Jackie Cooper, a top child star of the 1930s, dies at 88

Actor Jackie Cooper in October 1978 in Los Angeles.
Actor Jackie Cooper in October 1978 in Los Angeles.
Posted May 04, 2011, at 9:09 p.m.

LOS ANGELES — Jackie Cooper, whose tousled blond hair, pouty lower lip and ability to cry on camera helped make him one of the top child stars of the 1930s in films such as “Skippy” and “The Champ,” has died. He was 88.

Cooper, who grew up to become a successful TV star in the 1950s, a top television studio executive in the ‘60s and an Emmy Award-winning director in the ’70s, died Tuesday at a skilled nursing facility in Santa Monica after a brief illness, said his son John.

A former “Our Gang” cast member who began his Hollywood career as an extra in silent movies at age 3, Cooper shot to stardom at 8 playing the title role in “Skippy,” the 1931 film based on a popular comic strip about a health inspector’s son and his ragamuffin pal, Sooky.

The film, in which Cooper had three signature crying scenes, earned him an Academy Award nomination for best actor in a leading role. Lionel Barrymore won the Oscar that year and Cooper had only a vague memory of the ceremony: He fell asleep on actress Marie Dressler’s lap.

Cast four times with crusty Wallace Beery, Cooper most memorably played the loyal son of fallen boxer Beery in “The Champ” (1931) and young Jim Hawkins opposite Beery’s Long John Silver in “Treasure Island” (1934).

“He was everybody’s little kid, and there was just something about him you wanted to go, ‘Ohh’ and help him,” Ann Rutherford, who was under contact at MGM in the 1930s and ‘40s, told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday. Off screen, she said, “he was wonderful, and he became a very good television producer.”

Known as “America’s Boy” during his MGM heyday, Cooper received the full star treatment.

He placed his foot- and handprints in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Newspapers and magazines reported his comings and goings. And he had a fan club, a namesake newspaper and someone to answer his fan mail.

He also met President Franklin D. Roosevelt and aviator Charles Lindbergh. Clara Bow was a frequent guest at his home in Beverly Hills, and George Gershwin once stopped by to play the family’s grand piano.

At 13, he dated a teenage Judy Garland. And at 17, he revealed decades later, he had a secret, six-month fling with an older MGM colleague: Joan Crawford.

But, according to Cooper, there was a distinct downside to early stardom.

As a valuable studio asset, he was forbidden to roller skate, ride a bicycle or cross the street by himself, lest he be injured. He received a poor education from his on-set tutors, and he had to deal with the same pressures and responsibilities as his adult co-stars.

Cooper chronicled the highs and lows of his career in his candid 1981 autobiography, “Please Don’t Shoot My Dog,” written with Dick Kleiner.

The book’s title refers to a traumatic incident on the set of “Skippy,” which was directed by Cooper’s uncle, Norman Taurog.

When young Cooper was unable to summon tears for a big crying scene, Taurog threatened to remove the boy’s small dog from the set and take it to the pound. The incident ended with Cooper believing his dog had been shot by an armed security guard.

“I could visualize my dog, bloody from that one awful shot,” Cooper wrote. “I began sobbing, so hysterically that it was almost too much for the scene. [Taurog] had to quiet me down by saying perhaps my dog had survived the shot, that if I hurried and calmed down a little and did the scene the way he wanted, we would go see if my dog was still alive.”

Only after doing the scene as best he could did Cooper learn that his dog was unharmed. He also saw Taurog, the guard and Cooper’s grandmother grinning over their successful deception.

“Later, people tried to rationalize to me that I had gained more than I lost by being a child star,” Cooper wrote. “They talked to me about the money I made. They cited the exciting things I had done, the people I had met, the career training I had had, all that and much more …

“But no amount of rationalization, no excuses, can make up for what a kid loses — what I lost — when a normal childhood is abandoned for an early movie career.”

He was born John Cooper Jr. in Los Angeles on Sept. 15, 1922. His mother, Mabel, was a piano accompanist who had worked in vaudeville. His father, himself a piano player and a songwriter, was running a small music store in Los Angeles when they met; he walked out his wife and son before Jackie was 2.

