Arguably one of the greatest and most memorable of the silent movie child stars, Jackie Coogan (October 26, 1914 – March 1, 1984) had a life that could rival any Hollywood movie. As a child, he was already performing on stage when discovered by Charlie Chaplin at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles. Chaplin noticed the kid was a natural born mimic and cast him — at age five — in a small part in A Day’s Pleasure (1919). The boy glowed on camera, so Chaplin put him into his 1921 feature film The Kid and Jackie became an overnight sensation in one of Chaplin’s biggest hits.
Coogan became the first child star to get the full product marketing treatment. Dolls, figurines, whistles, recordings and even a brand of peanut butter bore his image, usually wearing a large cap and a sad-eyed expression. The marketing boom for Shirley Temple a decade later was modeled on the Coogan experience.
He also revolutionized legal treatment of the earnings of child stars. After Coogan discovered his mother and stepfather had usurped most of his earnings — an estimated $4 million, worth about $50 million in today‘s dollars — the then 24-year-old Coogan successfully sued them. The court case led to passage of the California Child Actors Bill, now commonly known as “the Coogan act,” which requires that a child actor’s employer must set aside 15 percent of his or her earnings in a trust account, and also set standards for work hour limitations and schooling for child actors.
Once he grew out of the juvenile phase of his career, he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1941 before the attack on Pearl Harbor. After the war, Coogan resumed his acting career, this time mostly in the new world of television. He appeared in a number of other TV roles, but is best remembered by baby boomers as Uncle Fester, the ghoulishly funny character in ABC’s The Addams Family from 1964-66. He appeared in many small roles in movies, including Elvis Presley’s Girl Happy (1965) and John Wayne’s Cahill, U.S. Marshal (1973). His final screen appearance in a movie was in 1984’s The Prey.
In honor of the star’s birthday, we’re sharing an excerpt from Ron Miller’s interview from the release Conversations with Classic Film Stars:
Setting the Scene
My chat with Jackie Coogan took place in April of 1968 while he was playing the role of Boss Finley in a production of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth in the round at Circle Star Theater in San Carlos, CA. I joined him in his dressing room and we talked between his turns on stage with co-star Shelley Winters. Our time was limited because he was doing his own makeup, which he did quietly and expertly while we talked,.
Coogan was then a little heavy, had a receding hairline and was dressed in a bathrobe over a pair of polka dot shorts. He had a good many furrows and creases, but his face still retained the look of that sad-eyed little boy adopted by Chaplin’s Little Tramp in The Kid. He was warm and friendly and often seemed to speak of the famous movie child as if he had been someone else that he just happened to know.
In the middle of our chat, Shelley Winters came into his dressing room, heavily made up for her role as a dissipated former movie star, and remarked to me, “So, you’re interviewing him? Well, that’s good. He’s a hell of an actor!”
Coming from the two-time Academy Award winning actress, I thought it was a pretty good testament to Coogan’s enduring star quality.
MILLER: The author Irvin S. Cobb once described you as “the blithest spirit that ever gave unending joy to countless millions.” How did it feel to be adored by “countless millions”?
COOGAN: (Chuckling) Maybe that’s why Lloyds of London insured me for $250,000 whenever I went on a trip. Stars were different then. There was no television, no radio. When a star showed up, the people turned out to see him — by the thousands.
MILLER: When you became a star, movies were silent, so there was no language barrier and people all over the world could see and appreciate what you did on screen. As a little boy, did you realize you were world famous?
COOGAN: When I was around nine, I was taken on a trip to Europe. It wasn’t like a normal kid’s trip to Europe. I met heads of state. I was “received” by royalty. I exchanged photos with Benito Mussolini. I kissed the Pope’s ring. Everywhere I went, I was mobbed by fans. I can remember being in a car in Paris when the mob nearly killed me. They picked up the whole car with us in it and paraded us down the street on their shoulders.
MILLER: What about back home in America? Could you go out and do things in public that a regular kid could do?
COOGAN: Once I made the mistake of going shopping with my mother. People recognized me and right away there was a huge group of people all over us. We finally had to be rescued by the police.
MILLER: How did this all begin? How young were you when you made your show business debut?
COOGAN: My parents were in show business and I made my movie debut at 18 months of age in an unbilled part in a picture called Skinner’s Baby. I was still an infant. My dad (John Henry “Jack” Coogan) was a dancer and I’d gone on stage with him many times.
MILLER: The legend is that you were dancing The Shimmy on stage at the Orpheum in L.A. when Charlie Chaplin, who was in the audience, saw you and thought he detected a special appeal in you. In fact, in his autobiography, Chaplin said your mugging to the audience might have been obnoxious in another child, but that you were “charming and the audience thoroughly enjoyed it.” I guess that was your lucky day because his decision to build The Kid around you made you a star overnight. How do you remember him?
COOGAN: Chaplin was very nice to me. He would just sit down with me and say what he wanted me to do and I’d do it. If Chaplin didn’t feel right about filming, he just wouldn’t film and I’d go play ball.
MILLER: After The Kid, you did a lot of famous juvenile parts in films like Peck’s Bad Boy and Oliver Twist, but you also did a lot of popular pictures that are forgotten today.
COOGAN: They made some crazy stuff. When I got my first haircut, it made headlines –and MGM made a movie about it — Johnny Get Your Hair Cut (1927).
MILLER: When the talkies arrived, you were older, but were still appearing in some classic kid stories, like Tom Sawyer (1930) and Huckleberry Finn (1931). Then the roles stopped coming so regularly. How did you feel when you realized you weren’t as “hot” as you’d been as a little boy?
COOGAN: There was nothing to be sorry about. I had as complete a life as any boy could have had. I was never bitter about it.
MILLER: I know you had a terrible ordeal in 1935 with the auto crash.
COOGAN: My father, my best friend and two of my dad’s friends were returning from a dove hunt in Mexico when our car was forced over a cliff by another car near San Diego. I was the only survivor.
MILLER: As if that weren’t enough, you then turned 21 and learned that your mother and her new husband had used up almost all the money you had made in the movies.
COOGAN: They even cut off my $6.25 a week allowance. I sued and finally collected what was left. It gave me a serious distrust of “jurisprudence and politics.”
COOGAN: I have four children from my four marriages and a horde of good memories. I’m financially stable and my wife and I live permanently in Palm Springs. I’ve got damned little hair left, but I’ve been letting what’s left of it grow out for this role. I’ve put on some weight, so some people might mistake me for an out of work Sumo wrestler.
MILLER: I think you’re well-regarded as a very good character actor these days.
COOGAN: I’m probably only known by people old enough to remember The Kid or all those kids who watched The Addams Family. That’s all right. I’m happy doing these character parts. I won’t say I can do anything that comes my way, but I could never quit this business. When I lay off, I get way too jumpy.
Jackie Coogan was married four times — first to Betty Grable (1937-39) before she became a major star. His fourth marriage — to Dorothea “Dodie” Hanson — was the lasting one, from 1953 until Coogan’s death from a heart attack in 1984. The greatest child star of the silent era is honored with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame on Vine Street near Hollywood Boulevard.