Hollywood Remains to Be Seen

Jackie Coogan
1914 - 1984

Holy Cross Cemetery

Jackie Coogan first gained fame as a child starring with Charlie Chaplin in "The Kid" (1921), and was later best known to a new generation as Uncle Fester on the television series, "The Addams Family," in the 1960s.

Chaplin first saw the 4-year-old Coogan performing in a dance act with his father at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles in 1918. Chaplin described Coogan as "charming" with "an engaging personality," but he didn't think much more about him until a few weeks later when he read that Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, another popular silent film comedian, had signed Coogan to a film contract. Chaplin then realized that Coogan would be perfect in his films, especially as a young partner for Chaplin's "Little Tramp" character, but it was too late. Coogan had already been signed by Arbuckle. "What an idiot I was not to have thought of it before," Chaplin recalled in his autobiography.

While Chaplin was still upset about missing the opportunity, he was told that Arbuckle had actually signed Coogan's father, Jack Coogan Sr., not the little boy. Chaplin quickly called Coogan Sr., and asked if his son was available for a film. He was, and Chaplin immediately started to work on "The Kid," his first feature-length film.

In the film, Coogan plays a child abandoned by his mother, played by Edna Purviance. Chaplin finds the boy and takes care of him, but the mother decides she wants him back, so the authorities take him away. Chaplin steals the boy back, but loses him again. Chaplin remembered Coogan as a natural performer. "There were a few basic rules to learn in pantomime and Jackie soon mastered them," he wrote. "He could apply emotion to the action and action to the emotion, and could repeat it time and time again without losing the effect of spontaneity. Jackie Coogan was sensational." (Ironically, Coogan Sr.'s contract with Arbuckle didn't work out, and his only film appearance was a small role as a pickpocket in "The Kid.")

Despite Chaplin's concerns about mixing drama with comedy, "The Kid" opened to rave reviews, and is currently considered a silent classic. And Coogan worked steadily after that, appearing in, "Peck's Bad Boy" (1921), "Oliver Twist" (1922), "Daddy" (1923), "A Boy of Flanders" (1924), "Little Robinson Crusoe" (1924), "Tom Sawyer" (1930) and "Huckleberry Finn" (1931). By the early 1930s, Coogan had become the youngest self-made millionaire in history, but his career as a child star was over.

When Coogan's father died in a car crash in 1935, his mother married his business manager. The same year, Coogan turned 21, and was supposed to receive the estimated $4 million he had made during his career. When his mother and step-father refused to give him the money, Coogan sued them in 1938, and discovered that they had spent most of his money, with only about $200,000 left. Under California law at the time, Coogan had no rights to the money he had earned, and he was awarded slightly more than $100,000 by the courts in 1939.

Because of the public outcry over the situation, California passed the "The Child Actors Bill," better known as the Coogan Act, to set up a trust fund to protect the earnings of young actors. Today, the vast majority of earnings of child performers are required to be placed in protected bank accounts, known as Coogan Accounts. Thanks to Coogan's hard luck, today's young actors are protected from the greed and abuses of their management team -- relatives or not.

In 1937, Coogan married actress Betty Grable, but their marriage lasted only three years. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Coogan returned to Hollywood and attempted to revive his career. Though Coogan appeared in a few films, including "Kilroy Was Here" (1947), "French Leave" (1948), "Outlaw Women" (1952), "The Joker is Wild" (1957), "High School Confidential" (1958) and "Sex Kittens Go to College" (1960), he eventually found success on television. After starring in "McKeever and The Colonel" from 1962 to 1963, Coogan took the role of the bizarre Uncle Fester in "The Addams Family" in 1964, playing a bald-headed character who liked to blow things up, and could illuminate electric light bulbs by putting them in his mouth. The series lasted for two years.

Coogan was born John Leslie Coogan Jr. on Oct. 26, 1914, in Los Angeles, CA. He died on March 1, 1984, in Santa Monica, CA.

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