George Bookasta, Former Child Actor, Dies at 96

Courtesy of Mark Bolles

Charlie Chaplin signed him up, and he appeared in films with such stars as Mary Pickford, Humphrey Bogart, Rosalind Russell and Gary Cooper.

George Bookasta, a child actor who was signed to a United Artists contract by Charlie Chaplin and later worked alongside Mary Pickford, Humphrey Bogart and Gary Cooper, has died. He was 96.

Bookasta, who later directed episodes of such TV series as Bachelor Father and Have Gun -- Will Travel, died March 26 near his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where he was recovering from pneumonia, said his son Gary -- who founded the radio stations KROQ AM and FM in Los Angeles in 1972.

As a toddler, Bookasta was wearing a mustache, a bowler and a "Little Tramp" outfit on the stage of Paramount Theatre in Los Angeles when he was spotted by Chaplin. The comedy star brought him to United Artists, the studio he had launched a few years earlier with Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith.

Bookasta made his film debut at age 6 in Ernst Lubitsch's silent film Rosita (1923), starring Pickford, then followed with another Pickford movie, Little Annie Rooney (1925).

His most memorable performance was in 1930, playing Spotty in Henry King's drama Hell Harbor, starring Lupe Velez and Jean Hersholt.

"The whole time I was [at UA], Charlie Chaplin only looked at me, he never spoke to me," Bookasta told The Albany Times-Union in a 2004 interview. "I loved his films, of course, but outside of that, he was kind of a snob. I saw him 30 years later getting a shave at a Beverly Hills barber. I wanted to go up to him and say, 'You don't remember me, do you?' "

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During the filming of Sergeant York (1941), starring Cooper in his first Oscar-winning role, Bookasta's wife -- Laura Williams of the singing Williams Sisters -- gave birth to the couple's first child, and Cooper presented them with their first birthday gift. They named their son Gary in his honor.

Bookasta also appeared in uncredited roles in such films as It Had to Happen (1936) with George Raft and Rosalind Russell; The Great O'Malley (1937), starring Bogart and Pat O'Brien; Busby Berkeley's Forty Little Mothers (1940), with Eddie Cantor; That Night in Rio (1941), starring Don Ameche and Alice Faye; The Chocolate Soldier (1941) with Nelson Eddy; and George Sidney's The Red Danube (1949).

In the 1950s, Bookasta developed TV Time, believed to be the nation's first weekly TV log/magazine, and directed for shows such as the NBC variety program The Colgate Comedy Hour.

Bookasta was born in Kansas City, Mo., on July 14, 1917. His parents were actors; his father, E.H. (Herman) Bookasta, rode an elephant into Baghdad in the legendary action movie The Thief of Baghdad (1924) as a stand-in for Fairbanks.

Bookasta attended Hollywood High School, where he starred on the track team and played baseball. He was wounded in France while serving in World War II, and when he returned to the U.S., he attended Loyola University.

He later led a big band orchestra that headlined the Hollywood club Cafe de Paris.

In addition to Gary, survivors include his other sons Michael, who played boxer Rocky Graziano as a boy in the Paul Newman film Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), and Petur; and grandson Randy Bookasta, who is vp industry relations and content development with SpinMedia. Randy's wife is Liz Morentin, vp corporate communications and publicity at Dick Clark Productions.

A Mass is set for 10 a.m. Friday at St. Clements Church in Saratoga Springs, followed by a burial service at the Gerald B.H. Solomon Saratoga National Cemetery.

Twitter: @mikebarnes4