Jackie Coogan (1914-1984)

Jackie Coogan - Child Silent Film Star

Silent movie child star Jackie Coogan was born John Leslie Coogan Jr. on October 26th, 1914 in Los Angeles, California to a show business family. His father, John H. Coogan, had been born in Syracuse and worked in an apothecary and then in vaudeville as an actor and dancer, and his mother had been a child star on the stage. Shortly after Jackie’s birth the Coogans went east and it was in New York that Jackie made his first real appearance in the theater, at the age of four years. At age five he began touring with his family in vaudeville shows.

Charles Chaplin had long been planning a movie project called “The Kid”, but had kept postponing his film because he could not find the right child actor to star opposite him. A friend of Chaplin’s knew of his ambition and thought of Jackie for the role. He brought Charlie down to the hotel where the Coogans were staying and introduced young Jackie to him. Chaplin was impressed and knew right away he had found the perfect youngster for his movie. To test Jackie, Chaplin gave him a small role in his film “A Day’s Pleasure” (1919), which proved that he had star quality. They then began filming Chaplin’s “The Kid” (1921), a memorable film in which the Little Tramp rescues and raises a street urchin named Jackie, eventually losing him. The movie effectively combined both pathos and humor and was a great success for Charlie and Jackie. Jackie went on to play a child in a number of popular films in the 1920’s, such as “Peck’s Bad Boy” (1921), “Oliver Twist” (1922) opposite Lon Chaney, and “The Rag Man” (1925 – recently restored and re-scored for Turner Classic Movies), and he continued to tour with his father on the stage. Although there were other child stars performing in films in the 1920’s, Jackie’s career and stardom were the most heavily promoted during the decade. Magazines of the day depicted Jackie touring the world with his father, Jackie at birthday parties, Jackie posing in front of his expensive toys, his cars, his homes, etc. At the height of his career in the 1920’s, he was one of the most highly paid performers in Hollywood, earning millions for the studios which hired him, including First National, Lesser, Universal, M-G-M, and for his own production company set up by his parents, called Jackie Coogan Productions.

Child star Jackie Coogan

By 1927, at the age of 13, Jackie Coogan had grown up on the screen and his career was starting to wind down as he aged and other child stars took hold of the public’s fancy. He made sound versions of “Tom Sawyer” (1930) and ‘Huckleberry Finn” (1931), but these movies were not as popular as his earlier films during the silent era. His personal family life was about to be thrust into turmoil as well. His parents divorced and his mother re-married Arthur Bernstein, who became Jackie’s business manager. In 1936, Jackie’s father died, along with his best friend, in a terrible automobile accident. Jackie had been in the car and was injured, but recovered. When he came of age he naturally wanted the money which he had earned making films as a child star, but his mother and his step-father refused his request. Jackie filed suit against them for the four million dollars that he had earned during those years. Under California Law at the time he had no rights to the money he made as a child, and he was eventually awarded only $126,000 in 1939! The public was outraged when they learned of the situation, and the California Legislature was pressured to pass the “Coogan Act”, which would set up a trust fund for any child actor to protect his earnings.

Jackie Coogan as Fester in The Addams Family

Jackie Coogan as Uncle Fester in “The Addams Family” in 1964

Jackie Coogan married four times and had four children. In 1937, he married actress Betty Grable, but the marriage lasted only three years. During World War Two Jackie served in the Army, then returned to Hollywood after the war. He worked in small budget movies, playing mostly bit parts. In the 1950’s he began to find acting work on television. Almost broke by the 1960’s, he suddenly hit his stride again, starring in two comedy television series, “McKeever and the Colonel”, which ran from 1962-63, and the classic “The Addams Family”, which ran from 1964-1966, in which he played funny, baldheaded Uncle Fester. In 1972 Jackie was reunited with his old friend Charlie Chaplin, who returned to the United States to accept an honorary Oscar. Jackie and a small crowd of well wishers met Charlie at the airport, and the frail Chaplin, upon recognizing Jackie, broke down, hugged him and whispered to him, “I think I would rather see you than anybody else.” Jackie Coogan would continue making acting appearances in a number of television shows, commercials, and in a handful of movies, until his death from a heart attack on March 1st, 1984 in Santa Monica, California. ~ Copyright © 2004 www.goldensilents.com

Jackie Coogan’s Silent Films

Buttons (1927) …. Buttons
Bugle Call, The (1927) …. Billy Randolph
Johnny Get Your Hair Cut (1927) …. Johnny O’Day
Old Clothes (1925) …. Timothy Kelly

Silent movie star Jackie Coogan - Golden Silents

Rag Man, The (1925) …. Tim Kelly
Hello Frisco (1924)
Little Robinson Crusoe (1924) …. Mickey Hogan
… aka Robinson Crusoe Jr. (1924)
Boy of Flanders, A (1924) …. Nello
Long Live the King (1923) …. Crown Prince Otto
Circus Days (1923) …. Toby Tyler
Daddy (1923) …. Jackie Savelli/Jackie Holden
Trouble (1922) …. Danny, the Kid
… aka Trouble, Keep Smiling (1922) (USA)
Oliver Twist (1922) …. Oliver Twist
My Boy (1921) …. Jackie Blair
Peck’s Bad Boy (1921) …. ‘Peck’s Bad Boy’ (Henry Peck)
Kid, The (1921) …. The Kid
Day’s Pleasure, A (1919) …. Smallest Boy
… aka Ford Story, A (1919) (USA)
Skinner’s Baby (1917) (uncredited) …. The Baby

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