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Jackie Cooper: America’s Boy

by Legacy Staff

Jackie Cooper, “America’s Boy,” first appeared onscreen at age 3. He was an American screen presence for more than five decades…

Jackie Cooper, “America’s Boy,” first appeared onscreen at age 3. From his early days in silent movies into the “talkies” and television, and later in major Hollywood films like Superman, Cooper was an American screen presence for more than five decades.

But Cooper, who died May 3, 2011, at 88, made it clear in his later years that he had never wanted to be a child star and that Hollywood was no place for a boy to grow up. “No amount of rationalization, no excuses, can make up for what a kid loses – what I lost – when a normal childhood is abandoned for a movie career,” he wrote in his1981 autobiography, Please Don’t Shoot My Dog.


It wasn’t just childhood – baseball, roller skates and playing with friends – that Cooper missed. He said the unnatural life he’d led had long-term negative effects on his self-esteem. When he was 18, he was dating Joan Crawford, who was in her mid-30s. He was divorced twice before his 28th birthday.

Cooper was married to Barbara, his third wife, from 1954 until her death in 2009. He told The New York Times in 1981, “Too much too soon impedes the growing-up process. Growing up didn’t start for me until I was 31 and met Barbara. If I hadn’t met Barbara, maybe I would have turned to booze or drugs.”

Cooper was born Sept. 15, 1922, in Los Angeles. His father walked out on him and his mother before he was 2, and his maternal grandmother took care of him while his mother worked.

From the time he was 3, The Times noted, “his grandmother, whom he remembers with loathing, pinched, slapped and pulled him down to the studio gates, where a director might give the two of them $2 and a box lunch for a day’s work as an extra.”

After small roles in two feature films, in 1929 he landed a part in the Our Gang series of short films. Also known as “The Little Rascals,” the programs had begun as a series of silent shorts in 1922 and switched to sound seven years later. Cooper, Entertainment Weekly noted after his death, was “the series’ everyboy from 1929 to 1931 … He was relatable, adorable, and could convey emotion unlike any other rascal.”

In 1931 Cooper was cast in the feature film Skippy, based on a popular comic strip. While his ability to cry on camera had helped make him a star, Cooper apparently struggled to find tears during an important scene in the filming. Director Norman Taurog, who was also Cooper’s uncle, took Cooper’s dog from the set and tricked the boy into believing that a security guard had shot and killed the animal.

The tears came, as did the vomiting. Cooper needed a sedative to calm down. As he wrote in his autobiography, “I could visualize my dog, bloody from that one awful shot. 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.”

Cooper was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor for the film. Although he did not win, at 9 he is the youngest Oscar nominee to date.

Cooper appeared in more than a dozen movies over the next five years, notably The Champ, The Bowery and Treasure Island, which paired him with adult actor Wallace Beery.

Cooper’s career stalled after he returned from World War II. He moved to the business side of entertainment, working as a vice president of program development for Columbia Pictures’ television division and later as an independent producer.

In the 1970s and ’80s Cooper worked as a director and won two Emmys: one for a 1974 M*A*S*H episode and another for a 1979 episode of The White Shadow. He also went in front of a camera again, playing editor Perry White in the Superman films starring Christopher Reeve.

In 1989, Cooper announced he was retiring, saying, “I’m 67 and worked 64 years.”

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she’s now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, “Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone’s world that we’re often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we’re alive.”

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