Jackie Coogan

John Leslie Coogan (October 26, 1914 – March 1, 1984), known professionally as Jackie Coogan, was an American actor and comedian who began his movie career as a child actor in silent films.[2]

Jackie Coogan
Coogan in 1962
John Leslie Coogan[1]

(1914-10-26)October 26, 1914
DiedMarch 1, 1984(1984-03-01) (aged 69)
Resting placeHoly Cross Cemetery, Culver City
OccupationActor, comedian
Years active1917–1984
Betty Grable
(m. 1937; div. 1939)

Flower Parry
(m. 1941; div. 1943)

Ann McCormack
(m. 1946; div. 1951)

Dorothea Lamphere (m. 1952)
RelativesRobert Coogan (brother)
Keith Coogan (grandson)
Military career
Allegiance United States
Service/branch United States Army Air Forces
Years of service1941–1945
Rank  Lieutenant
Unit1st Air Commando Group
Battles/warsWorld War II:
Burma Campaign
Awards Air Medal

Charlie Chaplin's film classic The Kid (1921) made him one of the first child stars in film history. He later 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, the California Child Actors Bill, widely known as the Coogan Act.[3] Coogan continued to act throughout his life, later earning renewed fame in middle age portraying bumbling Uncle Fester in the 1960s television series The Addams Family.

Early life and early career

Coogan was born as John Leslie Coogan in 1914 in Los Angeles, California, to John Henry Coogan Jr. and Lillian Rita (Dolliver) Coogan.[1][4] 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, a vaudeville house in Los Angeles, on the stage doing the shimmy, a dance popular at the time. Coogan's father was also an actor, as was Jackie's younger brother, Robert Coogan.

Coogan was a natural mimic and delighted Chaplin with his abilities. Chaplin cast him in a small role in A Day's Pleasure (1919). He was the abandoned child raised by Chaplin in The Kid (1921) and the following year played the title role in Oliver Twist, directed by Frank Lloyd. Coogan was one of the first stars to be heavily merchandised. Peanut butter, stationery, whistles, dolls, records, and figurines were among the Coogan-themed merchandise on sale. Coogan was tutored until the age of 10, 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, 22-year-old Brooke Hart, a close friend of Coogan from Santa Clara University and heir to a successful department store in San Jose, was kidnapped as he drove his car out of a parking lot. After several demands for a $40,000 ransom were delivered to the family, police arrested Thomas Thurmond and Jack Holmes in San Jose. Thurmond admitted that he and Holmes had murdered Hart the same day he was kidnapped. Both killers were transferred to a jail in downtown San Jose. A mob broke into the jail, and Thurmond and Holmes were hanged from a tree in a nearby park, with the unapologetic approval of the state's governor. Coogan was reported to be present and to have held the lynching rope.[5]

In 1935, 20-year-old Coogan was the sole survivor of a car crash in eastern San Diego County that killed his father; his best friend, 19-year-old actor Junior Durkin;[6] their ranch foreman, Charles Jones; and actor and writer Robert J. Horner. The party was returning from a day of dove hunting over the border in Mexico in early May. With his father at the wheel, the car was forced off the mountain highway near Pine Valley by an oncoming vehicle and rolled down an embankment.[7][8][9]

Coogan Bill

As a child star, Coogan earned an estimated $3 to $4 million. When he turned 21 in October 1935, his fortune was believed to be well intact. His assets had been conservatively managed by his father, who had died in the car accident five months earlier.[11]

However, Coogan found that the entire amount had been spent by his mother and stepfather, Arthur Bernstein, on fur coats, diamonds and other jewelry, and expensive cars. Bernstein had been a financial advisor for the family and married Coogan's mother in late 1936.[12] Coogan's mother and stepfather claimed Jackie enjoyed himself and simply thought he was playing before the camera. She insisted, "No promises were ever made to give Jackie anything",[10] and claimed he "was a bad boy".[13] Coogan sued them in 1938,[12] but after his legal expenses, he received just $126,000 of the $250,000 remaining of his earnings. When he fell on hard times and asked Charlie Chaplin for assistance, Chaplin handed him $1,000 without hesitating.[14]

The legal battle focused attention on child actors and resulted in the 1939 enactment of the California Child Actor's Bill, often referred to as the "Coogan Law" or the "Coogan Act". It required that a child actor's employer set aside 15% of the earnings in a trust (called a Coogan account), and specified the actor's schooling, work hours, and time off.[15]

Charity work

Coogan worked with Near East relief, he toured across the United States and Europe in 1924 on a "Children's Crusade" as part of his fundraising drive, which provided more than $1 million in clothing, food, and other contributions (worth more than $13 million in 2012 dollars). He was honored by officials in the United States and Greece where he had an audience with Pope Pius XI.[16]

A Roman Catholic, Coogan was a member of the Good Shepherd Parish and the Catholic Motion Picture Guild in Beverly Hills.[17]

Later years


Coogan appeared with then-wife Betty Grable in College Swing, a 1938 musical comedy starring George Burns, Gracie Allen, Martha Raye and Bob Hope.


