Monday, August 4, 2008


Throughout August TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES (TCM) is featuring individual actors with a 24-hour run of their films. Saturday was Charlie Chaplin day. In addition to his films, TCM also played a two and a quarter hour biography of his life which included a montage of film clips, interviews and analysis.

I called my son Andrew in to watch and together we saw a snippet which included footage from the 1921 silent movie, "THE KID." At that point I went "off topic," and explained the significance of the child star who portrayed the kid, Jackie Coogan.

("Off-topic" is what the youth of today call, "going off on a tangent)."


Whether you know the answer to today's mystery or not...who IS Jackie Coogan? Please read on, because there is so much more to the man that meets eye.

John Leslie (Jackie) Coogan was born October 26, 1914, in Woburn Massachusetts. The son of Vaudeville performers, Coogan, by age three was already singing and dancing in their new home, Los Angeles. Shortly thereafter, he was discovered by Charlie Chaplin and had a uncredited appearance in the 1917 movie, "SKINNER'S BABY."
Chaplin saw star-power in the youngster and took him under his wing. One of Coogan's best attributes was his ability to mimic. Whereas Chaplin had difficulties in getting seasoned actors to to follow intricate direction, this three-year delighted him with this natural power.


Coogan's success as "THE KID" was followed the next year with the title role in "OLIVER TWIST." Jackie Coogan quickly became an international super-star and also became the first heavily merchandised star...with his image appearing on; toys, food products, stationery, records and so much more. Even overseas, Coogan's "signature" Page-Boy haircut and oversized overalls and cap were being imitated. You may recall that Scotty Beckett from the "OUR GANG" comedies directly copied that look.


Jackie Coogan's true legacy was the installation of child labor laws for Hollywood's young stars. Coogan earned an estimated $4 million before he was a teenager. The overwhelming bulk of that money was squandered by his mother and step-father who were cocaine and heroin user/addicts. In 1935, Coogan sued his mother but recovered only a fraction of his fortune. At one point, Charlie Chaplin stepped in to provide financial assistance to him.

The legal battles with his mother did call attention to the plight and welfare of child stars. Soon the State of California enacted "THE CALIFORNIA CHILD ACTOR'S BILL," (it is also referred to as the Coogan Bill or Coogan Act). This requires the child's employer to set aside 15% of the child's earnings in a trust fund. Additionally, it also provided specifications for proper schooling, work hours and time-off.

It should be noted that during those proceedings, his mother was called to give testimony and claimed that she didn't think he was working hard because it was all fun and playing to him. Subsequently, virtually all the other child stars who were called upon to speak, agreed that they were keenly aware that what they were doing WAS work!

In 1935, Coogan was the sole survivor in a car crash that killed his natural father as well as his best friend, Junior Durkin, (a child star who starred as Huckleberry Finn in two films).

In March 1941, Coogan enlisted in the army. Eight months later after Pearl Harbor, he requested a transfer to the army air force, (he had been a civilian pilot). He became a flight officer and volunteered for hazardous duty with the FIRST COMMANDO GROUP.

In December 1943 during the Burmese campaign, Coogan was stationed in India and regularly landed English troops inside enemy lines.

After the war Coogan married four times. His first wife was Betty Grable, the #1 pin-up girl of that generation. There were two more shorties until he married Dodie Lamphere. That marriage lasted 32 years until he died March 1, 1984.

In all Coogan appeared in 60+ motion pictures. Once he lost his child cuteness nearly all those roles were bit parts or in a supporting role...yet we all know him.
Who is this 67-year film veteran?...the first merchandising personality giant, the inspiration for Hollywood child labor laws, survivor, WWII hero, heart throb of the most beautiful women in the world, father, family man and actor in a multitude of cameo performances on 60's and 70's TV shows?

Well most people don't know him from his real name, he is most remembered for one specific recurring original Uncle Fester on the "ADDAMS FAMILY."


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