Thu., May 5, 2011 9:00am (EDT)

Jackie Cooper, Former Child Star, Dies At 88
Updated: 3 years ago

With his boyish looks and his thick head of blond hair, Jackie Cooper seemed to be eternally young. He was "Skippy," taking the popular comic strip character to the big screen in a turn that would garner a best actor Oscar nod at age 9.

Cooper remained the youngest player to be nominated for that category, an accolade that he likely didn't care much about at the time: The handsome kid with the winning smile fell asleep during the ceremony in the lap of another nominee, Marie Dressler.

It was that honesty that kept Cooper grounded about life in the spotlight and the realities of being a working actor, whether he was starring in films or TV shows, or behind the scenes as a director or studio honcho.

"He was a fascinating guy who really did everything, from all different aspects of the business," said his son, Russell Cooper. "You can't really say that about many people."

Jackie Cooper, 88, died Tuesday at a nursing facility in Santa Monica, Calif., said his other son, John.

Cooper reigned with Shirley Temple as one of the most popular child stars of the 1930s. Starting in comedy shorts, he rose to top ranks with "Skippy," a sentimental adaptation of a popular comic strip. He followed with such hits as "The Champ," "The Bowery," "Treasure Island" and "O'Shaughnessy's Boy," all co-starring Wallace Beery.

With his career fading after World War II, Cooper left Hollywood for the New York theater. He returned to Hollywood and starred in two successful situation comedies, "The People's Choice" (1955-58) and "Hennessey" (1959-62). He appeared as a Navy doctor in "Hennessey," which he also produced and directed.

"I think it's tough to direct and star in a feature," he commented in a 1971 interview. "Either the direction or the performance will suffer. But an actor can direct himself in television. I found it essential to relieve the crushing boredom of starring in a series."

He directed more than 250 half-hour and hour-long series episodes, 16 two-hour movies and numerous pilots and commercials. At one point, he vowed he would never act again. But he returned for an occasional role, most notably as gruff Daily Planet editor Perry White in Christopher Reeves' four "Superman" movies.

"He managed to change with the business," said his son John. "Early in his life, he experienced the kind of success that many people do not have, if they have that kind of success at all, until much later."

Jackie had a memorable bit in the 1929 musical "Sunny Side Up" and appeared in eight of the popular "Our Gang" comedies, including "Pups Is Pups" and "Teacher's Pet." Those credits led to a test that won him the title role of "Skippy."

The director of the 1931 film was his uncle, Norman Taurog. A crucial scene called for Jackie to cry. The tears wouldn't come, and Taurog became angry. He called the boy's beloved dog a nuisance and said he would send it to the pound. Jackie threw a tantrum, infuriating the director.

"If you don't do what I say, I'll have the policeman shoot the dog," Taurog threatened, pointing to the armed security guard.

The tears flowed, and the scene was filmed, and Taurog went on to win the Oscar for best director. Fifty years later, Cooper titled his autobiography, "Please Don't Shoot My Dog."

He was born John Cooper Jr. on Sept. 15, 1922, in Los Angeles. His Jewish father, who ran a music store, had married an Italian musician, Mabel Leonard, but deserted her when their son was 2. Destitute, his mother found work at Fox studio as a secretary. Through her brother-in-law, Taurog, she was able to arrange extra work in movies for young Jackie.

MGM signed Cooper to a contract after "Skippy," and he attended the studio school with Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and Freddie Bartholomew. Cooper proved an ideal combination with Beery, the rough, tough character whose heart is melted by the winsome kid.

Unlike some child actors, Cooper was able to sustain his stardom through adolescence. Among Cooper's other 1930s films: "Sooky" (a sequel to "Skippy"), "Broadway to Hollywood," "Lone Cowboy," "Dinky," "The Devil Is a Sissy" (with Rooney and Bartholomew), "Peck's Bad Boy," "White Banners," "Gangster's Boy," "That Certain Age" (opposite Deanna Durbin), "What a Life" (as Henry Aldrich), "Seventeen" and "The Return of Frank James."

After four years in the Navy, he returned to find his career had slumped.

"I managed to find work, but it was in low-budget pictures," he recalled in 1971. "I couldn't see myself continuing like that.

"About that time, I had become acquainted with some New York actors, like Keenan Wynn and John Garfield. Garfield kept telling me to 'get back to New York where you can learn your craft.'"

Cooper followed the advice and appeared as Ensign Pulver in Broadway and road companies of "Mister Roberts." He starred in two hit comedies: "Remains to Be Seen" and "King of Hearts."

During the early 1950s, the television industry was exploding in New York, and he acted in many live dramas. It led to his return to Hollywood and success with "The People's Choice" and "Hennessey."

Tiring of the weekly series grind, Cooper in 1964 accepted a five-year contract as production head of Screen Gems, the TV arm of Columbia Pictures.

"Like so many of those jobs, the honeymoon was over after the first two years," he remarked. "Then you find yourself spending all your time trying to sell your bosses on what you want to do. My last selling job was 'The Flying Nun.' They kept telling me that people wouldn't watch a show about Catholics." He persisted, and the series starring Sally Field became a hit.

After almost 50 years in the business, Cooper thought of retiring in the early 1970s. Then producer Mike Frankovich offered him a role in "The Love Machine," and a film to direct, "Stand Up and Be Counted." He continued with occasional acting roles and a heavy schedule of directing for television.

Cooper married three times: to June Horne (with whom he had a son, John) and Hildy Parks, then to Barbara Kraus (with whom he had a son, Russell, and two daughters, Julie and Christina).

"There's not a child actor in the lot," he once remarked happily.

Cooper is survived by his two sons. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.