In 1940, Coogan played the role of "a playboy Broadway producer" in the Society Girl program on CBS radio.[18] He also starred in his own program, Forever Ernest, on CBS from April 29, 1946, to July 22, 1946.[19]

World War II

Coogan enlisted in the U.S. Army in March 1941. After the attack on Pearl Harbor that December, he requested a transfer to Army Air Forces as a glider pilot because of his civilian flying experience. Graduating the Advanced Glider School with the Glider Pilot aeronautical rating and the rank of Flight Officer,[20] he volunteered for hazardous duty with the 1st Air Commando Group.[21]

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 (160 km) behind Japanese lines in the Burma Campaign.[22][23]


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. In the 1960–1961 season, he guest-starred in the episode "The Damaged Dolls" of the crime drama The Brothers Brannagan. In 1961, he guest-starred in an episode of The Americans, an NBC series about family divisions stemming from the Civil War. He also appeared in episode 37, titled "Barney on the Rebound", of The Andy Griffith Show, which aired October 31, 1961. He had a regular role in a 1962–63 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.[24]

He appeared four times on the Perry Mason series, including the role of political activist Gus Sawyer in the 1963 episode, "The Case of the Witless Witness", and TV prop man Pete Desmond in the final episode, "The Case of the Final Fadeout", in 1966. He was a guest several times on The Red Skelton Show, appeared twice on The Brady Bunch ("The Fender Benders" and "Double Parked"), I Dream of Jeannie (as Jeannie's uncle, Suleiman – Maharaja of Basenji), Family Affair, Here's Lucy and The Brian Keith Show, and continued to guest-star on television (including multiple appearances on The Partridge Family, The Wild Wild West, Hawaii Five-O, and McMillan and Wife) until his retirement in the middle 1970s.

Marriages and children

Coogan was married four times, and had four children. His first three marriages to actresses were short-lived.[3] He and Betty Grable were engaged in 1935 and married on November 20, 1937,[25] [26][27] and they divorced less than two years later on October 11, 1939. Eighteen months later on August 10, 1941, he married Flower Parry (d.1981). They had one son, John Anthony Coogan (writer/producer of 3D digital and film), born March 4, 1942, in Los Angeles; they divorced on June 29, 1943.[28] Coogan married his third wife, Ann McCormack, on December 26, 1946;[29][30] a daughter, Joann Dolliver Coogan, was born April 2, 1948,[31] in Los Angeles. They divorced on September 20, 1951.[32][33][34]

Dorothea Odetta Hanson, also known as Dorothea Lamphere, best known as Dodie, was a dancer and became Coogan's fourth wife in April 1952, and they were together over 30 years until his death. She died in 1999. They had two children together, a daughter, Leslie Diane Coogan, born November 24, 1953 in Los Angeles, and a son, Christopher Fenton Coogan, born July 9, 1967 in Riverside County, California, who died in a motorcycle accident in Palm Springs, California on June 29, 1990.[35][36]

Leslie Coogan has a son, actor Keith Coogan, who was born Keith Eric Mitchell on January 13, 1970. He began acting in 1975, and changed his name in 1986, two years after his grandfather's death. His roles include the oldest son in Adventures in Babysitting and Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead.

Footage of Jackie with his grandson Keith can be seen in the 1982 documentary Hollywood's Children.


After suffering from heart and kidney ailments, Coogan died of heart failure on March 1, 1984, at age 69, in Santa Monica, California.[37] He had previously suffered several strokes and had been undergoing kidney dialysis when his blood pressure dropped. Coogan was taken to Santa Monica Hospital, where he died from cardiac arrest.[3]

At his request, Coogan's funeral was open to the public and he was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City.[38][39] His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is located at 1654 Vine Street, just south of Hollywood Boulevard.[40]



