Jackie Cooper: Actor who moved from child stardom to directing, and success as a studio executive

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Jackie Cooper was one of Hollywood's most popular child stars, winning an Oscar nomination as best actor in 1931. He was particularly famous for the films he made with Wallace Beery, notably The Champ (1931) and Treasure Island (1934), in which he was Jim Hawkins to Beery's Long John Silver. With his pouting lower lip ever ready to quiver, his mischievous twinkle, his tousled blonde hair and his ability to cry on cue, he became a major box-office attraction. "He was everybody's little kid," the MGM contract player Ann Rutherford said. "There was just something about him you wanted to go, 'Ohh,' and help him."

Although Cooper would often state that he would not recommend child-hood stardom ("I advise ALL parents to keep their children home – where they belong"), he survived in showbusiness better than many of his contemporaries, becoming an adult actor, a studio executive and an Emmy-winning television director. In recent years he became identified with his role as Perry White, editor of the Daily Planet, in Superman (1978) and its sequels.

Born John Cooper in 1922, he hardly knew his father, a musician who abandoned his family when Jackie was two, though he was later told that he was Jewish. Cooper's was a showbusiness family – his Italian-American mother was a vaudeville pianist, his maternal uncle was a screenwriter, and his maternal aunt was an actress married to the director Norman Taurog. When he was three his grandmother, who was raising him while his mother toured, started taking him to casting offices, and he was given his first role in a slapstick comedy starring Bobby Clark.

He graduated to "talkies" with small roles in Fox Movietone Follies and Sunny Side Up (both 1929), making a strong impression in the latter for his scene as a little boy giving a pained recitation at a street party while desperate to use the bathroom. It led to Hal Roach's hit comedy series, "Our Gang" and he joined for the short Boxing Gloves (1929), quickly becoming one of the series' most popular cast members, In 1930 a crying scene in an "Our Gang" short prompted Paramount to borrow him to star in Skippy, based on a popular comic strip and directed by his uncle, Norman Taurog. It was a charming depiction of childhood relationships and Cooper, whose mother had become his manager, was lauded for his performance, particularly his ability to cry convincingly, and he became the youngest actor to be nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award. Years later, Cooper said he had little recollection of the ceremony because he fell asleep on Marie Dressler's lap.

MGM bought his contract from Roach, and cast him in King Vidor's The Champ (1931) as the son of a boxer who dies after making a heroic comeback. Star Wallace Beery had a blustery, almost childlike personality that made him particularly effective acting with young people, and the chemistry between Cooper and Beery was potent.

The Champ became a classic "weepie", prompting further teamings, though their off-screen relationship was anything but warm. Cooper was later to accuse Beery of upstaging and attempting to undermine his performance, "presumably because of jealousy".

Cooper's role in Divorce in the Family (1932) as a youngster who has to choose between father and stepfather, won him critical praise, and it was followed by his second teaming with Beery, in The Bowery, Raoul Walsh's lively account of the rivalry between two showmen (Beery and George Raft), with Cooper a pawn in their battle for supremacy. They teamed for the third time in MGM's lavish production of Treasure Island (1934), directed by Victor Fleming, for whom Cooper had particular admiration. "He would tell me not to whine, to try to act more mature. It was the first time anyone had made me think about what I was doing, really to consider my character and how to make him come alive. When I was a kid, directors were always offering me bicycles whenever they wanted me to play a difficult scene. Instead of trying to communicate with me, they always tried bribes. By the time I was nine, I had eight or nine bikes in the garage."

Though acknowledged as a classic, the film was criticised for altering the book's ending. Studio chief Louis B Mayer had to endorse the final cut, and Cooper recalled that Mayer was crestfallen for two reasons – Cooper did not have one good crying scene, and the finish with Long John slipping away watched by Ben Gunn did not provide a suitable climax for the friendship between Long John and Jim. "Mayer had a new ending written – Jim Hawkins frees Long John Silver just before the end, but first he cries because his piratical friend will be gone forever." Beery and Cooper's fourth and final film was O'Shaughnessy's Boy (1935), a variation on The Champ in which animal trainer Beery is estranged from his son (Cooper) until a final, tearful reconciliation.

The Devil is a Sissy (1936) was a delightful comedy that starred MGM's three biggest boy stars, Freddie Bartholomew, Mickey Rooney and Cooper in the tale of an upper-class English lad (Bartholomew) transplanted to New York's rough East Side where he is indoctrinated into street life by the other two boys.

MGM let him go, and though he had some good supporting roles it was clear that his career was starting to wane. In 1940 he returned to MGM (where he embarked on a six-month affair with Joan Crawford) to play Lana Turner's brother, and the boyfriend of Judy Garland (whom he had dated a few years earlier), in the lavish musical, Ziegfeld Girl. "I thought it would be fun, but it wasn't. Judy was cold and distant."

Having become a skilled drummer during his teens, he served in the US Navy during the Second World War touring bases in the South Pacific. On discharge, he found offers only for "B" movies, so he followed the advice of his friend, John Garfield, and moved to New York to study acting. He made his Broadway debut as a former boxer in a comedy set in a Southern boarding house, Magnolia Alley (1949), which ran for only eight performances. A cast member, Hildy Parks, would become the second of Cooper's three wives.

Cooper also gained a reputation as a reliable television actor, and in 1955 he starred in a series he co-produced and directed, The People's Choice, in which he played a council-man whose basset hound has thoughts that can be heard by the audience. After its three-year run, Cooper starred as a Navy medical officer in another hit series, Hennessey (1959-62). In 1964 he became an executive with the TV section of Columbia Pictures, Screen Gems, and for over five years he headed the company, after which he formed his own production company. He had his first major screen role in many years when Keenan Wynn, who had been scheduled to play Perry White, Clark Kent's newspaper editor, in Superman, suddenly died and the role was offered to Cooper.

He played in three Superman movies, but his main career was now as a director. He won an Emmy in 1974 for a M*A*S*H episode, and another in 1979 for a pilot, The White Shadow. His 1981 autobiography was titled Please Don't Shoot My Dog, a reference to a notorious incident on Skippy when, to make him cry, he was told his dog had been shot. He retired in 1989 to pursue his hobby of training and racing horses.

Tom Vallance

John Cooper (Jackie Cooper), actor, director and studio executive: born Los Angeles 15 September 1922; married 1944 June Horne (divorced 1949; one son), 1950 Hildy Parks (divorced 1951), 1954 Barbara Krause (died 2009; one son, and two daughters deceased); died Beverly Hills 3 May 2011.