Jackie Cooper as Jim Hawkins, Lionel Barrymore as Billy Bones in Victor Fleming’s Treasure Island
A series of programmers followed, among them Two Bright Boys (1939), once again pairing up Jackie Cooper with Freddie Bartholomew — who by then was sliding fast as well — and What a Life (1939), with Betty Field. In the latter release, Cooper played Henry Aldrich, a role he would incarnate once again in Life with Henry (1941) before Jimmy Lydon took over.
Cooper’s film career was interrupted during World War II. When he returned in the late 1940s, he found jobs scarce, appearing in only three minor features. Two of those, Kilroy Was Here (1947) and French Leave (1948), co-starred another former child star named Jackie, Charles Chaplin’s little pal in The Kid, Jackie Coogan — who also happened to be Robert Coogan’s older brother. (Robert Coogan died in 1978; Jackie Coogan in 1984.)
In the next 25 years, Cooper would mostly dedicate his time to either stage or television work.
Cooper made his Broadway debut in Broadway Alley in 1949, returning two years later in Remains to Be Seen, with Janis Paige, and then again in King of Hearts in 1954.
For his television work, Cooper received two Emmy nominations for playing the lead in the television series Hennesey (1961 and 1962). In the mid-’60s, he became vice president of West Coast operations of Columbia Pictures’ TV arm Screen Gems. In the following decade, he would win two Emmys, both times as a television director: M*A*S*H’s "Carry on, Hawkeye" episode in 1974 and the pilot episode of The White Shadow in 1978. The latter series also earned Cooper a Directors Guild Award nomination for the episode "Pregnant Pause" in 1980.
Cooper returned to features in the ’70s, most notably as "Daily Planet" editor Perry White in Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), opposite Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent and Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane.
He continued on with the series in Superman II (1980) and Superman III (1983), all the way to the flop Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987). That same year, Cooper could also be seen in Jerry Belson’s poorly received comedy Surrender, starring Sally Field, Michael Caine, and Steve Guttenberg. (Cooper and Field had previously worked together in the 1971 television film Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring, an interesting drama about a dysfunctional all-American family that also included movie veteran Eleanor Parker.)
Cooper’s only subsequent work in front of the camera were guest spots in the television series For Jenny with Love (1989) and Capital News (1990).
Cooper was married three times. Two of his four children preceded him in death. Back in the ’30s, he reportedly dated Judy Garland; in later years, he claimed to have had a six-month affair with Joan Crawford. Cooper was 17 at the time, which in today’s United States would have made Crawford a “sex offender.” (Or a cougar, depending on your level of puritanism.)
His autobiography, Please Don’t Shoot My Dog (co-written with Dick Kleiner), came out in 1981.
Now, Jackie Cooper has an important place in film history as the youngest Best Actor Oscar nominee ever: he was nine when the nominations were announced. Cooper was also the earliest Oscar nominee in the acting categories still alive. That "honor" now belongs to Luise Rainer, Best Actress winner in 1936 (The Great Ziegfeld) and 1937 (The Good Earth).
The 101-year-old Rainer lives in the old London flat of another two-time Oscar winner, Vivien Leigh.
The Champ, Treasure Island photos: Doctor Macro