  1. "Research". Coogan Research Group. 7 April 2012. Retrieved 2013-05-15.
  2. Barron, James (2 March 1984). "Jackie Coogan, Child Star of Films, dies at 69". The New York Times. NYTimes.com. Retrieved 2013-05-15.
  3. "Former child star Jackie Coogan dies". Daily News. Bowling Green, Kentucky. Associated Press. March 4, 1984. p. 17B.
  4. "Coogan Research Group". 30 April 2013. Retrieved 2013-05-15.
  5. Farrell, Harry (1993). Swift justice: murder and vengeance in a California town. New York: Saint Martin's Press Inc. pp. 165, 255. Retrieved 2013-05-15.
  6. "Final rites held for young actor". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Associated Press. May 8, 1935. p. 2.
  7. "Four killed in auto accident". Bend Bulletin. Oregon. United Press. May 6, 1935. p. 1.
  8. "Jackie Coogan hurt, four killed in accident". Milwaukee Journal. (photo). May 5, 1935. p. 3.
  9. "Jackie Coogan tells court of fatal crash". Milwaukee Journal. Associated Press. April 6, 1936. p. 1, Final.
  10. "The Strange Case of – Jackie Coogan's $4,000,000". Life. 25 April 1938. p. 50. Retrieved 2013-05-15.
  11. Shaffer, Rosalind (October 25, 1935). "Jackie Coogan 21 tomorrow; gets fortune". Chicago Daily Tribune. p. 1.
  12. "Jackie Coogan sues mother". Prescott Evening Courier. Arizona. Associated Press. April 12, 1938. p. 1.
  13. "Newspictures of the Week (photograph)". Life. 2 May 1938. p. 16. Retrieved 2013-05-15.
  14. Robinson, David (1985). Chaplin: His Life and Art. New York: McGraw Hill. ISBN 978-0070531819.
  15. "Coogan Law". SAG-AFTRA. Retrieved 2013-05-15.
  16. Babkenian, Vicken (7 January 2011). "Hollywood's First Celebrity Humanitarian that America Forgot". Armenian Weekly. Watertown, MA. Retrieved 2013-05-15.
  17. "Our History". Church of the Good Shepherd. 1998. Retrieved 2013-05-15.
  18. "Thursday's Highlights" (PDF). Radio and Television Mirror. 13 (5): 50. March 1940. Retrieved 24 February 2015.
  19. Dunning, John (1998). On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio (Revised ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. p. 258. ISBN 978-0-19-507678-3.
  20. "Jackie Coogan now Air Force officer". Free Lance-Star. Fredericksburg, Virginia. Associated Press. January 19, 1943. p. 2.
  21. "Jackie Coogan, air commando". Sunday Morning Star. Wilmington, Delaware. United Press. March 19, 1943. p. 1.
  22. Martin, Frank L. (March 29, 1944). "Jackie Coogan taken for god in Burma". Evening Independent. St. Petersburg, Florida. Associated Press. p. 7.
  23. Webster, Donovan (2003). The Burma Road: The Epic Story of the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II. Harper Collins. p. 187. ISBN 0-06-074638-6. Retrieved 2013-05-15.
  24. "Girl Happy (1965)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2013-05-15.
  25. "Jackie Coggan plans to marry actress". Reading Eagle. Pennsylvania. Associated Press. December 3, 1935. p. 8.
  26. "Betty Grable, Jackie Coogan marry on coast". Sunday Spartanburg Herald-Journal. South Carolina. Associated Press. November 21, 1937. p. 2.
  27. "Time off for marriage". Sydney Morning Herald. Australia. November 22, 1937. p. 9.
  28. "Jackie Coogan is divorced by Flower Perry". St. Petersburg Times. Florida. INS. June 30, 1943. p. 9.
  29. "Jackie Coogan on honeymoon with third wife". Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Florida. Associated Press. December 27, 1946. p. 4.
  30. "WEDDING CAKE FOR THE COOGANS". Oxnard Press Courier. 2 Jan 1947. p. 20.
  31. "Coogan Is Father For Second Time". Berkeley Daily Gazette. 3 Apr 1948. p. 2.
  32. "Jackie Coogans Call It Quits After 4 Years of Marriage". Long Beach Independent. 7 Mar 1950. p. 22.
  33. "Coogans Drop Divorce Plans". Long Beach Independent. 24 Mar 1950. p. 28.
  34. "The Kid and 'Da Mkk' Having Trouble Again". Long Beach Independent. 23 Aug 1950. p. 21.
  35. "Christopher Coogan; Youngest Son of Actor". Los Angeles Times. latimes.com. 7 July 1990. Retrieved 2013-05-15.
  36. "Christopher Coogan, son of actor, dead at 22". Ocala Star-Banner. Florida. July 3, 1990. p. 4B.
  37. Aaker, Everett (1997). Television Western Players of the Fifties: A Biographical Encyclopedia of All Regular Cast Members in Western Series, 1949–1959. McFarland. p. 141. ISBN 0-7864-0284-9.
  38. "Public funeral set for Jackie Coogan". Nashua Telegraph. New Hampshire. Associated Press. March 3, 1984. p. 5.
  39. "Friends remember Jackie Coogan". Bangor Daily News. Maine. Associated Press. March 6, 1984. p. 20.
  40. "Jackie Coogan". Hollywood Chamber of Commerce Star Finder. Retrieved 3 November 2018.

Further reading

  • Jackie Coogan: The World's Boy King: A Biography of Hollywood's Legendary Child Star, Diana Serra Cary, Scarecrow Press, 2003, ISBN 0-8108-4650-0.
  • Holmstrom, John. The Moving Picture Boy: An International Encyclopaedia from 1895 to 1995, Norwich, Michael Russell, 1996, pp. 65–67.
  • Dye, David. Child and Youth Actors: Filmography of Their Entire Careers, 1914-1985. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1988, pp. 37–40.
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