Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Jackie Cooper, R.I.P. 1922-2011

From: Chicago Tribune

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 died Tuesday in a Los Angeles-area hospital after a brief illness, said his longtime agent Ronnie Leif.

A former "Our Gang" cast member whose Hollywood career began as an extra in silent movies at age 3, Cooper shot to stardom in 1931, at 8, playing the title role in "Skippy." The film, in which Cooper had three signature crying scenes, earned him an Academy Award nomination for best actor in a leading role.

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).

Known as "America's Boy" during his MGM heyday, Cooper received the full star treatment.

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. 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 refers 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, 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.

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.

After auditioning for Hal Roach, the producer of the "Our Gang" comedies, Cooper was signed to a $50-a-week contract. Between 1929 and 1931, he appeared in 15 "Our Gang" comedies. After his star-making role in "Skippy" in 1931, Cooper was signed to a contract with MGM, which kept him busy in more than a dozen movies over the next five years.

Like most child stars, Cooper experienced an adolescent career lull. Cooper was deemed to be a rather bland actor as a juvenile, and his contract at MGM ended when he was 14. His greatest days as a child star were over. But working for different studios over the next six years, he appeared in nearly two dozen films, including appearing with Deanna Durbin in "That Certain Age." Returning home after service in World War II, Cooper was a virtual Hollywood has-been at 23. The best he could do was land starring roles in several quickie B pictures. He decided to move to New York in 1948 and begin all over again in the theater.

By 1954, Cooper had been married and divorced twice: to June Horne, with whom he had a son, John Anthony; and to Hildy Parks. Shortly after he and Parks were divorced in 1954, Cooper married Barbara Kraus, with whom he had three children, Russell, Julie and Cristina.

In 1955, he returned to Hollywood to star in "The People's Choice," a situation comedy. The series, which he co-produced and directed, ran for three years on NBC.

Cooper followed up that with another series, "Hennesey," which ran on CBS from 1959 to '62.

In 1964, he became vice president in charge of West Coast operations of Screen Gems, Columbia Pictures' TV arm. During his tenure, the company sold shows such as "I Dream of Jeannie," "Gidget, "The Flying Nun" and the daytime soap opera "Days of Our Lives."

He kept his hand in acting, playing Clark Kent's editor, Perry White, in four "Superman" movies. But mostly he devoted his professional life to directing in the '70s and '80s. He won his first Emmy in 1974 for directing an episode of "M*A*S*H" and his second in 1979 for directing the pilot of "The White Shadow."

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