit of Sherwood Forest. Warner Bros., though, considered him seriously after the success of its all-star A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), which featured Cagney as Bottom (and also Olivia de Havilland, destined to be cast as Maid Marion). Cagney as Robin Hood was a risk, but Warner Bros. was willing to gamble on a career-changing performance. The studio soon began developing a treatment for its Sherwood Forest tale, which would have co-starred Guy Kibbee as Friar Tuck.

However, Warner Bros. became concerned after learning rival studio MGM planned to make a Robin Hood operetta with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. That production never came to fruition, but it delayed the Warners version. Meanwhile, Cagney sued Warner Bros. in 1935 for breach of contract, a lengthy lawsuit eventually won by the actor. By the time Cagney returned to the studio in 1938, Flynn--who had scored big hits with Captain Blood and The Charge of the Light Brigade--was attached to The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Here's a quick look at other films that could have starred James Cagney:

Lady for a Day (1933). The role of Dave the Dude was originally written with Robert Montgomery in mind. When he wasn't available, Frank Capra considered James Cagney and William Powell. The part eventually went to Warren William (shown on left with May Robson as Apple Annie).

At one time, Cagney was attached to a film called The Padre about an unconventional priest. When he nixed the idea, the film became Going My Way. It earned star Bing Crosby an Academy Award for Best Actor. One year later, he was nominated again for the same role in The Bells of St. Mary's.

Stanley Holloway as Mr. Doolittle.
Cagney retired from acting after appearing in Billy Wilder's 1961 comedy One Two Three. Three years later, he was offered the part of Eliza Doolittle's father, Alfred, in My Fair Lady. When Cagney declined, the role went to Stanley Holloway, who originated it on Broadway.

At the age of 74, Cagney turned down Harry and Tonto (1974), the story of an elderly man making a cross-country trek with his cat. Art Carney took the part and won an Oscar for Best Actor. Ironically, Cagney's last role was in the 1984 made-for-TV movie Terrible Joe Moran, which co-starred Carney.

According to Robert Osborne, James Cagney turned down the role of Vito Corleone in The Godfather; other sources claim he also declined to play Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) in The Godfather Part II.

One role James Cagney wanted, but did not get was the lead in Knute Rockne--All American. In a TCM article, Robert Osborne explained: "Notre Dame's administration had a say in who'd play their famous football leader and said 'no' to Cagney because of a stance he'd taken at the time on a controversial political matter."

Click here to check out all the posts in the James Cagney Blogathon hosted by The Movie Projector.


  1. It's hard to imagine Cagney as Robin Hood, isn't it? It might have been fun to see him in a swashbuckling role - and I do like him in as a cowboy with shades of Robin Hood in 'The Oklahoma Kid' - but Errol Flynn is absolutely perfect in the role, so I'm glad things turned out as they did on that one! A fascinating posting, Rick - so many Hollywood films considered various casting choices, and it is always interesting to wonder how the other actors would have played the parts.

    I've heard of several other films where Cagney was at one time considered for the lead but didn't make the film for one reason or another - one that springs to mind was '20,000 Years in Sing Sing', where Spencer Tracy ended up playing the lead role instead, and does a great job, but it does rather feel as if the character was written for Cagney.

    It seems as if Jack Warner would have liked to replace the whole Broadway cast of 'My Fair Lady' - he also wanted Cary Grant to replace Rex Harrison! I'm very glad that both Grant and Cagney turned him down, though I would love to hear Cagney sing Stanley Holloway's songs from the film.

  2. It's always interesting to learn what roles actors turned down or got passed over for. He passed up on some that were big hits and garnered awards for others. I've never read his autobiography, but it would be interesting to know what I thought about such things. Nice piece.

  3. What a fun post, Rick! It's always interesting to discover the other roles an actor might have had. Like you, I cannot imagine Cagney as Robin Hood.

    I read in Mr. Cagney's autobiography that he was tempted with "My Fair Lady." He wasn't tempted for long, though, as he was committed to his retirement and deep down had no interest in going back. He wrote (in 1976) that that film was the "only time he had a slight tug to go back, and the tug was there only because he is a song-and-dance man, and "My Fair Lady" was one hell of a song-and-dance picture."

    For the record, though Stanley Holloway was terrific in the role, I think Cagney would have been so as well.

  4. I hope someone can correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't recall Cagney playing a detective in any movie. I always thought the tenacity he brought to his roles would have made him an ideal gumshoe. I wonder if he was ever offered any detective roles, but he turned them down? A great post, Rick.

