Best known for his role in Charlie Chaplin's The Kid, Jackie Coogan (1914-1984) was one of the first and best known child actors. Because of the legal problems Coogan faced in obtaining the money he earned as a child star, the California legislature passed ground-breaking legislation protecting child actors and their earnings.
Coogan was born October 26, 1914, in Los Angeles, California, the son of John Leslie Coogan, Sr. (also known as Big Jack), and his wife Lillian (nee Dolliver). Coogan's parents were entertainers. His mother's whole family was involved in vaudeville, and she herself had been a child actress on stage known as Baby Lillian. John Coogan also worked as a dancer and comedian on the vaudeville circuit. When the couple married, they developed own stage act. John Coogan was a comedian, while his wife served as his foil and singer.
Made Stage Debut
Coogan spent the first three years of his life primarily in the care of relatives, though he did appear in one film with his mother as an infant, Skinner's Baby (1917). When he was a toddler, his parents took him on the road with them. Coogan started to do imitations and dance steps, and his father brought him on stage one night for a curtain call. The audience's response to Coogan's charming appearances compelled the tour promoter to insist that young Coogan became part of the act, for which the family was paid extra. When the vaudeville show made its way to Los Angeles, upand-coming director/comedian Charlie Chaplin caught the act. Chaplin was looking for a child actor and decided that young Coogan fit the bill.
Appeared in The Kid
Chaplin signed Coogan to appear in his movie at the rate of $75 per week. As part of the deal, Coogan's father would also appear in the film and work as Chaplin's assistant. Though the transition from stage to film was difficult for the young actor, who was used the reaction of a live audience, Coogan still managed to be a natural on film. To prepare for work on Chaplin's masterpiece, Coogan appeared in one movie called A Day's Pleasure (1919). He then worked with Chaplin on The Kid (1921), which took over a year to film. In the movie, Chaplin's famous character, the Little Tramp, adopts a child, played by Coogan, but is forced to give him up in order to save him. The Kid was a box office smash, and Coogan nearly stole the movie which made him a star. The Kid became one of Chaplin's best known pictures.
Star on the Rise
To help build on this burgeoning career, his father founded Jackie Coogan Productions. John Coogan produced and sometimes wrote many of his son's features. Some of these early movies included: Peck's Bad Boy (1921), Oliver Twist, My Body, and Trouble (all 1922). By 1923, Coogan was the top box office star in the United States. He appeared in two more successful films: Daddy and Circus Days. That same year, Coogan signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. In addition to a $500,000 bonus, Coogan made $1 million for four movies over two years plus a percentage of the profits. One of the films was Long Live the King (1924), allegedly the first film to bring in one million dollars.
To capitalize on his son's success, John Coogan signed a number of merchandise and endorsement deals. There were Coogan caps, wagons, clothing, cups, dolls and chocolate bars. His image appeared on many products. The young actor was making millions of dollars and his father was investing some of the money. The family also lived the high life, though Coogan himself only had a weekly allowance of $6.25. His home featured one of the first swimming pools in southern California. Coogan also owned a dairy ranch, which produced the milk he drank, as well as his own railroad car.
Coogan used his fame for philanthropic purposes. In the early 1920s, for example, he worked for the Children's Crusade, a group that raised money and collected clothing and food for war orphans in Armenia and Greece. For his work, he was honored by the League of Nations and met the Pope. Because of his fame, Coogan also met many mayors and was given the keys to many cities. At its height, Coogan's fame was so great that he once said, according to Neil A. Grauer of American Heritage, "Other boys went to see Babe Ruth. But Babe Ruth came to see me."
Faced Career Struggles
As Coogan reached adolescence in the late 1920s, his popularity began to decline. He continued to make movies on his Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract until it ended in 1928. The more successful films included A Boy of Flanders (1924), The Rag Man (1925), and Johnny Get Your Gun (1927). In the latter, Coogan's now-famous "Dutch Boy" hair cut was sheared into a more mature look.
During this time, Coogan performed in a stage show with his father. He also concentrated on his education. Until the age of ten, Coogan was tutored. He then attended Urban Military Academy as well as other prep schools. After graduation, Coogan attended several colleges, including Villanova and University of Southern California. Poor grades forced him to leave Santa Clara University in 1932.
Coogan made a couple of films for Paramount, including Tom Sawyer (1930) and Hucklebrry Finn (1931). While he was a talented actor, there was not much of an audience for his films. Coogan agreed to make short features for the low-budget Talisman Studio in 1933.
