LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Actor Jackie Cooper, who survived a tumultuous childhood as an Oscar-nominated star to enjoy a varied career as a TV executive, director and “Superman” sidekick, died near Los Angeles, his attorney said on Wednesday. He was 88.
Cooper succumbed to complications of old age at a convalescent home in the coastal city of Santa Monica on Tuesday, attorney Roger Licht told Reuters.
He starred in more than 100 movies and TV shows before retiring from Hollywood more than 20 years ago. He retreated to a high-rise condominium with his third wife, Barbara, whom he credited for keeping him on the straight and narrow.
Cooper’s life outside Hollywood was just as interesting. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War Two, and retired with the rank of captain from the reserves in the early 1980s. He also raced cars and owned racehorses.
He never really shed the pug nose and firm chin that endeared him to millions of Americans during the Great Depression, when he starred as a prominent cast member of Hal Roach’s “Our Gang” short comedy films. At the twilight of his career, Cooper played grizzled Daily Planet editor Perry White in the 1978 “Superman” movie and its three sequels.
Born John Cooper, Jr. in Los Angeles, he was the illegitimate child of a sickly Italian mother who died when he was a teenager and a Jewish father who quickly abandoned the family. He got his start in Hollywood when his much-loathed grandmother dragged him around studio lots for day work as an extra.
His “Our Gang” work — he appeared in such comedy shorts as “Teacher’s Pet” and “Love Business” — led to his starring role in the 1931 film “Skippy,” an adaptation of the comic strip about a lively youngster.
In order to force him to cry for a scene, his grandmother dragged his dog off set and had it shot by a security guard. The boy duly cried, but remained hysterical even after it was revealed that the dog was not actually dead. Cooper titled his 1981 memoir “Please Don’t Shoot My Dog.”
Aged 9, he made Oscar history by becoming the youngest male performer to be nominated for a lead role. (He lost to Lionel Barrymore.)
Later in 1931, he co-starred in “The Champ” as the innocent son of a washed-up boxer played by Wallace Beery. The film was remade in 1979 with Rick Schroder as the tow-headed little boy. Cooper reunited with Beery in such films as “The Bowery” (1933) and “Treasure Island” (1934).
Off-screen, he fully enjoyed the fruits of stardom. By 18 he had become the lover of Joan Crawford, who was almost twice his age. But he was an old hand by then. He later recounted that when he was 13 he was having sex two or three times before 9 a.m. with a 20-year-old girl across the street.
His career inevitably dried up as he got older, and he had been divorced twice by the time he was in his early 30s.
Cooper won an Emmy for his title role as a Navy doctor in the sitcom “Hennesey” before becoming a vice president at Screen Gems during the 1960s, working on such shows as “Bewitched” and “Gidget.” He turned to TV directing in the 1970s, winning Emmys for episodes of “M*A*S*H” and “The White Shadow.”
His third wife, the former Barbara Kraus, died in 2009 after more than 50 years of marriage. He is survived by one of their three children, and by a namesake son from his first marriage.
Reporting by Dean Goodman; editing by Jill Serjeant