Growing up, Cooper was always told his father was dead. But years later he discovered that from 1935 to 1948, his mother had been sending John Cooper $100 a week — money that Jackie had earned.

After his father’s departure from the family, Cooper’s financially strapped mother went on the road in vaudeville for a period and Jackie wound up living with his maternal grandmother.

To supplement the money Mabel sent home from the road, Jackie’s grandmother joined other people standing at the gates of the nearby movie studios hoping to get jobs as extras — jobs that paid $2 a day and a box lunch.

After auditioning for Hal Roach, the producer of the “Our Gang” comedies, Cooper was signed to a $50-a-week contract. Between 1929 and 1931, he appeared in 15 “Our Gang” comedies.

After his star-making role in “Skippy” in 1931, Cooper was signed to a contract with MGM, which kept him busy in more than a dozen movies over the next five years.

Like most child stars, Cooper experienced an adolescent career lull. Deemed by Mayer to be a rather bland actor as a juvenile, Cooper’s contract at MGM ended when he was 14.

His greatest days as a child star were over. But working for different studios over the next six years, he appeared in nearly two dozen films, including appearing with Deanna Durbin in “That Certain Age,” starring as Henry Aldrich in “What a Life” and “Life with Henry,” appearing with Henry Fonda in “The Return of Frank James” and playing an adolescent facing manhood in “Sevente en.”

But Cooper’s career was on a downswing when he joined the Navy in World War II. Having become an adept drummer as a teenager, he spent part of the war playing drums in a band formed by former civilian bandleader Claude Thornhill that played remote bases in the South Pacific.

Returning home after the war, Cooper was a virtual Hollywood has-been at 23.

He decided to move to New York in 1948 and begin all over again in the theater.

A year later, he made his Broadway debut in the drama “Magnolia Alley.” The play closed after only a few performances but earned him good reviews and helped establish him as a stage actor.

The same year, he was signed to play Ensign Pulver in the road company of the hit Broadway play “Mr. Roberts,” followed by playing Pulver in the London company.

Returning to Broadway in 1951, Cooper appeared with Janis Paige in “Remains to Be Seen.” Over the next few years, he appeared frequently on live TV dramatic anthologies such as “Kraft Theater,” “U.S. Steel Hour” and “Philco Playhouse.”

By 1954, Cooper also had become a successful amateur race-car driver and had been married and divorced twice: to one-time movie bit player June Horne, with whom he had his son John; and to New York actress Hildy Parks. Shortly after he and Parks were divorced in 1954, Cooper married Barbara Kraus, with whom he had three children, Russell, Julie and Cristina.

In 1955, he returned to Hollywood to star in “The People’s Choice,” a situation comedy in which he played Socrates “Sock” Miller, a government naturalist and city councilman in love with the mayor’s daughter.

In 1961, Cooper, who had done a few Navy recruitment TV spots while doing the show, was commissioned a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve, and he served for many years.

In 1964, he became vice president in charge of West Coast operations of Screen Gems, Columbia Pictures’ TV arm.

During his five and a half years as head of Screen Gems, the company sold shows such as “I Dream of Jeannie,” “Gidget, “The Flying Nun” and the daytime soap opera “Days of Our Lives.”

After leaving his job at Columbia, Cooper formed an independent production company with producer Bob Finkel to develop TV and movie properties.

He also kept his hand in acting, making occasional TV guest shots and starring in “Mobile One,” a short-lived 1975 series on ABC in which he played a TV news reporter. Cooper also played Clark Kent’s newspaper editor, Perry White, in four “Superman” movies.

But mostly he devoted his professional life to directing in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He won his first Emmy in 1974 for directing an episode of “MASH” and his second Emmy in 1979 for directing the pilot episode of “The White Shadow,” starring Ken Howard.

In 1981, he directed fellow former child star Mickey Rooney in a TV movie, “Leave ‘em Laughing,” the story of a man who took in 37 homeless children in Chicago.

Besides his son John, Cooper is survived by his son Russell.


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