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July 28, 2011

Jackie Cooper, Child Star Turned Prolific Director and Producer

A onetime member of the Our Gang troupe, Cooper was youngest performer to receive an Academy Award nomination, for the 1931 film Skippy. He later earned Primetime Emmys as a director.

Jackie Cooper, the first child star and youngest performer to receive an Academy Award nomination (for Best Actor in a Leading Role in 1931 for Skippy) died on May 3, 2011, in Santa Monica, California after a short illness. He was 88.

Born John Cooperman, Jr., on September 15, 1922, Cooper got his start on the big screen at age three in some Lloyd Hamilton silent shorts, which led to early talkie Sunny Side Up in 1929. From 1929 to 1931 he was a featured player in Hal Roach’s classic Our Gang, appearing in 15 of the shorts. Cooper’s tenure with the Our Gang series came to an end when he landed the leading role in Skippy. Next was The Champ, with Wallace Beery, who won the Academy Award victory for Best Actor in a Leading Role in 1931. Cooper appeared opposite Beery in three other films (The Bowery, Treasure Island and O’Shaughnessy’s Boy), and was featured in a host of other 1930s titles, including Young Donovan’s Kids, Sookie, When a Fellow Needs a Friend, Divorce in the Family, Broadway to Hollywood, Lone Cowboy, Peck’s Bad Boy, Gangster’s Boy, Streets of New York and The Big Guy.

Cooper’s early success was so phenomenal, he made over one million dollars annually and was the headliner in a 1931 special released by MGM called Jackie Cooper’s Christmas Party. Success as a teenager was not as significant, but Cooper kept busy in movies like The Return of Frank James, with Henry Fonda, in 1940, as Henry Aldrich in What a Life! (1939) and Life With Henry (1941), and in 12-chapter serial Scouts to the Rescue in 1939.

After serving in the Navy during World War II, his career took a dip with lightweight fare like Kilroy was Here in 1947 and French Leave in 1948. Bigger success came with a stage role as Ensign Pulver in the road company version of the original Broadway play, Mr. Roberts, followed by more New York stage work, two Broadway plays, and in guest spots on early 1950s TV series Starlight Theatre, The Clock, Lux Video Theatre, The Ford Television Theatre, Suspense, Kraft Theatre, Danger and many others.

In 1955, Cooper began a three-year stint as star and director of sitcom The People’s Choice. One year after the demise of The People’s Choice came another role in the regularly scheduled comedy-drama Hennesey, which lasted until 1962 and netted Cooper two Primetime Emmy Award nominations.

After Hennesey, Cooper became the vice president in charge of production for Screen Gems, the television arm of Columbia Pictures, where he packaged series, including Bewitched, and sold them to networks. After five years at Screen Gems, he switched to series directing and won Emmys for episodes of The White Shadow and M*A*S*H. He also helmed two made-for-TV movies that centered on show business figures: Rainbow (1978), based on the life of Judy Garland, and Rosie: The Rosemary Clooney Story in 1982. At about the same time, Cooper was busy guest starring in a number of TV series including McCloud, Ironside, The F.B.I., Columbo, Kojak and The Invisible Man. In the fall of 1975, he headlined the short-lived action/adventure Mobile One.

In 1978, Cooper made his first appearance on the big screen in the Superman franchise as Perry White, and played the role in the four-film series through 1987. His final part was two episodes of failed 1990 newspaper drama Capital News.

Over the years, Cooper pursued many other activities outside of show business, including racing sports cars and raising horses in San Diego. He was married three times and is survived by sons John and Russell.

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