I feel as if I’ve known Jackie Cooper my whole life. Like many baby boomers, I grew up on a daily diet of The Little Rascals (originally known as Our Gang) on television, and also watched reruns of his 1950s TV series The People’s Choice, which I liked because it featured a dog named Cleo who “talked” to the audience. When I first interviewed Jackie, by telephone in 1974, he told me that when he directed episodes of that comedy series he remembered a valuable lesson from The Little Rascals: when in doubt, cut to the dog.
We met face to face in 1983 when I attended a TV syndication convention in San Francisco where he was promoting the reissue of his TV series Hennesey. After spending some time together on the plane ride home he suggested we have lunch. I meant to follow up right away, but I got busy and it was some months before I called to make a date. He picked me up in—
—one of his sports cars and took me to a favorite Italian restaurant, where he told me wonderful stories—like the time he spoke back to the imperious Fritz Lang on The Return of Frank James and wound up with no closeups in the finished film. When dessert was being served, he said, in a very friendly way, “So, tell me why you wanted to have lunch.” Being new to Hollywood, I didn’t understand that there was often a hidden agenda in a supposedly social get-together. I replied, “No reason, except to talk like this.” He smiled and said, “Fine!” and we kept chatting away.
One day, after watching Syncopation (1942) I called him to prod his memory about the film. He sounded almost apoplectic as he remembered his mistreatment at the hands of yet another German director, William Dieterle. Early in production Dieterle ordered
someone to arrange for Jackie to take trombone lessons so he would look convincing playing a musician in the film. Jackie corrected him and said, “Trumpet.” Dieterle fumed, “Are you trying to tell me what to do?” Sure enough, he studied the wrong instrument for a week, squawking all the while to anyone who would listen. As a result, he was angry throughout the shoot and thinks that tainted his performance. His compensation was spending time on the set with his sweetheart at the time, Bonita Granville.
His was a remarkable career. Roddy McDowall called him the “best child actor ever.” He started working at the age of 3, earned an Oscar nomination at 9 for his endearing performance in Skippy, became a major star, and even survived the “awkward age” that many child actors go through. In fact, he never stopped working.
But he confessed that at a certain point in his adolescence, he no longer cared about the films he was making. “I was having a good time, running around,” he explained. “You know, there were a lot of movie stars, a lot of ladies around. I had a hot car, and horse, and boats…I was having a terrific time, living in a dream world that a spoiled kid in a spoiled America knew in 1939, 1940.
“Right after the war, I started to take my work seriously. I’d been away, and I’d had some time to think. I came home and looked around, and I couldn’t get into the kind of pictures I wanted, and I couldn’t understand why. Finally, it dawned on me. I couldn’t say to somebody, ‘I can do that,’ because I hadn’t really done that, whatever it was.
I remember I wanted to be in Sea of Grass with Tracy and Hepburn. Bobby Walker got the part I wanted to do. Bobby was only a year or two older than me; I was 22 at the time, I think. I was a horseman, good with guns and holsters, and I went out to see [director Elia] Kazan, and said to him that I had read this and I wanted to be in the picture. He was very polite to me, but I just couldn’t understand why I never got called back. Then it dawned on me. I said, ‘Geez, I’m 24 years old, I don’t have a license on the wall like a plumber does. I don’t have any way of knowing what I can do, except to look back at crap like Glamour Boy. No wonder nobody’s going to take a chance with me.”
He listened to some friends’ advice and moved to New York, where he started working in live television drama, which paid poorly but gave him invaluable experience. “You were working with directors like Artie Penn, various young people coming up, guys with some guts and taste. Steiger, Eva Marie Saint, Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson were schooled actors; they were a lot of help to me, and about as formal a training as I ever had, because going on the air ‘live’ with Studio One is pretty formal training. I finally became ‘a New York actor’ after years of it.”
He also got work on stage, and costarred in the national touring company of Mister Roberts for a year and a half with John Forsythe, Cliff Robertson, Lonny Chapman and other solid actors.
Eventually he started directing filmed television, and became proficient at it. In the 1960s he headed the busy Screen Gems TV production unit of Columbia Pictures. In the 1970s he directed early episodes of the hit series M*A*S*H for another former child actor-turned-producer, Gene Reynolds, and won his first Emmy Award. He earned another for an episode of The White Shadow in 1979.
Acting was the last thing on his mind, but every once in a while someone would call with a part. No one was more surprised than he when he was asked to play Daily Planet editor Perry White in the 1978 Superman movie—and once he did, he was invited back to appear in three sequels over the next decade.
He never disdained his profession, and told me, “As much as I’ve directed, and horsed around with different parts of this business, once you’re an actor, you’re always an actor. You can stay out of the water for ten years, but if you fall in, you can swim. It never leaves you.”
He had many hobbies and interests which he avidly pursued, including a lengthy peacetime career with the United States Navy. He flew planes, played the drums well enough to record professionally, raised horses, and so much more. Perhaps his greatest talent—his greatest achievement—was living life to the fullest. He was 88 years old when he passed away on Tuesday.
I only wish I’d gotten to know him better. My wife happened to see him just a few weeks ago while running errands, and went over to pay her respects. When she came home and told me she’d spoken to him, it was with excitement in her voice. Like me, she’s a lifelong fan. After all, this was Jackie Cooper!