He was one of the few child actors to manage to make the transition to an adult career. He was also the first child actor to receive an Academy Award nomination. At age 9, he was also the youngest performer to have been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role—an honor that he received for the film Skippy (1931).
For nearly 50 years, Cooper remained the youngest Oscar nominee in any category, until he was surpassed by Justin Henry’s nomination, at age 8, in the Supporting Actor category for Kramer vs. Kramer (1979).
Cooper was born John Cooper, Jr. in Los Angeles, California. His father, John Cooper, left the family when Jackie was just two years old. His mother, Mabel Leonard Bigelow, was a stage pianist and former child actress.
Early Acting Career
Cooper first appeared in films as an extra with his grandmother. She would bring him along in hopes of aiding her own attempts to get extra work. At age three, Jackie appeared in Lloyd Hamilton comedies under the name of “Leonard“.
He graduated to bit parts in feature films such as Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 and Sunny Side Up. His director in these two films, David Butler, recommended the boy to director Leo McCarey, who arranged an audition for the Our Gang comedy series produced by Hal Roach.
Cooper joined the series in the short Boxing Gloves in 1929, signing to a three-year contract. He initially was only a supporting character in the series, but by early 1930 he had done so well with the transition to sound films that he had become one of the Gang’s major characters. He was the main character in the episodes The First Seven Years, When the Wind Blows, and others.
His most notable Our Gang shorts explore his crush on Miss Crabtree, the schoolteacher played by June Marlowe, which included the trilogy of shorts Teacher’s Pet, School’s Out, and Love Business.
According to his autobiography, Cooper, under contract to Hal Roach Studios, was loaned in the spring of 1931 to Paramount to star in Skippy (directed by his uncle, Norman Taurog), for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor — the youngest actor ever (at the age of 9) to be nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor. Although Paramount paid Roach $25,000 for Cooper’s services, Cooper received only his standard Roach salary of $50 per week.
The movie catapulted young Cooper to super-stardom. Our Gang producer Hal Roach sold Jackie’s contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in mid-1931, as he felt the youngster would have a better future in features. He began a long on-screen relationship with actor Wallace Beery in such films as The Champ (1931), The Bowery (1933), The Choices of Andy Purcell (1933), Treasure Island (1934), and O’Shaughnessy’s Boy (1935).
A legion of film critics and fans have lauded the relationship between the two as an example of classic movie magic. However, in his autobiography Cooper wrote that Beery was “a big disappointment”, and accused him of upstaging and other attempts to undermine the boy’s performances out of what Cooper presumed was jealousy.
Cooper played the title role in the first two Henry Aldrich movies, What a Life (1939) and Life with Henry (1941).
Not conventionally handsome as he approached adulthood, Cooper had the typical child-actor problems finding roles as an adolescent, and he served in World War II, so his career was at a nadir when he starred in two popular television sitcoms, NBC’s The People’s Choice with Patricia Breslin and CBS’s Hennesey with Abby Dalton.
In 1954, he guest starred on the NBC legal drama Justice. Later, he appeared on ABC’s The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom, and also guest starred with Tennessee Ernie Ford on The Ford Show and played the role of America’s Uranium King, Charles A. Steen in I Found 60 Million Dollars on the Armstrong Circle Theater.
In 1950, he appeared in Mr. Roberts in Boston, Massachusetts, as Ensign Pulver.
From 1964 to 1969, Cooper was vice president of program development at Columbia Pictures Screen Gems TV division. He was responsible for packaging series (such as Bewitched) and other projects and selling them to the networks. He reportedly cast Sally Field as Gidget. Cooper acted only twice during this period, once in 1964 when he appeared in Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” episode Caesar and Me, and again in the 1968 TV-movie Shadow on the Land.
Cooper left Columbia in 1969 and started yet another phase of his career, one in which he would act occasionally in key character roles. He appeared in Candidate for Crime starring Peter Falk as Columbo in 1973 and the short-lived 1975 ABC series Mobile One, a Jack Webb/Mark VII Limited production, but mostly he devoted more and more of his time to directing dozens of episodic TV and other projects. His work as director on episodes of M*A*S*H and The White Shadow earned him Emmy awards.
Cooper found renewed fame in the 1970s and 1980s as Daily Planet editor Perry White in the Superman film series starring Christopher Reeve. In the commentary track for Superman, director Richard Donner reveals that Cooper got the role because he had a passport, and thus was able to be on set in a few hours, after Keenan Wynn, who was originally cast, suffered a heart attack.
Cooper’s final film role was as Ace Morgan in the 1987 film Surrender, starring Sally Field, Michael Caine, and Steve Guttenberg.
Cooper died on May 3, 2011 after a short illness, in Santa Monica, California. He was 88. Jackie Cooper was interred at Arlington National Cemetery in honor of his naval service.