Jackie Cooper, a Best Actor Academy Award nominee at the age of 9, has died. The cause of death is unclear – “old age,” according to his attorney. Cooper, whose film career spanned more than six decades, was 88. He had been living at a convalescent home in Santa Monica, where he died on Tuesday, May 3, 2011. (Early reports had Cooper dying at a Beverly Hills hospital.) (Image: Wallace Beery, Jackie Cooper in King Vidor’s The Champ.)
Beginning his career as a child actor in a handful of 1929 Our Gang shorts, the Los Angeles-born Cooper (Sept. 15, 1922) soon progressed to features – and prestigious ones at that.
In 1931, he starred in Paramount’s highly popular comic strip-based comedy-drama Skippy (film adaptations of comics is hardly something new), and in the tearjerker The Champ at MGM, where he became a contract player until 1936.
In Skippy, Cooper had the title role: the son of a wealthy doctor who befriends a kid, Sooky (Robert Coogan), from the wrong side of the tracks. Together, they attempt to save Sooky’s dog from a determined dogcatcher.
Cooper, who would later paint a negative picture of MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer, probably didn’t have a very fond memories of his uncle Norman Taurog, either.
In order to get Cooper to cry at key moments in the family-friendly Skippy, Taurog told his star he was going to shoot his dog. Cooper started bawling, the cameras started rolling, and 1930-31 Academy Award nominations followed for Cooper (who lost to Lionel Barrymore in A Free Soul), the film itself, and adapters Sam Mintz and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (long before All About Eve and 5 Fingers), in addition to a Best Director Academy Award for Taurog – one of the most undeserved in Oscar history, and not just because of the director’s cruel psychological abuse of his nine-year-old nephew. The creaky, slow-moving, highly sentimental Skippy is tough going today.
A Skippy sequel, Sooky, was released that same year. (Sequels are nothing new, either.)
Directed by King Vidor, The Champ offers more effective melodrama. Cooper, in fact, is fine as the son of down-and-out boxer Wallace Beery, clinging on to Beery the way a monkey clings on to a tree, and crying hysterically on cue. (Whether or not Vidor also threatened to shoot Cooper’s dog, I don’t know.)
Cooper wasn’t nominated for The Champ, but Beery shared that year’s (1931-32) Academy Award with Fredric March (who actually received one more vote) for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
In the first half of the 1930s, Cooper remained a box office draw, usually playing tough-looking brats with a heart of gold. He had important roles in Broadway to Hollywood (1933), as Frank Morgan’s son; on loan at Darryl F. Zanuck’s 20th Century (releasing through United Artists) for Raoul Walsh’s The Bowery (1933), once again with Beery, plus George Raft and Fay Wray; and Victor Fleming’s Treasure Island (1934), as Jim Hawkins to Beery’s Long John Silver.
But as so often happens with child stars, Cooper’s box office allure dwindled as adolescence crept in. He shared the screen with fellow young players Freddie Bartholomew and Mickey Rooney in The Devil Is a Sissy (1936), which focused on the character played by Bartholomew, then fresh off of David Copperfield (1935); supported Best Actress Oscar nominee Fay Bainter and Claude Rains in Edmund Goulding’s intriguing drama White Banners (1938) at Warner Bros.; and was the boy-next-door in Deanna Durbin’s surprisingly agreeable vehicle That Certain Age (1938) at Universal.
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.
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