Gene Hackman Once Revealed Why James Cagney Was His Movie Hero: ‘I Thought He Was Terrific’

Gene Hackman is one of the great actors of his or any generation. Between the box office successes and the slew of Academy Awards nominations and Oscar wins, few can match the career Hackman, who retired from acting in 2004, put together. One who comes close is Hackman’s movie hero, golden era star James Cagey. 

Cagney’s style and movie roles helped inform Hackman’s approach, and though they worked in different eras, there are several similarities between them.

Gene Hackman, whose movie hero was James Cagney, in Chicago in 1985.
Gene Hackman | Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Hackman admired how everything Cagney did ‘had a life to it’

In a 2011 interview with GQ, Hackman revealed a trip to the movies with his mother, in which she said she’d like to see him act, planted the acting seed for him.

In the same interview, Hackman said Golden Era icon James Cagney was a hero and personal inspiration. Cagney famously played gangsters throughout the 1930s and 1940s, but Hackman admired how Cagney brought life and personality to every role.

“There was a kind of energy about him, and he was totally different from anyone I’d ever seen in my life. Having been brought up in the Midwest, I didn’t know those New York people. I thought he was terrific.”

“Everything he did had a life to it. He was a bad guy in most of the films, and yet there was something lovable about him and creative.”

Gene Hackman on James Cagney

That last thought aptly condenses Cagney’s career, but it also describes Hackman’s career. In fact, there are several similarities between Cagney’s and Hackman’s careers.

Hackman and his hero Cagney share several similarities

There wasn’t a ton of overlap between Hackman and his hero Cagney’s careers. Cagney’s career was winding down by the time Hackman found steady work as an actor in the early 1960s. Cagney played plenty of gangsters, while Hackman starred as military men on several occasions. 

Hackman and Cagney had some differences in their careers, which is expected, but they also had a lot in common.

Hackman and his hero both earned Oscar nominations in multiple decades. Cagney picked up nods in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, while Hackman had nominations in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s (per IMDb).

Both actors thrived playing straight-up villains. Cagney as a gangster in Angels With Dirty Faces, Love Me or Leave Me, The Public Enemy, and more; Hackman as Lex Luthor in Superman, a crooked lawyer in The Firm, a violent frontier sheriff in Unforgiven, and a thief in Heist. Hackman also excelled at playing morally questionable characters, such as Popeye Doyle in The French Connection or the family patriarch in The Royal Tenenbaums.

Cagney and Hackman played tough guys well, but they weren’t beyond playing against type. Cagney won an Oscar playing composer, singer, and dancer George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Hackman earned an Academy Award nomination for I Never Sang for My Father, which focuses on the relationship between a father and his adult son. He didn’t win, but he has a soft spot for the film and would choose that movie to show his mother

Hackman outpaced his hero in acting credits (more than 100 vs. Cagney’s 69, per IMDb) and in the award column.

Hackman wins the awards count over Cagney

Being nominated for an Academy Award is an achievement for any actor. Winning an Oscar statuette is another level of excellence. Hackman bested his hero Cagney in that department.

Cagney picked up three Academy Awards nominations in his career, and he won for best actor in 1943 for Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Hackman, meanwhile, matched his movie hero in the span of five years. He earned nominations for Bonnie and Clyde, I Never Sang for My Father, and The French Connection between 1968 and 1972, and he won for best actor for playing Popeye Doyle. 

Later, Hackman picked up two more nods, in 1989 for Mississippi Burning and 1993 for Unforgiven, and a best supporting actor win for Unforgiven. Hackman earned BAFTAs for The French Connection and Unforgiven, and he picked up Golden Globes for those movies plus The Royal Tenenbaums.

Hackman might not know where his Oscar statuettes are, but his two wins over a 40-year Hollywood career bested his hero Cagney.

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