Jackie Cooper, Former Child Star, 'Superman' Actor, Dies at 88

Jackie Cooper on set of 'Treasure Island', 1934
Jackie Cooper on set of 'Treasure Island', 1934
 Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Jackie Cooper, who went from Oscar-nominated child star to TV executive and director while amassing scores of acting credits — including playing Perry White in the four Christopher Reeve Superman films — has died. He was 88.

Cooper died Tuesday at a convalescent home in Santa Monica. “He just kinda died of old age,” his attorney Roger Licht told Reuters. “He wore out.”

Cooper enjoyed a 60-year acting career. Before Shirley Temple won the world’s hearts, he was the most popular and widely recognized child star of the early 1930s and the first kid to shine in “talkies.” His pug nose, crinkly smile and pouty lip endeared him to a nationwide audience, first as Jackie in Hal Roach’s Our Gang comedies. Cooper was so popular, he was known as “America’s Boy.”

Born John Cooperman Jr. on Sept. 15, 1922, in Los Angeles, he broke in as a bit player in silent films. Cooper acted in 15 Our Gang shorts between 1929 and 1931 before his uncle, director Norman Taurog, cast him in the title role of Skippy, which was based on a comic strip. Cooper earned a best actor Academy Award nomination for the film — the first child actor to do so and still the youngest to receive an Oscar nom for a leading role. A sequel, Sooky, followed that year.

The films launched Cooper to stardom, and he went on to star opposite Wallace Beery in three films: The Champ (1931), playing the son of Beery’s fallen boxer; The Bowery (1933), as Beery’s foe; and Treasure Island (1934), in which he limned Jim Hawkins to Beery’s Long John Silver. Although their onscreen chemistry was magical, Beery resented the child actor and was coarse with him.

Cooper, whose feisty manner won him underdog appreciation, also co-starred in such 1930s films as When a Feller Needs a Friend, Peck’s Bad Boy, The Devil Is a Sissy, Boy of the Streets, Gangster’s Boy and Streets of New York, as well as the serial Scouts to the Rescue.

Like most child stars, Cooper hit a difficult period during adolescence, both professionally and personally. As he entered his teens, other young stars including Roddy McDowall and Freddie Bartholomew took over the tyke roles.

Based on his experiences, Cooper later opposed children growing up as actors. None of his four children went on to perform. The title of his 1981 autobiography, Please Don’t Shoot My Dog, came from Taurog’s threat during the filming of Skippy that he would shoot the boy’s dog because he was not performing adequately.

As a teen, he showed his maturity and acting skills in 1940’s Seventeen and gave an inspiring performance as a trumpeter in Syncopation (1942) before joining the Navy during World War II. During his tour of duty, Cooper attained the rank of captain.

After the war, Cooper found movie roles harder to come by, enduring such low-budget pictures as Stork Bites Man, Kilroy Was Here and French Leave. The experiences soured him, and he left Hollywood, touring in stock companies and performing on Broadway.

He landed his first New York stage role in Magnolia Alley in 1949. While in New York, he worked in live TV, starring in many of the top anthology series of the day. Cooper also produced, directed and starred in two series: The People’s Choice, on which he played a nature lover elected to the city council who had a talking basset hound, and Hennesey, playing a naval medical officer.

For a period during the 1960s, Cooper thrived as a TV executive. He served as vp program development at Columbia Pictures Television. During a five-year stint, he packaged series including Bewitched and sold them to the networks.

He parlayed that experience into another phase of his career: He began to direct episodic TV, and during the ’70s he was active in tackling tricky social issues like runaway teens. Based on his experiences, he couldn’t resist attacking the hypocrisy of show business: After his executive tenure, he returned to acting in the 1971 film The Love Machine, playing an obsequious and smarmy TV programming exec.

He continued to direct for TV throughout the 1970s and ’80s, winning a pair of Emmys for helming M*A*S*H andThe White Shadow. He directed multiple episodes of those shows along with such series as Black Sheep Squadron, Quincy, M.E., Cagney & Lacey and Sledge Hammer! He also helmed two telefilms that centered on show business figures: Rainbow (1978), based on the life of Judy Garland, and Rosie: The Rosemary Clooney Story in 1982.

Cooper acted in spurts from the 1950s through the ’80s. He guested on dozens of TV series including Suspense, The Twilight Zone, Hawaii Five-O, Kojak, Columbo, The Rockford Files, St. Elsewhere and Murder, She Wrote. He was most recognizable to latter-day audiences for playing Daily Planet editor Perry White in the four Superman films starring Reeve from 1978-87.

He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.

Cooper virtually retired from show business in 1989, saying, “I’m 67 and worked 64 years.” He had mostly stayed out of the industry limelight since, forgoing tributes and retrospectives. In recent years, he raised horses in San Diego. 

He was divorced twice: from June Horne, with whom he had a child, and Hildy Parks. In 1954, Cooper married Barbara Kraus, and the couple had three children. He is survived by two of this children.

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