Jackie Cooper had a rare quality most child actors can not claim: he continued to work well past puberty. Cooper is well known to be a very popular star of some of early Hollywood’s most beloved films including “Treasure Island” and “The Champ”. He maneuvered that fame to his advantage well into his teens co-starring with the biggest names in the business such as Judy Garland and Lana Turner in “Ziegfeld Girl”. Later, after serving in WWII he quickly moved into television and became a regular image on the small screen appearing in all the playhouse and variety shows of the era including “Lux Video Theatre”, and “Your Show of Shows”.
Cooper even had his own series, “Hennesey” before becoming a regular sight on such 70’s dramas as “Hawaii 5-O”, “McCloud”, “Ironside” and my personal favorite mystery show of all time, “Columbo” in which he was exceedingly good as a politician who kills his campaign manager in order to hide a secret affair. And in the 80s there were his many appearances on the long running “Murder She Wrote” sometimes playing the victim, and sometimes the killer. Whatever the decade in his long running career, you could find Cooper working at his trade.
Of course, these days when people think of Jackie Cooper they likely remember him as the tough newspaper man, Perry White from the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. Most people don’t even connect the young blonde haired boy of early classic cinema as the same person at all. Which I suppose is natural since he himself never relied upon his early success to cary him through life. In fact, to remain versatile, Cooper set out to put his on-set experience to work behind the camera. He ultimately achieved the highest honor as a television director, receiving an Emmy as Best Director for an episode of M*A*S*H in 1974, and another for the pilot of “The White Shadow” in 1979. Not a bad life lesson for actors of any age.
I first discovered Cooper as I suspect most people did; as a child watching old “Our Gang” and “The Little Rascal” shorts on TV. Cooper had started out as a member of the child troop in 1929, but quickly moved on to being the lead actor in full length features with “Skippy” in 1931. His performance was so strong that the then 9 year old Cooper was nominated as Best Actor for an Academy Award - for his very first leading role! To this day he holds the record for the youngest person ever nominated for an Oscar (Tatum O’Neal was nominated and won for Best Supporting Actress at the age of 10, and Shirley Temple was given an honorary Oscar just shy of turning 7).
Check on this link to get to the loving tribute TCM has edited together to represent the best of Coopers early work. And be sure to catch the network’s tribute to Cooper on Friday, May 13. The nine-film salute begins at 9AM (PST) and will include such favorites as the previously mentioned “Treasure Island” and “The Champ” (both with Wallace Berry) as well as “The Devil is a Sissy”, with fellow child stars Freddie Bartholomew and Mickey Rooney.
Jackie Cooper may have lost out to Lionel Barrymore for an Oscar, but he continued to ply his talents in a multitude of entertaining directions, winning fans from every generation along the way. He may not have played the title role in “The Champ”, but he certainly seems to have lived his life as one, always getting back up and fighting the good fight no matter which way the calls were made, not just winning, but earning the respect of those around him. We will miss you, Skippy.