Jackie Cooper (John Cooper, Jr., 1922-2011) is probably the most shining example of a former kid star who managed to stay on top in show business throughout his entire life. Some pretty good connections got him into the business in the first place; but talent, brains, industriousness and a highly adaptable nature kept him in.
While almost nothing is known about his father John Cooper, Sr, much is known about the family who raised him (his mother and her relatives) and took him into the family business: his mother was a professional piano player; her aunt was an actress, one uncle was a screenwriter, another uncle was the movie director Norman Taurog, and his grandmother was an extra in silent films. It was through the latter caretaker he made his way into the business at age three, as a tiny movie extra. He got his start in Lloyd Hamilton shorts and was in the “That’s My Baby” number in the Fox Movietone Follies of 1929, before making his way into the Our Gang comedies just as they were transitioning to talkies.
He quickly made his way to the core cast, and became one of the most popular stars of the series. He had a face that was somehow both cherubic and msschievous — an asset that was to remain with him all his life. (His mother was Italian; his father was reportedly Jewish, but Cooper always looked Irish to me — if I’d had to make a guess, that’s what it would have been. Just goes to show ya: none of us knows anything, and none of it matters!) I can’t imagine that there wasn’t at least some confusion with fellow kid star Jackie Coogan amongst audiences at the time, given the similarity of their names; if there was it didn’t hurt the latter any.
Cooper remained with Our Gang for two years, and then got a super break. His uncle Norman Taurog cast him in Skippy, a performance which earned Cooper an Oscar nomination (at age 9!) and won Taurog Best Director (for that reason I have been dying to see this picture; I’ve never seen a Taurog movie that wasn’t hackwork). From here, Cooper was a major star throughout the 30s, in films like The Champ (1931), The Bowery (1933), Treasure Island (1934), Peck’s Bad Boy (1934), and many others, often with crusty old Wallace Beery as his costar. By the ’40s, Cooper was a young man, but he continued to get cast, though in smaller roles, in great films like The Return of Frank James (1940) and Ziegfeld Girl (1941).
He served in the Navy in World War II (attaining the rank of Captain). After the war he starred in a couple of “Kilroy” pictures (Kilroy was Here, 1947 and French Leave, 1948), and then began acting on television. After years of guest shots on dozens of shows, he got to play the lead in two series of his own, The People’s Choice (1955-58), in which he portrayed a politician; and Hennessy (1959-1962), in which his role was a navy doctor. He directed many episodes of both of these shows, and thereafter tv direction would be one of the major activities of his life and career. He also produced a few episodes of Hennessy. This led to an entirely new sort of work for him in the late 60s: tv executive. From 1964 to 1969, he was a VP of program development at Colgems, hawking tv shows to the networks.
By the 70s, he clearly wanted to get back to the creative end, and this is how your correspondent first knew him. He was totally present on all the most popular tv shows of the day: McCloud, Ironside, The F.B.I., Columbo, Kojak, Police Story, The Rockford Files, etc. He directed episodes of many of these programs, and many others besides, to the end of his career.
I ABSOLUTELY was aware of his heavily hyped starring series Mobile One, produced by Jack Webb. This was the height of my action tv watching phase and Cooper played a tv reporter in a news van — a brand new concept at the time. It was attached conceptually to all the cop and fire-rescue shows that were popular then (a concept I’ll wager most of us find silly today). I am astonished now to see that it only lasted one season; a mere three months. I remember it well.
Thus, he was stunt cast as Daily Planet editor Perry White in the Superman revival in 1978, he came to us as a well known star, not just to people my age, but people of our parents and grandparents’ generation, as well! Cooper appeared in four of the Superman films (his last was in 1987). He kept busy as an actor and director through 1990, then finally retired.
But even in his retirement he kept extraordinarily busy: training and racing thoroughbred horses, and appearing in documentaries about his earlier career (over 15 of them). In his earlier years, he had also participated in auto racing, and written an autobiography. He was clearly a restless guy who did not enjoy sitting around, or being stuck in the same grind. His screen character was like that, too — a bit on the pushy side. We note here in passing that Cooper was also married three times.
For more on Our Gang, please check out my 100th anniversary podcast episode here.