Word has come down that Jackie Cooper, one of the last great survivors of Hollywood’s celebrated Golden Age, is gone, dead at 88 in Beverly Hills. One of the finest child performers ever turned out by Hollywood, Cooper earned a Best Actor Academy Award nomination at 9 years old, making him the youngest person ever nominated in that category, a record that remains unexcelled since 1931. The movie was Skippy (1931), a big hit that catapulted him to instant stardom. A contract at MGM followed and over the next half-dozen years, Cooper reigned as one of Hollywood’s biggest and best paid stars with phenomenal successes in The Champ (1931), The Bowery (1933) and Treasure Island (1934) among others.
Adored as “America’s Boy,” on-screen, little Jackie Cooper was treated as a meal ticket at home, suffering from what is an all-too-familiar tale of abuse from those who should have protected him both at home and at the studio. Yet, in spite of his painful childhood experiences, Cooper was strong enough and resilient enough not to let it destroy him and he constantly reinvented himself in the succeeding years, leading a thousand lives as an exemplary naval officer, an actor in films, Broadway and in early television, as an Emmy Award-winning director (for M*A*S*H), writer, producer and even studio executive (He was one of the chiefs of Screen Gems from 1964-9). He even managed to find success in love with his third marriage to Barbara Rae Kraus lasting for more than half a century and ending only with her death in 2009. He also had four children, three with Barbara and one from his first marriage.
As any child actor will tell you, it is a tough life and we have seen so many who have been unable to adjust into adulthood. Jackie Cooper’s childhood was as tough as any and yet he came out of it not only just as a survivor but as a real champ. After all, anybody who could survive not one but four movies opposite Wallace Beery had to be tough!
Hats off to you Jackie! You’ve left an impressive legacy of achievement. And I highly recommend you pick up Jackie’s no-holds-barred autobiography Please Don’t Shoot My Dog. It’s quite a story.