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Jackie Cooper dies at 88; child star in the 1930s

'Our Gang' alumnus Jackie Cooper evolved into a successful 1950s TV star, a top '60s TV studio executive and an Emmy-winning director in the '70s.

May 05, 2011|By Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times

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 contract at MGM in the 1930s and '40s, told The 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 costars.

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 referred 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 on his wife and son before Jackie was 2.

Growing up, Cooper was always told that 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, 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.

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