John Cooper Jr. (September 15, 1922 – May 3, 2011) was an American actor, television director, producer, and executive. He was a child actor who made the transition to an adult career. Cooper was the first child actor to receive an Oscar nomination. At age 9 he became the youngest performer to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, an honor that he received for the film Skippy (1931). For nearly 50 years, Cooper remained the youngest Oscar nominee in any category. Later in life he became known for portraying Perry White in the Superman films.
John Cooper Jr. was born in Los Angeles, California. Cooper’s father, John Cooper, left the family when Jackie was 2 years old. His mother, Mabel Leonard Bigelow (née Polito), was a stage pianist. Cooper’s maternal uncle, Jack Leonard, was a screenwriter and his maternal aunt, Julie Leonard, was an actress married to director Norman Taurog. Cooper’s stepfather was C.J. Bigelow, a studio production manager. His mother was Italian American (her family’s surname was changed from “Polito” to “Leonard”); Cooper was told by his family that his father was Jewish. The two never reunited after he had left the family.
Start of acting career
Cooper first appeared in films as an extra with his grandmother, who took him to her auditions hoping it would help her get extra work. At age 3 Jackie appeared in Lloyd Hamilton comedies under the name of “Leonard”.
Cooper graduated to bit parts in feature films such as Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 and Sunny Side Up. His director in those films, David Butler, recommended Cooper to director Leo McCarey, who arranged an audition for the Our Gang comedy series produced by Hal Roach. In 1929, Cooper signed a three-year contract after joining the series in the short Boxing Gloves. He initially was to be a supporting character in the series, but by early 1930 his success in transitioning to sound films enabled him to become one of Our Gang’s major characters. He was the main character in the episodes The First Seven Years and When the Wind Blows. His most notable Our Gang shorts explore his crush on Miss Crabtree, the schoolteacher played by June Marlowe. His Our Gang shorts included Teacher’s Pet, School’s Out, and Love Business.
While under contract to Hal Roach Studios, in 1931 Cooper was loaned to Paramount to star in Skippy, directed by his uncle, Norman Taurog. At age 9, Cooper was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, the youngest actor to be nominated for an Oscar as that category. Although Paramount paid Roach $25,000 for Cooper’s services, Roach paid Cooper a standard salary of $50 per week.
Our Gang producer Hal Roach sold Jackie’s contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1931. Cooper acted with Wallace Beery in The Champ (1931), The Bowery (1933), The Choices of Andy Purcell (1933), Treasure Island (1934), and O’Shaughnessy’s Boy (1935). In his autobiography, Cooper wrote that Beery was a disappointment and accused Beery of upstaging him and attempting to undermine his performances out of jealousy.
Cooper played the title role in the first two Henry Aldrich films, What a Life (1939) and Life with Henry (1941).
Cooper served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, remaining in the reserves until 1982, retiring at the rank of captain and receiving the Legion of Merit. He starred in two television sitcoms, NBC’s The People’s Choice with Patricia Breslin and CBS’s Hennesey with Abby Dalton. In 1954, he guest-starred on the NBC legal drama Justice. He appeared on ABC’s The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom, guest-starred with Tennessee Ernie Ford on NBC’s The Ford Show as America’s Uranium King, and as Charles A. Steen in “I Found 60 Million Dollars” on the Armstrong Circle Theatre.
In 1950, Cooper was cast in a production of Mr. Roberts in Boston, Massachusetts in the role of Ensign Pulver. From 1964 to 1969, Cooper was vice president of program development at Columbia Pictures Screen Gems TV division. He was responsible for packaging series such as Bewitched and selling them to the networks. In 1964, Cooper appeared in Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone episode “Caesar and Me”, and in 1968 a made-for-television film Shadow on the Land.
Cooper left Columbia in 1969. He appeared in the fourth season of Hawaii Five-O in an episode called The Burning Ice. Cooper appeared in Candidate for Crime starring Peter Falk as Columbo in 1973, and in the 1975 ABC series Mobile One, a Jack Webb/Mark VII Limited production. He guest-starred in a 1978 two-part episode of The Rockford Files: The House on Willis Avenue. Cooper’s work as director on episodes of M*A*S*H and The White Shadow earned him Emmy awards.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Cooper appeared as Daily Planet editor Perry White in the Superman film series, a role he got after Keenan Wynn, who was originally cast as White, became unavailable after suffering a heart attack.
Cooper’s final film role was as Ace Morgan in the 1987 film Surrender, starring Sally Field, Michael Caine, and Steve Guttenberg.
Cooper served in the United States Navy during World War II and remained active in the Naval Reserve for the next several decades, reaching the rank of captain. He was married to June Horne from 1944 until 1949, with whom he had a son, John “Jack” Cooper, III, who was born in 1946. June was the daughter of director James W. Horne and actress Cleo Ridgely. Cooper was married to Hildy Parks from 1950 until 1951, and to Barbara Rae Kraus from 1954 until her death in 2009. Cooper and Kraus had three children, Russell, born in 1956, Julie, born in 1957, and Cristina, born in 1959. Julie and Cristina died in 1997 and 2009, respectively.
