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Back When Decency Was Glamorous

Gary Cooper played heroic Everymen-the type who'd hate a fuss over a centennial.

April 29, 2001|SUSAN KING | Susan King is a Times staff writer

Few American screen stars have amassed as expansive a gallery of memorable characters as Gary Cooper. From his doomed pilot in "Wings" to the vulnerable and sweet poet Longfellow Deeds in "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" to his Oscar-winning portrayal of World War I hero Alvin York in "Sergeant York" to his moving performance as baseball legend Lou Gehrig in "The Pride of the Yankees" to his Academy Award-winning turn as the courageous sheriff Will Kane in "High Noon," 'Coop" was the embodiment of Everyman, adored and admired by female and male moviegoers.

Though he died 40 years ago of cancer--just six days after his 60th birthday--Cooper's star power remains very much alive. His movies are popular sellers on DVD and video, and are played continually on television. Cooper memorabilia--everything from photos to a copy of his will--goes for top dollar on such Internet auction sites as EBay.

Film critic and historian Richard Schickel believes the public's love affair with Cooper continues "because I don't know if there is another actor, maybe in all of movies, who had more good movies to his credit.

"There are maybe 15 or 20 movies of Cooper's that really continue to be movies that you watch with pleasure. I don't know anybody other than Cary Grant who had a similarly strong filmography," Schickel says.

So it's not surprising that Hollywood is pulling out all the stops to celebrate Cooper's 100th birthday. On Thursday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is holding "A Centennial Tribute to Gary Cooper" at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. Hosted by Robert Osborne, columnist for the Hollywood Reporter and on-air host of Turner Classic Movies, the event will feature clips from some of the actor's best-loved films as well as reminiscences from his daughter Maria Cooper Janis, actresses Frances Dee and Joan Leslie, actors Karl Malden and Robert Stack, producer A.C. Lyles, and Schickel, who also produced the 1991 TNT documentary "Gary Cooper: American Life, American Legend."

The sold-out evening will also herald the opening of a new exhibition at the Academy Gallery of Cooper memorabilia and photographs.

On Friday, the UCLA Film and Television Archive kicks off its three-week "Gary Cooper: Man of the West" film festival at the campus' James Bridges Theater. The festival will feature such beloved Coop flicks as "The Pride of the Yankees," 'High Noon," 'Ball of Fire," 'For Whom the Bell Tolls," 'Friendly Persuasion" and "The Hanging Tree," as well as newsreels and trailers.

The academy will reprise its Cooper tribute May 31 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, followed by a film festival at the American Museum of the Moving Image in Queens.

Cooper isn't the only screen legend celebrating a 100th birthday this year. Clark Gable's centennial was in February. But his birthday didn't attract nearly the attention of Cooper's.

Schickel chalks up the hullabaloo over Cooper's birthday to the actor's appealing screen character.

"He didn't have the kind of rough edges that Gable had--the kind of roughneck air about him. There was something very sweet and very decent about Cooper's character no matter what he was playing," Schickel says. "I think that inherent sense that this was a nice guy has made him wear well. People who have a more adverse edge to them wear out their welcome sooner, whether they are alive or dead. Cooper has movies that are played constantly, commented upon, kind of iconic movies of their types.

"There are great westerns, great sophisticated comedies and unsophisticated comedies .... ['In Pride of the Yankees'] he brought all that was him to that kind of decent, not entirely articulate guy, who rises to that moment of immortal articulation at the end of the movie."

Tall and lanky, with thick dark hair, blue eyes and a dazzling smile, Cooper was one of the screen's handsomest actors.

"He really cuts an incredible figure," says Andrea Alsberg, head of programming for the UCLA Film and Television Archive. But she notes that Cooper never played off his looks.

"I think that is one of the reasons he was so popular," says Alsberg. "There seem to be no vanity around him at all--with those downward glances and that 'aw shucks' personality."

Joan Leslie was only 15 when she was cast as Cooper's love interest, Gracie, in 1941's "Sergeant York." She was understandably nervous because she was a huge fan of the actor. "I had seen 'The Plainsman' 10 times and so many other of his pictures," she recalls.

But Cooper put Leslie at ease immediately by addressing her as Gracie. "He said to me, 'Well, howdy-do, Miss Gracie.' I said, 'I'm sure pleased to meet you, Alvin.' We never called each other anything but Gracie and Alvin through the whole production on and off the set."

Cooper, she says, was a real charmer with "that beautiful smile and those twinkling eyes and the strong, reassuring manner. His charming personality is what got him started, but with all of his experience, he turned into a most gifted actor."

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