One of the most popular child actors in Hollywood history, Jackie Cooper won moviegoers' hearts as the adorable lead in such classic melodramas as "The Champ" (1931) and "Treasure Island" (1934). Unlike many of his fellow juvenile players, he enjoyed a bountiful career as an adult in both the acting and directing fields. Cooper was a box office draw as a boy thanks to his All-American looks and ability to produce gallons of tears upon command. After falling out of favor as a teen, he returned to the business in his thirties as an in-demand player on television. Directing for shortform TV became a second career in the 1960s, as did a stint as an executive for Screen Gems; he divided his time between acting gigs in films like "Superman: The Movie" (1978) with directing and producing assignments until the late 1980s. Cooper's trove of family films from his child days, and his vast body of work as an adult, made him one of the longest-running success stories in Hollywood.
One could say that John Cooper, Jr. was born into the movie business. His father, John Cooper, was a publicist, while his extended family included uncles Norman Taurog, a well-regarded director, and screenwriter Jack Leonard, as well as his aunt, actress Julie Leonard. Cooper's father abandoned the family just two years after his son was born in Los Angeles on Sept. 15, 1922, and his mother, former child actress Mabel Leonard Polito, married studio production manager C.J. Bigelow, which furthered his connection to the industry. His grandmother brought Cooper along with him on auditions for extra work, which led to him working as a background player. Blessed with a generous grin, pinchable cheeks and a shock of blond hair, he was soon playing bit roles in short comedies before graduating to the "Our Gang" series in 1929. Originally slated as a supporting character, his natural screen presence elevated him to lead status, most notably in the shorts that dealt with his overwhelming crush on June Marlowe's schoolteacher, Miss Crabtree.
In 1931, Cooper was loaned to Paramount to star in "Skippy," a tear-jerking melodrama based on a popular comic strip. The film, directed by his Uncle Norman, pulled mercilessly at audiences' heartstrings in its story of a young boy (Cooper) who loses his beloved dog, which produced the ocean of tears that became Cooper's trademark. According to the actor, Taurog was instrumental in generating the emotional outburst by telling his star that he had killed the dog in real life. Audiences were floored by the nine-year-old Cooper's performance, which earned him an Academy Award nomination and the record as the youngest actor to receive such an honor in film history. Now ensconced at MGM, Cooper starred in a series of melodramas which placed him in Dickensian scenarios that would inevitably result in a flood of weeping; "When A Fellow Needs a Friend" (1931) cast him as a handicapped boy struggling to be accepted as "normal," while "Divorce in the Family" saw him as the prize between two competitive and highly insensitive fathers. Moviegoers could not get enough of Cooper's cinematic travails, which made him one of the top stars of the early 1930s. Dubbed "America's Boy" by the MGM press machine, he was featured in countless advertising campaigns, dined with then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and was the idol of millions of adolescent girls and (presumably jealous) boys.
The key films from this period of Cooper's career were his collaborations with character actor Wallace Beery. Their first picture together, the boxing drama "The Champ" (1931), told the story of a broken-down fighter (Beery) attempting to redeem himself in the eyes of his son (Cooper), who loves him unconditionally. The film's final moments, in which the camera was literally thrust into Cooper's face as he wept over Beery's death, remained a high water mark in movie melodrama for years, and firmly established both actors as box office gold. They would go on to star in several more films, including a much-loved adaptation of "Treasure Island" (1934) with Beery as Long John Silver and Cooper as Jim Hawkins. Movie goers believed in the special chemistry between the two actors, but in real life, Beery treated Cooper with disdain and upstaged him whenever possible during production.
Cooper's star began to wane at the tail end of the 1930s. Now entering his teens, he was no longer the baby-faced juvenile of his early films. He had in fact worked hard to escape that label through rigorous exercise, which produced an impressive physique for publicity photos, and promotional scenarios that pictured him on the arm of numerous teen starlets, including Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin. He attempted to segue into tough kid roles, but audiences preferred him as the Nice Young Man in pictures like "What a Life" (1939), as the soppy Henry Aldrich, or teen romances like "That Certain Age" (1938), which featured his first screen kiss courtesy of Durbin. There were occasional opportunities to show his range, such as in the Western "The Return of Frank James" (1940) with Henry Fonda, and the fun jazz musical "Syncopation" (1942), but by the mid-1940s, Cooper's career as the male Shirley Temple was largely over.
