Thursday, May 5, 2011

Jackie Cooper, child actor turned director, dies

Jackie Cooper, the impish child actor of "Skippy" and "Our Gang" fame who captured the hearts of Americans and went on to a successful television career as an adult, died Tuesday. He was 88.
"He was an icon, the last of his kind," said his son, John Cooper III, who confirmed the actor's death at the Berkeley East Convalescent Hospital in Santa Monica.
At 9 years old, the freckle-faced Jackie became the youngest person in history to receive a best actor Academy Award nomination for his work as the playfully disobedient boy with well-combed hair in "Skippy" (1931). Before that, he was a star of "Our Gang," the wildly popular series of short films about neighborhood children that was followed by kids for generations.

An advocate for the rights of child actors, Mr. Cooper testified in the "Twilight Zone" trial over the deaths of two child actors in 1982.
"He always thought it wasn't the way to raise kids," said Cooper III, who resides in San Rafael. "His studio, MGM, tried to sign me once, and he got on the phone with my mom and said, 'Don't let them do it.' "
Unlike almost all his young co-stars of the day, Mr. Cooper transitioned effortlessly into adult work in front and behind the cameras, earning directing Emmys for "MASH" and "The White Shadow."
Born John Cooper Jr. in 1922 in Los Angeles, he began working at age 3 as an extra with his grandmother in Lloyd Hamilton comedies. After earning bit parts in "Fox Movietone Follies of 1929" and "Sunnyside Up," he signed on to "Our Gang" in 1929.
In 1931, Mr. Cooper's uncle Norman Taurog cast him in the title role of "Skippy," the mischievous son of an affluent doctor who struggles to help his friend, Sooky (played by Robert Coogan, brother of Jackie Coogan, another child star). In his 1982 autobiography, "Please Don't Shoot My Dog," Mr. Cooper said the book title came from Taurog's threat to shoot the film's dog to get Mr. Cooper to cry.
After his "Skippy" success, Mr. Cooper put out a spate of wildly popular films with Wallace Beery, such as "The Champ" (1931), "The Bowery" (1933) and "Treasure Island" (1934).
The New York Times, in a 1935 movie review, lamented that the 13-year-old Mr. Cooper "soon will be in long pants," which is "dreadful ... disheartening."
Long pants he donned. And Mr. Cooper joined the Navy in the South Pacific during World War II, and in the 1950s found television a new avenue for his career. In 1954, he appeared in two television series, NBC's "The People's Choice" and CBS' "Hennesey"; and in 1964, he became vice president of program development at Columbia Pictures' Screen Gems TV division, where he excelled as a producer, packaging such shows as "Bewitched."
Mr. Cooper returned to acting in the 1970s and 1980s as Daily Planet Editor Perry White in the Superman film series with Christopher Reeve. Mr. Cooper officially retired in 1989, and his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame can be found at 1501 Vine St.
"He retired, and I was like, 'Dad, you're only 67,' " recounts Cooper III. "He looked at me and said, 'Yeah, but I worked for 64 years.' "
Mr. Cooper was married to June Horne, Hildy Parks and Barbara Kraus. In addition to Cooper III, he had another son, Russell, and two daughters, Julie and Christine. He is survived by his sons.

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