Died: March 1, 1984 (at age 69)
Birthplace: Los Angeles, California, U.S.
John Leslie "Jackie" Coogan (October 26, 1914 - March 1, 1984) was an American actor who began his movie career as a child actor in silent films. Charlie Chaplin's film classic The Kid (1921) made him one of the first child stars in film history. Many years later, he became known as Uncle Fester on the 1960s sitcom The Addams Family. In the interim, he sued his mother and stepfather over his squandered film earnings and provoked California to enact the first known legal protection for the earnings of child performers, widely known as the Coogan Act.
Coogan was born in 1914 in Los Angeles, California, to John Henry Coogan, Jr., and Lillian Rita (Dolliver) Coogan, as John Leslie Coogan. He began performing as an infant in both vaudeville and film, with an uncredited role in the 1917 film Skinner's Baby. Charlie Chaplin discovered him in the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles—a vaudeville house—doing the shimmy, a popular dance at the time, on the stage. Coogan's father was also an actor. Jackie Coogan was a natural mimic and delighted Chaplin with his abilities. Chaplin subsequently cast him in a small role in A Day's Pleasure (1919). He was Chaplin's irascible sidekick in The Kid (1921) and played the title role in Oliver Twist, directed by Frank Lloyd, the following year. Coogan was one of the first stars to be heavily merchandised; peanut butter, stationery, whistles, dolls, records, and figurines were among the Coogan-themed merchandise offered.
Coogan was tutored until the age of ten, when he entered Urban Military Academy and other prep schools. He attended several colleges, as well as the University of Southern California. In 1932, he dropped out of Santa Clara University because of poor grades.
In November 1933, Brooke Hart, a close friend of Coogan from Santa Clara University, was kidnapped from his family-owned department store in San Jose and brought to the San Francisco area San Mateo-Hayward Bridge. After several demands for a $40,000 ransom, police arrested Thomas Thurmond and John Holmes in San Jose. Thurmond admitted that Hart had been murdered on the night he was kidnapped. Both men were then transferred to a prison in San Jose, California. A mob later broke into the building; Thurmond and Holmes were then hanged in an adjacent park. Coogan was reported to be among the mob that prepared and held the lynching rope.
On May 4, 1935, at age 20, Coogan was the sole survivor of a car crash in San Diego County that took the life of his father and his best friend Junior Durkin, a child actor who appeared as Huckleberry Finn in two early 1930s films.
|“||Mr. and Mrs. Bernstein will never be serious contenders for the title of Mr. and Mrs. America.||”|
—New York Herald Tribune
As a child star, Coogan earned an estimated $3 to $4 million ($48 million to $65 million adjusted for 2012 dollars), but the money was spent by his mother and stepfather, Arthur Bernstein, on such extravagances as fur coats, diamonds, and expensive cars. Coogan's mother and stepfather claimed Jackie was having fun and thought he was playing. She stated, "No promises were ever made to give Jackie anything. Every dollar a kid earns before he is 21 belongs to his parents. Jackie will not get a cent of his earnings", and claimed that "Jackie was a bad boy." Coogan sued them in 1938, but, after legal expenses, received only $126,000 ($2,111,000 in 2015) of the approximately $250,000 remaining of his earnings. When Coogan fell on hard times and asked Charlie Chaplin for assistance, Chaplin gave him $1,000 without hesitation.
The legal battle brought attention to child actors and resulted in the enactment in 1939 of the California Child Actor's Bill, often called the Coogan Law or the Coogan Act. This requires that a child actor's employer set aside 15% of the earnings in a trust (often called a Coogan Account), and codifies such issues as schooling, work hours and time-off.
Coogan took up the cause of the Armenians, Greeks, and others made destitute during Armenian Genocide, working with Near East Relief. He toured across the United States and Europe in 1924 on a "Children's Crusade" as part of a fundraising drive, which ended up providing more than $1,000,000 in clothing, food, and other contributions (worth more than $13 million adjusted for 2012 dollars). Coogan was honored by officials in the United States, Greece, and Rome, where he met with Pope Pius XI.
He was a Roman Catholic, and a member of the Good Shepherd Parish and the Catholic Motion Picture Guild in Beverly Hills, California.
In 1940, Coogan played the role of "a playboy Broadway producer" in the Society Girl program on CBS radio.
Coogan enlisted in the United States Army in March 1941. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he requested a transfer to United States Army Air Forces as a glider pilot because of his civilian flying experience. After graduating from glider school, he was made a flight officer and he volunteered for hazardous duty with the 1st Air Commando Group. In December 1943, the unit was sent to India. He flew British troops, the Chindits, under General Orde Wingate on March 5, 1944, landing them at night in a small jungle clearing 100 miles behind Japanese lines in the Burma campaign.
After the war, Coogan returned to acting, taking mostly character roles and appearing on television. From 1952 to 1953, he played Stoney Crockett on the syndicated series Cowboy G-Men. He guest starred on NBC's The Martha Raye Show. He appeared too, as Corbett, in two episodes of NBC's The Outlaws with Barton MacLane, which aired from 1960-1962. In the 1960-1961 season, he guest starred in the episode "The Damaged Dolls" of the syndicated crime drama The Brothers Brannagan. In 1961, he guest starred in an episode of The Americans, an NBC series about family divisions stemming from the American Civil War. He also appeared in episode 37, titled Barney on the Rebound, of The Andy Griffith Show, which aired October 31, 1961. He had a regular role in a 1962-63 NBC series, McKeever and the Colonel. He finally found his most famous television role as Uncle Fester in ABC's The Addams Family (1964-1966). He appeared as a police officer in the Elvis Presley comedy Girl Happy in 1965.
He appeared four times on the Perry Mason series, including the role of political activist Gus Sawyer in the 1963 episode, "The Case of the Witless Witness," and TV prop man Pete Desmond in the final episode, "The Case of the Final Fadeout," in 1966. He was a guest several times on The Red Skelton Show, appeared twice on the The Brady Bunch ("The Fender Benders" and "Double Parked"), I Dream of Jeannie (as Jeannie's uncle, Suleiman - Maharaja of Basenji), Family Affair, Here's Lucy and The Brian Keith Show, and continued to guest star on television (including multiple appearances on The Partridge Family, The Wild Wild West and Hawaii Five-O) until his retirement in the middle 1970s.
Coogan died on March 1, 1984 at age 69 in Santa Monica, California. His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is located on the 1700 block of Vine Street, just south of Hollywood Boulevard.