Thursday, May 5, 2011

Remembering Jackie Cooper

I always wanted to meet Jackie Cooper because he personified so much of Hollywood history.
He was a huge box office attraction while still a very little boy in such classics as The Champ and Treasure Island.
As a teenager he was still in the game acting in such hits as White Banners and Ziegfeld Girl.
After war duty he reinvented himself in two popular TV sitcoms: The People's Choice (1955-58) and Hennessy (1959-62). .
Then he became vice-president of Columbia PIctures' TV offshoot Screen Gems.
In the 1970s he won Emmys for directing NM*A*S*H and White Shadow.
Cooper died in a nursing facility in Santa Monica Tuesday after a brief illness. He was 88.
I met him on the set of a short lived 1975 TV series he was starring on,Mobile One, one of the last shows produced by the legendary Jack Webb.
I was on the set along with other visiting TV scribes in June, 1975, before the show actually went on the air.
But both Webb and Cooper felt it was doomed before it started and they were right --the ABC series was pitted against CBS's M*A*S*H and NBC's Sanford And Son and lasted a scant 11 weeks.
What's missing from most of the wire obits was recognition about the vast amount of TV work Cooper did as director.
When I interviewed him he was just off directing 13 episodes of M*A*S*H and extremely bitter about the way he was mistreated.
But he later directed multiple episodes of Rockford Files, Baa Baa Black Sheep, Quincy, Cagney And Lacey and the pilot of Trapper John.
He wrote about his adventures as a child star in the enjoyable memoir Please Don't Shoot My Dog (1982).
And, yes, it is true Norman Taurog told him his dog would be shot unless he cried in the next scene on the set of Skippy (1931).
In his book he suspected Taurog might have been his real father.
At the 1931 Academy Awards banquet he slept right through the ceremony and missed the moment when he lost the Oscar to Lionel Barrymore.
Frequent costar Wallace Beery he hated. "Oh, everybody did. Never knew his lines. Mugged in every scene. When his brother Noah died he went out on the town dancing."
Cooper reigned supreme at MGM until shorter Mickey Rooney came along --they eventually co-starred in the Devil Is A Sissy (1936) and then MGM dropped him, because he'd grown too tall to cry anymore.
One thing Cooper did was carry a grudge: he hated being reminded of the book by Merle Miller titled Only You Dick Darling which made fun of him directing Barbara Stanwyck on the set of an unsold TV pilot. Cooper claimed many of the quotes were fabricated.
When I chatted up Cooper that day he said he was virtually through with acting.
But he had one more surprise: a movie reappearance as Perry White in four Superman movies that starred Christopher Reeve. He completely retired in 1990 after another short-lived series TV series Capital News and became a horse trainer because it was always something he'd wanted to do.
When Cooper's eldest son was signed to an MGM contract he intervened to stop it saying it was not a fit occupation for a child.
"People tell me what a wonderfully interesting life I've had," he said that day. "Granted. What I lost was a normal childhood. I've been trying to find it ever since, I guess."
Then he walked over to do his next scene, always the professional.

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