    1. He comes close in "G men"

    2. You're right, Kevin, he could have pulled it off the same way (and for much the same reasons) that Bogart made the switch from heavy to private eye.

  5. Fascinating roles to contemplate for Cagney.

    I really wish Cagney had taken the job in "My Fair Lady", no disrespect to Mr. Holloway. I can just hear Jimmy: "I'm willing to tell you I'm waiting to tell you. I'm wanting to tell you."

    I'm glad he didn't get Knute Rockne. It was a great part for Pat O'Brien. I'm surprised he didn't get an Oscar nomination. The Academy loves it when folks put on make-up.

  6. Cagney sued Warner Bros. in 1935 for breach of contract, a lengthy lawsuit eventually won by the actor.

    He would have had this in common with Olivia de Havilland, too. Against all odds, she won a landmark lawsuit with the studio, because she, like Cagney, is a total badass (though she'd probably disapprove of my language).

    Great piece! I had no idea Cagney was up for such parts. The only one I can really see is Hyman Roth. The others? Eh, not so much his style. All for the best things worked out as they did, I suppose.

  7. What a clever post! I laughed out loud when I saw Cagney's face on Errol Flynn's body! Only if it were "Robin and the Seven Hoods" could James have pulled that one off. I agree with Kevin's post that Cagney would have done very well as a gumshoe.

    Very thought provoking, Rick. Well done!

  8. Great post! Cagney was also offered the role of playing Al Jolson in The Jolson Story but he did not want to do another film bio.

  9. Rick, I enjoyed this a lot. I have a much easier time picturing Cagney in some of these roles than in others. I can easily see him as Dave the Dude in "Lady for a Day" and find it interesting that Capra thought of him for a comedy picture. I don't see him at all as Robin Hood, though. It must have been his acrobatic style of acting that made Warners think of him for a swashbuckler.

  10. Very interesting post, Rick. Although Jimmy and Warners had a stormy relationship, they really knew what was best for their star. And can you imagine our friend, Becky's, sadness if Errol Flynn was padded over for Robin Hood??

  11. Always fascinating to ponder "what might have been" when it comes to movie casting. For me, Cagney's most intriguing near-miss was playing Doolittle's father in "My Fair Lady"...I would have loved to have seen that.
    Thanks for a clever and informative post!

  12. I'm with everyone, unable to imagine Cagney as Robin Hood. Actually, I think it would have been pretty bad, but with Cagney you never know.

    So glad he didn't get Dave the Dude, but that's my Warren William bias at work. I could more easily imagine Powell doing it, but then he and Warren played a lot of similar roles.

    The one I could best picture of this bunch, that I would have liked to have seen, is Cagney as Hyman Roth in "The Godfather." That seems like a fit!

    Great topic which (as you can see) can sprout endless conversation!

  13. I definetelly can't see Jimmy as Robin Hood, but can in the other roles. He would have been amazing as Father O'Malley, in The Fair Lady and The Godfather. It's what happens to fans of deceased actors: we always want that they had done more films!
    Don' forget to WATCH my contribution to the blogathon! :)

  14. I always love hearing about alternate actors considered by studios. From our perspective, it feels like a fait accomplit - esp the iconic roles...BUT...Cagney as Robin Hood??? What were they thinking???

  15. Cagney in green tights? I'm not so sure (tho I think Guy Kibbee as Friar Tuck is not a bad choice). And I'm glad Stanley Holloway got to keep his stage role in My Fair Lady; as interesting as Cagney might have been in the part, Holloway really owned it. A fun post on might-have-been speculation (and a great idea to do for a series of posts!).

  16. Great post. I can't imagine him in "Going My Way," but "Harry and Tonto" may have been really terrific.

  17. I think Cagney was right to turn down most of the roles you mention, but the prospect of him as either Vito Corleone in "Godfather I" or Hyman Roth in "Godfather II" is tantalizing. I've always thought he probably could've taught Lee Strasberg a thing or two, and like the idea of him in Strasberg's only significant role. Though Strasberg got an Oscar nomination for that performance, I've always thought his mannerisms were a bit obvious.

  18. Personally I think Cagney would have been poor casting for either Don Corleone or Hyman Roth. And I've never before heard that Jimmy was considered for THE GODFATHER. I do know that Edward G. Robinson was briefly considered and that even George Raft's name came up (can't see Raft as Corleone, but he might have made a neat addition to the Mafia conference scene since, in later years, Raft bore a slight resemblance to Carlo Gambino.