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John Leslie Coogan, known professionally as Jackie Coogan, was an American actor who began his movie career as a child actor in silent films. Many years later, he became known as Uncle Fester on 1960s sitcom The Addams Family. In the interim, he sued his mother and stepfather over his squandered film earnings and provoked California to enact the first known legal protection for the earnings of child performers, billed as the Coogan Act.
Early life and early career
Coogan was born in 1914 in Los Angeles, California, to John Henry Coogan, Jr., and Lillian Rita (Dolliver) Coogan, as John Leslie Coogan. He began performing as an infant in both vaudeville and film, with an uncredited role in the 1917 film Skinner's Baby. Charlie Chaplin discovered him in the Orpheum Theatre, Los Angeles, a vaudeville house, doing the shimmy, a popular dance at the time, on the stage. Coogan's father was also an actor. Jackie Coogan was a natural mimic and delighted Chaplin with his abilities. Chaplin subsequently cast him in a brief role in his short film A Day's Pleasure, made in 1919.
He is best remembered as a child actor for his role as Chaplin's irascible sidekick in the film classic The Kid (1921) and for the title role in Oliver Twist, directed by Frank Lloyd, the following year. He was one of the first stars to be heavily merchandised, with peanut butter, stationery, whistles, dolls, records, and figurines as some of Coogan merchandise offered. He traveled internationally, being greeted by huge crowds. Many of his early films are lost or unavailable.
Coogan was tutored until the age of ten, when he entered Urban Military Academy and other prep schools. He attended several colleges, as well as the University of Southern California. In 1932 he dropped out of Santa Clara University because of poor grades.
In November 1933, Brooke Hart, a close friend of Coogan's from Santa Clara University, was kidnapped from his family-owned department store in San Jose and brought to the San Francisco area San Mateo - Hayward Bridge. After several demands for a $40,000 ransom, police arrested Thomas Thurmond and John Holmes in San Jose. Thurmond admitted that Hart had been murdered on the night he was kidnapped. Both men were then transferred to a prison in San Jose, California. Later a mob broke into the building; Thurmond and Holmes were then hanged in an adjacent park. Coogan was reported to be among the mob that prepared and held the lynching rope.
On May 4, 1935, at age 20, Coogan was the sole survivor of a car crash in San Diego County that took the life of his father and his best friend Junior Durkin, a child actor who appeared as Huckleberry Finn in two early 1930s films.
As a child star, Coogan earned an estimated $3 to $4 million ($48 million to $65 million adjusted for 2012 dollars), but the money was spent by his mother and stepfather, Arthur Bernstein, on extravagances such as fur coats, diamonds, and expensive cars. In their defense, Coogan's mother and stepfather claimed Jackie was having fun and thought he was playing. She stated, "No promises were ever made to give Jackie anything. Every dollar a kid earns before he is 21 belongs to his parents. Jackie will not get a cent of his earnings", and claimed that "Jackie was a bad boy." Coogan sued them in 1938, but after legal expenses, he only received $126,000 of the approximately $250,000 remaining of his earnings. When Coogan fell on hard times and asked Charlie Chaplin for assistance, Chaplin gave him $1000 without hesitation.
The legal battle brought attention to child actors and resulted in the enactment of the California Child Actor's Bill, often called the Coogan Bill or the Coogan Act. This requires that a child actor's employer set aside 15% of the earnings in a trust, and codifies issues such as schooling, work hours and time-off.
Coogan took up the cause of the Armenians, Greeks, and others made destitute during the horrors of the First World War, working with Near East Relief. He toured across the United States and Europe in 1924 on a "Children's Crusade" as part of a fundraising drive, which ended up providing more than $1,000,000 in clothing, food, and other contributions (worth more than $13 million adjusted for 2012 dollars). Coogan was honored by officials in the US, Greece, and Rome, where he met with the Pope.
World War II
Coogan enlisted in the United States Army in March 1941. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he requested a transfer to United States Army Air Forces as a glider pilot because of his civilian flying experience. After graduating from glider school, he was made a flight officer and he volunteered for hazardous duty with the 1st Air Commando Group. In December 1943, the unit was sent to India. He flew British troops, the Chindits, under General Orde Wingate on March 5, 1944, landing them at night in a small jungle clearing 100 miles behind Japanese lines in the Burma campaign - he piloted the first glider to land at Myitkyina. The codename of the landing zone was Broadway.
