Between Jackie Coogan's turn in Charlie Chaplin's 1921 comedy classic, The Kid, and the advent of box office phenomenon Shirley Temple in the early 1930s, no child star was bigger or better than "America's Boy," Jackie Cooper.
Born in 1922, Cooper broke into movies at the age of seven, working in the Our Gang comedies at the Hal Roach Studios for $50 a week. Cooper became a star just two years later when he landed the lead role in Skippy, a film version of the day's most famous comic strip. (So popular was the strip, in fact, that Skippy brand peanut butter was named for it—or was it? Strip creator Percy Crosby filed suit and won a decision in the U.S. Patent Court, yet seventy-six years later, Skippy is still my peanut butter of choice.)
Skippy—the movie not the peanut butter—was the one where Cooper's uncle, director Norman Taurog, famously threatened to shoot Cooper's dog if the boy didn't cry on cue, then sent a production assistant outside with a gun loaded with blanks. Cooper heard the shot and predictably cried buckets. Only nine years old at the time, he's still the youngest actor to be nominated for an Oscar in a lead role.
Like most of us, he slept through the ceremony, although in his case, in Oscar-winner Marie Dressler's lap. "I was much more interested in not having to go to school that day than I was in the ceremony," he later admitted.
Cooper was even better a year later in the award-winning boxing movie, The Champ. Directed by King Vidor, The Champ is an unabashed tearjerker of the first water and turned Cooper and co-star Wallace Beery into the unlikeliest of screen teams. The pair made four feature-length movies together between 1931 and 1935.
Beery won an Oscar playing an alcoholic, over-the- hill boxer with delusions of grandeur, the kind of guy who wins a horse for his son in a crap game, then promptly loses it back again—twice! When he's not gambling, he's hungover in a fleabag hotel room over a saloon, haunted by what might have been and fueled by pipe dreams of another shot at the title. Cooper is the champ's son, who even at nine years of age is a classic enabler. He adores his father but has been disappointed too many times to lie to himself anymore, even as he lies to the Champ.
Cooper more than holds his own in his scenes with the more experienced Beery, for example, in an early scene when fight promoters call his father a drunk and a "palooka." Eyes glistening with a mixture of rage, disappointment and humiliation, Cooper holds his defiant pose for a moment, then his shoulders slump and he turns away.
"You don't believe what they said about me being drunk the night I lost the championship, do ya, Dink."
"No," says Cooper, slump shouldered, not looking at his father, and starting to clean up after him like he always does.
It's a formula that has served Hollywood well, right up to and including Mickey Rourke's 2008 comeback in The Wrestler, and won Frances Marion an Oscar for the screenplay, her second.
Cooper himself was rather dismissive of most of his early screen roles. "Very often on some of this stuff when I'd have to go to work. I'd just give the script a cursory glance. I had no training, and I was a quick study, so nobody knew how involved or not involved I was. But I look at that stuff now and I can see I wasn't involved, and I wasn't very good."
Cooper and Beery made three more films together, including Treasure Island. "They kept me in short pants as long as they could," Cooper said of his days as a child actor, "until they were shaving the hair on my legs because it was beginning to photograph."
Ironically, because of his own experiences, Cooper grew up opposed to children working full-time as actors. "No amount of rationalization, no excuses, can make up for what a kid loses—what I lost—when a normal childhood is abandoned for a movie career.
His 1981 autobiography was entitled Please Don't Shoot My Dog.
Cooper left Hollywood during World War II, serving in the United States Navy where he attained the rank of Captain. After the war, the transition from child star to adult performer was difficult for Cooper, but he eventually wound up in television, both as an actor and as a director. As the latter, he won two Emmys for directing episodes of MASH (one of the funny ones) and The White Shadow. Maybe his most famous movie role after childhood was that of Daily Planet editor Perry White in four Superman movies between 1978 and 1987.
Cooper retired in 1989. He has four children and lives in California.
On Memorial Day
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