Several sources are reporting the death of Jackie Cooper, who became the youngest person ever to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar at the age of 9, was one of MGM’s first studio stars in the 1930s, and who managed the rare feat of a successful adult career as an Emmy-winning director, plus a recurring role as Perry White in Richard Donner’s popular Superman films. Cooper had reportedly been suffering from a recent illness. He was 88.
Cooper got his start as a bit player in silent comedies and Follies-style musicals before landing an audition to be a part of the Our Gang shorts produced by Hal Roach. Joining the series in 1929 just as it made the transition to sound, Cooper became one of its breakout stars thanks to a trilogy of films where he falls madly in love with his teacher Miss Crabtree—as in “Teacher’s Pet,” seen here.
Under his Our Gang contract, Cooper was loaned out to Paramount to star in Skippy, directed by his uncle Norman Taurog. Based on the comic strip, Skippy found Cooper playing the title role, a mischievous little rich boy who helps his new friend from the poor side of town battle an evil dogcatcher. The film earned a Best Picture nomination, making it the only Best Picture nominee in history to be based on a comic strip or graphic novel, but even more impressive, Cooper was—and still is—the youngest person to ever be nominated for his lead role. (Until his death, he was also the earliest Oscar nominee who was still alive.) Of course, he had some help: According to his autobiography, Please Don’t Shoot My Dog, the big, dramatic Oscar moment of Cooper’s performance came only after his uncle threatened to kill Cooper’s own dog if he didn’t start crying.
After Skippy, Cooper became part of MGM’s burgeoning star system, appearing in a string of 1930s films opposite Wallace Beery. Most notable of these, The Champ, found Cooper playing the son who inspires Beery’s drunken, degenerate boxer to return to the ring. The famous final scene—a close-up of Cooper’s crying face—helped the already-formulaic film earn its sense of pathos, and Beery his Oscar nomination. It also led to several more films pairing Beery and Cooper, like Treasure Island and O’Shaughnessy’s Boy, that made them one of early Hollywood’s most popular screen teams. Off-screen, however, they apparently hated each other, with Cooper saying that Beery seemed jealous of him, often upstaging him and generally treating him terribly—like an “unkept dog,” he once said.
As with most child actors, puberty hit Cooper hard, and he saw his opportunities diminish somewhat by the time he served in World War II. But after his return, he found his second wind in television, starring first on the NBC sitcom The People’s Choice and then on CBS’ Hennesy, which Cooper produced, directed, and starred in. Based on his WWII stint and his many years of service as a Navy pilot thereafter, the show found Cooper playing a doctor working at the San Diego Naval Station, often interacting with guest stars like Mickey Rooney and Charles Bronson. For his performance, Cooper was twice nominated for an Emmy.
Unfortunately, clips of Hennesy don't seem to be on YouTube, but here's a look at The People's Choice:
In the mid-1960s, Cooper turned his attention behind the scenes, working for Columbia’s TV division and helping to put together shows like Bewitched and Gidget, where he reportedly discovered and cast a young Sally Field. He continued to turn up in guest roles throughout the 1970s on shows like Hawaii Five-0, Columbo, Kojak, and The Rockford Files, and even returned to a regular series gig on the short-lived Mobile One, but he began to increasingly focus on directing, helming dozens of episodes of shows throughout the years such as Mary Tyler Moore, Trapper John M.D., Black Sheep Squadron, Sledge Hammer!, Magnum P.I., Cagney And Lacey, Simon And Simon, and Jake And The Fatman. Cooper was nominated for two more Emmys—this time for his directing work on M*A*S*H and The White Shadow—winning both.
Although Cooper more or less retreated from acting by the late ‘70s, content to work behind the camera, he had newfound fame thanks to Richard Donner, who cast him as Daily Planet editor Perry White after the original actor, Kennan Wynn, had a heart attack. Though Cooper was a last-minute replacement chosen primarily for his availability, his performance became one of the most reliably comic elements of the film series, with Cooper capturing White as a no-nonsense guy whose smoothly staccato, witty reprimands of Clark Kent and, in particular, Jimmy Olsen are all part of his charm.
Cooper would go on to reprise the role through Superman IV: Quest For Peace, ensuring that most of his obituaries today would identify him as “Superman actor Jackie Cooper.” But his real legacy is obviously much greater than that—and all the more notable for the fact that Cooper was both a last living link to a rapidly disappearing era, and one of the few child stars in history who managed to not only not flame out, but to end up contributing more and more the longer they stuck around.