When Coogan turned 21 years old, he expected to gain control of the money he had earned as a child star. But in May 1935, just before his 21st birthday, a formidable event occurred. On the way home from a dove hunting trip to Mexico Coogan, his father, two actor friends, and the foreman of his ranch were involved in a serious car accident. All the occupants were killed except Coogan, who suffered broken ribs. He later speculated that the legal problems that followed would not have occurred had his father lived.
Soon after Coogan turned 21, he asked his mother for the money that had allegedly been held in trust for him. He had earned at least four million dollars over the course of his career. She refused, arguing that parents were entitled to all of their children's earnings. He was completely cut off by her, and given only $1000. Coogan's mother lived in a house that he had paid for with her second husband, Arthur Bernstein, the family's lawyer and financial advisor. As Coogan considered his options, he began a vaudeville tour in 1936-37. He also appeared in the film College of Swing (1938). Appearing with him was Betty Grable, whom he had married in 1937.
In 1938, Coogan took legal action against his mother, claiming the assets of his company, Jackie Coogan Productions. He wanted a full financial accounting of earnings. His mother and stepfather fought him all the way, though public opinion was on Coogan's side. Some who testified on Coogan's behalf emphasized that his father had promised to leave the money to his son. The legal wranglings deeply affected Coogan's life. He claimed that his stepfather, who had many Hollywood connections, made it difficult for to find work in films. Coogan did a stage tour with Bob Hope, however. He also found other stage work in New York and in summer stock. The legal problems contributed to the end of Coogan's marriage to Grable in 1938.
The settlement from the suit was finalized in 1940, with Coogan and his mother splitting the remaining assets. Coogan received half of $250,000, which was soon gone as he settled debts. Coogan and his mother later reconciled, and his lack of funds compelled him to move back into the family home. Because of what happened to Coogan, the California legislature passed a law known as the Coogan Act (Child Actor's bill). It said that 50 percent of a child actor's earnings must be held in trust, savings, or interest until he or she reaches the age of maturity. It was first introduced in 1939 and passed in 1940.
Served in World War II
In the early 1940s, Coogan joined the medics before the United States officially entered the second world war. He later became part of the Army Air Corps, as he had already obtained a pilot's license as a teenager. Coogan worked as a glider instructor and served in Burma as a volunteer member of the First Air Commando Force. He was the first glider pilot to land Allied troops behind enemy lines in Burma. One glider he was aboard crashed. Everyone was killed by the Japanese except Coogan, who was at the bottom of a pile of bodies. He served with the military for five years before being honorably discharged in 1944. Coogan received several war citations for his service, including the Air Medal.
After returning to the United States, Coogan continued his civic duty, appearing in War Bond drives in 1946. He also tried to restart his career in entertainment, though he also worked in sales and produced an ice show. Coogan began appearing in nightclubs and toured with an orchestra. He eventually made his way back to film and later television, but was never able to recapture the success of his early career. He developed a drinking problem and was arrested for drunk driving. It is alleged that Coogan also had a drug problem and was arrested for marijuana possession.
Became Minor Television Star
Though Coogan played mainly supporting roles in movies of low to medium quality after the 1940s, he made numerous guest appearances on television. He even received an Emmy Award nomination for a 1956 role in an episode of Playhouse 90. In the mid-1960s, Coogan portrayed Uncle Fester in the short-lived The Addams Family television series. Though he was initially rejected, Coogan desperately wanted the role and went to great lengths to resemble the cartoon character. Coogan had previously been a regular on the shows Cowboy G-Men and McKeever and the Colonel. He made his last movie in 1980, playing a small role in The Escape Artist (1982).
After suffering from heart and kidney ailments, Coogan succumbed to heart failure on March 1, 1984, in Santa Monica, California. He was survived by fourth wife, Dorothea Lamphere and four children: Anthony, Chris, Joan, and Leslie. Later, one grandson, Keith Coogan, came to some prominence as a young actor in his own right.
American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, Oxford University Press, 1999.
The Annual Obituary 1984, edited by Margaret Levy, St. James Press, 1985.
Aylesworth, Thomas G., Hollywood Kids: Child Stars of the Silver Screen from 1903 to the Present, E.P. Dutton, 1987.
Dye, David, Child and Youth Actors: Filmographies of Their Entire Careers, 1914-1985, McFarland and Company, Inc., 1988.
Variety Obituaries, Garland Publishing, 1988.
American Heritage, December 2000.
New York Times, March 2, 1984.
Time, March 12, 1984.