Acclaimed stage and film superstar James Cagney, who among other great roles portrayed George M. Cohan, "born on the Fourth of July," in Yankee Doodle Dandy, left a never-to-be forgotten impression on three local sailors who found themselves floating in the chilly waters of Buzzard's Bay, after their 18-foot wooden dinghy overturned. It was in the late 1950s that David Ward, Emerson Hiller, both of Fairhaven, and Charles Mitchell of Braintree were pulled to safety aboard the Mary Jane of Chilmark, to the warm and welcoming hospitality of superstar James Cagney.

This true tale, supported by a 2008 two-part story and interview by Barbara Veneri at the Standard-Times, was held top secret for 50 years because of a sacred vow they all agreed to. Thanks to a listener, Tom Walsh, who called-in and shared the fascinating story of the legendary actor and dancer who had a summer home on Martha's Vineyard.

Cagney was, in a symbolic sense, more than an entertainer, in that he helped create a patriotic wave during the war years and was awarded an Oscar nomination for his subtle portrayal of a tough guy in Angels with Dirty Faces, won the Academy Award not for his roughneck roles, but for his energetic portrayal of Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. By the time he helped rescue the local sailors, his career was welded to Hollywood's pantheon of gods.

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In the 1942 classic, there's a scene of him leaving the Roosevelt White House after receiving the Congressional Gold Medal, and descending onto a street where soldiers were marching off to war singing "Over There" that still inspires me!

In real life, upon hearing about Cagney's passing in 1986, one of the first condolences came from from President Ronald Reagan, who had presented Cagney with the Medal of Freedom Award two years prior. Ironically, in the movie, Cagney tells President Roosevelt that he doesn't deserve the highest honor, reserved for real heroes who've given their own lives for others, because he's just a song and dance man. But a person can give to their country in many different ways, and I think Cohan's songs became a badge of the American spirit, and songs like "Over There" became as essential as any weapon because they moved and inspired the human spirit.

President Reagan and First Lady Nancy called Cagney "a classic American success story" who "was the best at whatever he did – a hero, a villain, a comic or a dancer."

With modesty, I'm taking the liberty to add "rescuer" to James Cagney's lifetime accomplishments.

Happy holiday, and may the Fourth be with you.

Phil Paleologos is the host of The Phil Paleologos Show on 1420 WBSM New Bedford. He can be heard weekdays from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @PhilPaleologos. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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