John Henry “Jack” Coogan: Jackie Coogan’s Father

Jack Coogan (1886-1935), originally from Syracuse, started out in vaudeville as a dancer and comedian. In 1913 he married fellow performer Lillian Dolliver. Their child John Leslie “jackie” Coogan arrived the following year. By the end of the decade, the performing family had settled in Los Angeles. In 1919, the family fortunes changed. Coogan the elder appeared in three Fatty Arbuckle comedies: A Desert Hero, Back Stage, and The Hayseed. That same year, Charlie Chaplin attended a performance of the family’s at the Los Angeles Orpheum and was so smitten with five year old Jackie the Younger that he cast him in A Day’s Pleasure (1919) and then as his co-star in The Kid (1921). Jack (who thereafter became known as “Big Jack”, or “Jack, Sr.” even though he was actually Jack Coogan, Jr”) also had a role in the film as a pickpocket. 

The Kid was such a smash, and Jackie such a hit with audiences, that at this stage Big Jack put his own career as a performer on hold and made it subsidiary to Jackie’s. Jackie Coogan Productions was quickly established and Jack, Sr. is credited on several, though not all of Jackie’s subsequent films: My Boy (1921, supervisor), Trouble (1922, producer), Daddy (1923, writer, supervisor), Circus Days (1924, supervisor), A Boy of Flanders (1924, supervisor), Little Robinson Crusoe (1924, supervisor), Old Clothes (1925, producer), The Rag Man (1925, supervisor), and Johnny Get Your Hair Cut (1927, supervisor).

A second performing son Robert Coogan, was born in 1924. Robert made his film debut in Skippy (1931), a film which Jackie also appeared in.

Jack and Lillian subsequently divorced and Lilian remarried. In 1935, Jack Sr. was at the wheel of a horrible car crash in the mountains that killed four people, including himself. 20 year old Jackie, also in the car, was the only survivor. When Jackie turned 21 a few months later he learned that his mother had spent his entire fortune, a controversy that inspired Coogan’s Law, which requires the parents of child performers to keep the money they earn in trust.

P.S. Jackie Coogan is a character in Dick Zigun’ new play, Bloody Brains in a Jukebox, opening at Coney Island USA in March!

To learn more about vaudeville please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic film comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.