After the war, Coogan returned to acting, taking mostly character roles and appearing on television. From 1952 to 1953, he played Stoney Crockett on the syndicated series Cowboy G-Men. He guest starred on NBC's The Martha Raye Show. He appeared too, as Corbett, in two episodes of NBC's The Outlaws with Barton MacLane, which aired from 1960–1962. In the 1960–1961 season, he guest starred in the episode "The Damaged Dolls" of the syndicated crime drama The Brothers Brannagan.
Coogan had a regular role in a 1962–1963 NBC series, McKeever and the Colonel. He finally found his most famous television role as Uncle Fester in ABC's The Addams Family (1964–1966). He appeared as a police officer in the Elvis Presley comedy Girl Happy in 1965.
In addition to The Addams Family, he appeared four times on the Perry Mason series, including the role of Pete Desmond on the final episode, "The Case of the Final Fade-out" in 1966. He appeared once on Emergency! as a junkyard owner who tries to bribe the paramedics, who have come to inspect his property for fire safety. He also was featured in an episode of The Brady Bunch ("The Fender Benders"), I Dream of Jeannie (as Jeannie's uncle, Suleiman - Maharaja of Basenji), Family Affair, Here's Lucy and The Brian Keith Show, and he continued to guest star on television (including multiple appearances on The Partridge Family, The Wild Wild West and Hawaii Five-O) until his retirement in the middle 1970s.
Jackie Coogan appears once in the second season of The Andy Griffith Show ... episode 37, ("Barney on the Rebound"), aired October 31, 1961. Playing the part of George Stevens, he and his Wife Melissa Stevens, played by Beverly Tyler, trick Barney into proposing marriage, then 'demand justice' (try to extort money) in Sheriff Taylor's court.
Marriages and children
- Betty Grable, married on November 20, 1937, divorced on October 11, 1939.
- Flower Parry, married on August 10, 1941, divorced on June 29, 1943.
- One son, John Anthony Coogan (writer/producer 3D digital & film), born March 4, 1942 in Los Angeles, California.
- Ann McCormack, married on December 26, 1946, divorced on September 20, 1951.
- One daughter, Joann Dolliver Coogan, born April 2, 1948 in Los Angeles, California.
- Dorothea Odetta Hanson aka Dorothea Lamphere, best known as Dodie, married on April 1952, they were together until his death.
- One daughter, Leslie Diane Coogan, born November 24, 1953 in Los Angeles, California. Her son is the actor Keith Coogan, who was born January 13, 1970. He began acting in 1975. Two years after his grandfather's death in 1986 he changed his name to Keith Coogan from Keith Eric Mitchell. He played the oldest son in Adventures in Babysitting. Footage of Jackie with his grandson, Keith (uncredited on the imdb.com page) can be seen in the 1982 documentary "Hollywood's Children".
- One son, Christopher Fenton Coogan, born July 9, 1967 in Riverside County, California. He died in a motorcycle accident in Palm Springs, California, on June 29, 1990.
On March 1, 1984, Coogan died of cardiac arrest aged 69 at Santa Monica Medical Center in Santa Monica, California. He is buried in Culver City's Holy Cross Cemetery. Coogan's younger brother Robert, also a child actor, died in 1978, aged 53. Coogan has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in front of 1654 Vine Street, just south of Hollywood Boulevard.
- Skinner's Baby (Uncredited, 1917)
- A Day's Pleasure (1919)
- The Kid (1921)
- Peck's Bad Boy (1921)
- My Boy (1921)
- Nice and Friendly (1922)
- Trouble (1922)
- Oliver Twist (1922)
- Daddy (1923)
- Circus Days (1923)
- Long Live the King (1923)
- A Boy of Flanders (1924)
- Little Robinson Crusoe (1924)
- Hello, 'Frisco (1924)
- The Rag Man (1925)
- Old Clothes (1925)
- Johnny Get Your Hair Cut (1927)
- The Bugle Call (1927)
- Buttons (1927)
- Tom Sawyer (1930)
- Huckleberry Finn (1931)
- Home on the Range (1935)
- Million Dollar Legs (1939)
- Cowboy G-Men (1952–1953)
- The Space Children (1958 film)
- Girl Happy (1965)
- The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968)
- Marlowe (1969)
- Cahill U.S. Marshal (1973)
- Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976)
- The Escape Artist (1982)
- The Prey (1984)