Cooper participated in several automobile racing events, including the record-breaking class D cars at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. He drove in several SCCA road racing competitions. Cooper was named the honorary starter for the 1976 Winston 500 at the Alabama International Motor Speedway, which is now known as Talladega Superspeedway, in Talladega, Alabama.
Cooper’s autobiography, Please Don’t Shoot My Dog, was published in 1982. The title refers to an incident during the filming of Skippy, when Norman Taurog, who was directing Cooper in a crying scene, ordered a security guard to take away his dog and pretend to shoot him backstage. The stunt resulted in genuine tears; however, even upon discovering his dog was fine, Cooper was left with ill feelings toward his uncle.
Cooper announced his retirement in 1989, although he continued directing episodes of the syndicated series Superboy. He began spending more time training and racing horses at Hollywood Park and outside San Diego during the Del Mar racing season. Cooper lived in Beverly Hills from 1955 until his death.
For his contributions to the motion picture industry, Cooper was honored with a Hollywood Walk of Fame star located at 1507 Vine Street.
Cooper died on May 3, 2011 of natural causes, in Santa Monica, California. He was survived by his two sons. He outlived both his daughters and wife, Barbara Rae Kraus. He was interred at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, in honor of his naval service.
|1929||Fox Movietone Follies of 1929||Little Boy||Uncredited|
|1929||Sunny Side Up||Jerry McGinnis||Uncredited|
|1931||Skippy||Skippy||Nominated – Academy Award for Best Actor|
|1931||Young Donovan’s Kid||Midge Murray|
|1931||The Champ||Dink Purcell|
|1932||When a Feller Needs a Friend||Edward Haverford ‘Eddie’ Randall|
|1932||Divorce in the Family||Terry Parker|
|1933||Broadway to Hollywood||Ted Hackett Jr.|
|1933||The Bowery||Swipes McGurk|
|1933||Lone Cowboy||Scooter O’Neal|
|1934||Treasure Island||Jim Hawkins|
|1934||Peck’s Bad Boy||Bill Peck|
|1935||O’Shaughnessy’s Boy||Joseph ‘Stubby’ O’Shaughnessy|
|1936||Tough Guy||Frederick Martindale ‘Freddie’ Vincent, III|
|1936||The Devil Is a Sissy||‘Buck’ Murphy|
|1937||Boy of the Streets||Chuck Brennan|
|1938||White Banners||Peter Trimble|
|1938||That Certain Age||Kenneth ‘Ken’ Warren|
|1938||Gangster’s Boy||Larry Kelly|
|1938||Newsboys’ Home||Rifle Edwards|
|1939||Scouts to the Rescue||Bruce Scott|
|1939||The Spirit of Culver||Tom Allen|
|1939||Streets of New York||James Michael ‘Jimmy’ Keenan|
|1939||Two Bright Boys||Rory O’Donnell|
|1939||What a Life||Henry Aldrich|
|1939||The Big Guy||Jimmy Hutchins|
|1940||Seventeen||William Sylvanus Baxter|
|1940||The Return of Frank James||Clem|
|1940||Life with Henry||Henry Aldrich|
|1940||Gallant Sons||Byron ‘By’ Newbold|
|1941||Ziegfeld Girl||Jerry Regan|
|1941||Her First Beau||Chuck Harris|
|1941||Glamour Boy||Tiny Barlow|
|1942||Men of Texas||Robert Houston Scott|
|1942||The Navy Comes Through||Joe ‘Babe’ Duttson|
|1943||Where Are Your Children?||Danny Cheston|
|1947||Stork Bites Man||Ernest (Ernie) C. Brown|
|1947||Kilroy Was Here||John J. Kilroy|
|1948||French Leave||Skitch Kilroy|
|1959||Hennesey||Lt. Charles ‘Chick’ Hennesey, MD||Television Series 1959 to 1962|
|1961||Everything’s Ducky||Lt. J.S. Parmell|
|1964||Calhoun: County Agent||Everett Calhoun||Television film|
|1968||Shadow on the Land||Lt. Col. Andy Davis||Television film|
|1971||The Love Machine||Danton Miller|
|1971||Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring||Ed Miller||Television film|
|1972||The Astronaut||Kurt Anderson||Television film|
|1972||Stand Up and Be Counted||Doctor||Uncredited, Also director|
|1973||Columbo||Nelson Hayward||Television series|
|1973||The F.B.I.(S9E3)||Harlan Slade||Television series|
|1973||Of Men and Women||Ted||Television film|
|1974||Chosen Survivors||Raymond Couzins|
|1974||The Day the Earth Moved||Steve Barker||Television film|
|1975||Journey into Fear||Eric Hurst|
|1978||Having Babies III||Director|
|1979||Sex and the Single Parent||Director|
|1980||Superman II||Perry White|
|1981||Leave ’em Laughing||Director|
|1982||Rosie: The Rosemary Clooney Story||Director|
|1983||Superman III||Perry White|
|1984||The Night They Saved Christmas||Director|
|1985||Izzy & Moe||Director|
|1986||Murder, She Wrote||Carl Schulman / Neil Fletcher|
|1987||Superman IV: The Quest for Peace||Perry White|
|1987||Surrender||Ace Morgan||(final film role)|