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Coogan in c.1920
|Born||John Leslie Coogan
October 26, 1914
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Died||March 1, 1984
Santa Monica, California, U.S.
|Cause of death||Cardiac arrest|
Betty Grable (m. 1937–1939)
John Leslie Coogan (October 26, 1914 – March 1, 1984), 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.
Coogan was born in 1914 in Los Angeles, California to John Henry Coogan, Jr. and Lillian Rita (Dolliver) Coogan, as John Leslie Coogan (not John Leslie Coogan, Jr., as some sources indicate).  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, but Turner Classic Movies recently presented The Rag Man with a new score.
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 is reported to have been one of the mob that prepared and held the lynching rope.
On May 4, 1935, Coogan was the sole survivor of a deadly 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. The accident happened just before Coogan's twenty-first birthday.
|“||Mr. and Mrs. Bernstein will never be serious contenders for the title of Mr. and Mrs. America.||”|
—New York Herald Tribune
As a child star, Coogan earned an estimated $3 to $4 million (adjusted amount ranges from $40 million to $100 million), 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, Charlie Chaplin gave him financial support.
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 2010 dollars). Coogan was honored by officials in the US, Greece, and Rome, where he met with the Pope.
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.
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 a number of times on the Perry Mason series, and 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.
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