He joined the U.S. Navy and served during World War II, eventually reaching the rank of captain. Upon his return to civilian life, he found it difficult to land movie roles, and by 1948, was without a studio contract for the first time in nearly two decades. Faced with the daunting fact that he was untrained to do anything outside of acting, he headed for New York to try his hand at stage work. There, he made his debut in a 1949 production of "Magnolia Alley." The popular comedy-drama "Mister Roberts" kept him busy for the next few years; he played Ensign Pulver in the American touring production and then in the London production in 1951.
Television was also Cooper's steady medium through the 1950s. He appeared in nearly every major anthology drama of the period, including multiple episodes of "Studio One" (CBS, 1948-1958) and "Robert Montgomery Presents" (NBC, 1950-57). The constant exposure helped to dispel the image of Cooper as the lachrymose boy of yesteryear, replacing it with a capable and versatile character actor and occasional lead whose performances were marked by a surprising caginess and energy. In 1955, he developed his first network series, "The People's Choice" (NBC, 1955-58), a quirky drama about a tough city councilor who butts heads with the mayor while dating his daughter (Pat Breslin). The show's gimmick was Cooper's basset hound, which frequently spoke in asides to the audience, but not her cast mates. Popular with viewers, "People's Choice" netted Cooper two Emmy nominations for Best Actor, and launched his second career as a television director. Its premature cancellation sent Cooper back to the drawing board for his second series, "Hennessey" (NBC, 1959-1962), a comedy-drama about life at the U.S. Naval Station in San Diego that netted two more Emmy nods for Cooper.
The oddball comedy "Everything's Ducky" (1961) marked Cooper's first movie appearance in over a decade, but the return would be short-lived. In 1964, he was appointed to Vice President of Program Development for Screen Gems, better known as Columbia Pictures' television division. The position saw Cooper packaging series and TV movies for the networks, including "Bewitched" (ABC, 1964-1972). He was off the big and small screens for nearly the entire run of his executive career, save for one television movie, the futuristic thriller "Shadow on the Land" (ABC, 1968). After leaving Columbia in 1969, Cooper divided his time between directing for episodic television and acting for the small screen, with occasional returns to features. The most successful of the latter was his turn as the irascible Perry White, editor of the Daily Planet in Richard Donner's "Superman: The Movie" (1978) and its sequels, "Superman II" (1980), "Superman III" (1983) and "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace" (1987). He was a last-minute replacement for actor Keenan Wynn, who suffered a heart attack shortly before filming began. He also tackled the news business in "Mobile One" (ABC, 1975), a short-lived drama from Jack Webb about a TV news crew that marked his final attempt at a network series.
As a director, Cooper won two Emmys for his work on "M*A*S*H" (CBS, 1972-1983) and the pilot episode of "The White Shadow" (CBS, 1978-1981). He also helmed multiple episodes of some of the most popular shows of the 1970s and 1980s, including "The Rockford Files" (NBC, 1973-1980), "Magnum, P.I." (CBS, 1980-88) and "Cagney and Lacey" (CBS, 1982-88). He began directing features for television with 1972's "Keep the Faith" (CBS), with Bert Convy and Howard Da Silva as squabbling rabbis, but graduated to more substantive work in the 1980s like the Emmy-nominated "White Mama" (CBS, 1980) with Bette Davis, and "Rosie: The Rosemary Clooney Story" (CBS, 1982) with Sondra Locke in the title role. He directed just one theatrical feature, "Stand Up and Be Counted" (1972), a comedy about the women's equality movement with Jacqueline Bisset that failed at the box office.
In 1982, Cooper released Please Don't Shoot My Dog, a no-holds barred autobiography which revealed the truth about his working relationship with Beery, a wild romance with Joan Crawford while still in his teens, and escapades on the seedier side of Tinseltown. Cooper continued to act and direct until 1989, when he announced his retirement to train and race horses. As late as 2006, he was a frequent interview subject on documentaries and television specials about his days as a child actor, as well as the Golden Age of Hollywood and the many projects with which he was associated. The beloved actor passed away at age 88 in Beverly Hills on May 3, 2011, only a month after good friend and fellow MGM contract player Elizabeth Taylor also passed.