Growing up in a Hollywood family, Ryan Cassidy had a unique opportunity for mentorship. His mom, Shirley Jones, starred in The Partridge Family. His dad, Jack Cassidy, was a Tony-winning actor. His brothers David and Shaun were teen heartthrobs. Yet it was one day with a celebrity babysitter — James Cagney — that inspired Ryan to write his new children’s book.
“I have wanted to share my experience with James Cagney for over 20 years and kept turning it over in my mind,” Ryan tells LittleThings. “I never really knew what form it would take — whether it would be a children’s book or an autobiography of my life, but I feel as though it ended up being a little bit of both.”
The book, James Cagney Was My Babysitter, was cowritten with noted Partridge Family biographer Johnny Ray Miller. It tells the story of how, in one afternoon away from the pressures of a perfectionist father, a shy 7-year-old falls under the spell of a wonderful babysitter who made him feel special. Hours later, he leaves an enthusiastic young man who’s infused with self-confidence and ready for life’s next adventure.
“You have to remember how impressionable I was at that young age,” Ryan says. “I was 7 years old, and what I learned that day, which was all about friendship, imagination, and growing up, was something that stayed with me forever. The roots in that lesson are like a tree that grew within me.”
These lessons have bloomed with Ryan through his own fatherhood journey. “Jim really nurtured my imagination and asked questions about what I was interested in. He generally treated me like an interesting person he wanted to get to know, not a child who needed to be instructed or disciplined. I encourage the same ideals with my daughter. I try to show her I’m interested in her as a person and how valuable her creativity is. She is my only child, and I hope that she grows up with experiences and friendships that align with mine, particularly from that one single day.”
He’s also made sure not to encourage perfectionism. “I think that we package ideas too tightly when we speak of things so simply,” Ryan says. “In some ways we are all perfectionists. It’s not really very dramatic in that sense. I had a really nice relationship with my father and my memories of him are truly good ones.”
But that’s not all that Ryan aims to break with James Cagney Was My Babysitter. He also stresses that the perception we have of celebrities can be much different than their real selves.
“I think that all of us, whether you are a child from a show business family or the child of a steelworker, idealize ‘celebrity’ in one way or another,” Ryan says. “While I was used to being around famous actors through my parents, it wasn’t until this experience that I had the chance to know a celebrity on a deeper, more personal level. The stories in magazines and even the videos and images you see on social media aren’t telling the whole story of who a person is or how they treat other people.”
In James Cagney Was My Babysitter, Ryan writes, “All the way home I couldn’t stop thinking about being at Mr. Cagney’s house. The fear of the unexpected I felt when we first drove up that long, winding driveway had been turned into peace, happiness, and a sense of contentment on the drive back down. I thought about the owl and the way animals don’t have expectations of you. And when you show them kindness and love, they give you twice that back. I no longer saw Mr. Cagney as a Hollywood actor. I saw him differently. He was my friend. There’s a magical feeling when you make a friend who truly listens to you, and cares about you, and wants to lift you up.”
Over the years, Ryan says he has learned that fame can be a dangerous thing if you don’t manage it right. “Luckily, I had a really grounded childhood. My mother drove a station wagon and made sure we were raised with the same kind of values she grew up with back in small-town Pennsylvania.”
Hollywood today is a much different scene from the one Ryan was raised in. “It used to be the golden rule that actors carried themselves with grace, no matter the circumstance, and today, of course, you can see that those rules of conduct have loosened quite a bit,” Ryan says.
He wants families of aspiring actors to know that “it doesn’t matter what family you come from because once you go through the door, it’s only you who can keep you inside that door. I would certainly nurture any natural talent that my child would show, but I would also encourage them to get an education. My mother always said, ‘I don’t care what you do — you could pump gas if that’s what you want to do — as long as you’re happy.’ She encouraged and instilled a strong work ethic in all of us, too.”
One message he hopes to get across in James Cagney Was My Babysitter is that we all need to slow down and focus on the present. “I feel the lesson I learned as a child is one we all still need to learn and work to hold on to all through our lives,” Ryan says. “It’s one thing to learn it. It’s another to keep it in practice.”