The Diesel Era was filled with exciting, groundbreaking individuals whose contributions and adventures are well known and adored. And then there are those forgotten heroes whose exploits remain largely forgotton. And then there are folks like John L. "Jackie" Coogan, child actor, WW2 glider pilot, and TV icon, who remain known and loved, but only for a single brief moment in a long and amazing life.
Who was Jackie Coogan? Well, like many actors of the era he began his career in Vaudeville...as a yound child. His parents, John Henry Coogan, Jr., and Lillian Rita (Dolliver) Coogan, were small-time Vaudeville actors who brought their son to the stage early on. Much like another child actor turned legend, Charlie Chaplin, Coogan was immediately revealed to be a natural talent. And wouldn't you know it, he soon caught the eye of Mr. Charlie Chaplin himself! Coogan was a natural mimic with almost preternatural talent for timing and emotion, and I for one like to think Chaplin saw a little bit of himself in the young actor.
Chaplin soon cast Coogan in the role that would define him for a generation, the titular "Kid" in 1921's The Kid. This was Chaplin's (and "The Little Tramp's") big exploration of the potential of mixing Comedy and Drama, exploring social values amid the slapstick, and the precocious Coogan made the film truly work. He became perhaps the first Hollywood Child Star and went on to play such iconic roles as the title character in 1922's Oliver Twist (his portrayal in this, particularly the famous "Can I have some more?" scene, remains iconic and the scene is still shown and sampled today) and later playing Tom Sawyer in 1930's Tom Sawyer and 1931's Huckleberry Finn.
His acting was top-notch and Coogan was making millions of dollars as part of the original Hollywood "A-list"...making millions, that is, for his parents. Under the law, the parents of child actors kept all the money. And in the case of John & Lilly Coogan they blew the lot of it on parties, vacations, and luxuries, leaving nothing for their son, who had earned that money by the sweat of his brow. Coogan, reaching adulthood, would take his parents to court and eventually win a settlement, but by that time there was paltry money left for him and he was left destitute. His friend and mentor Chaplin stepped in, giving Coogan $1000 out of pocket (a handsome amount in those days!) to ride him through.
His plight had a silver lining, however, spurring the creation of the California Child Actor's Bill, still known as the Coogan Bill or the Coogan Act. This bill not only established a mandatory trust fund of no less than 15% of the child's earnings to be reserved in the child's name, but limited hours and improved working & safety conditions for child actors.
But by now Coogan was grown up, and once again led the way...as the Former Child Actor no one could take seriously in an adult role. Roles were sparce and money tight, though he did manage to get a staring role in 1939's Million Dollar Legs alongside his new wife, a leggy young starlett named Betty Grable.
Yes...that Betty Grable!
And Coogan once again helped cement a Hollywood tradition, this time the one about Celebrety Marriages. The marriage to Ms. Grable, strained by Coogan's ongoing legal battles with his parents, broke apart in just under two years. But hey, almost two years with Betty Grable? There might have been a few men (and women!) happy to take that deal.
All said, however, 1940 marked the effective end of Coogan's early Hollywood career. Coogan, jobless and moneyless, enlisted into the US Army in the spring of 1941. He married his second wife, Flower Perry, that summer (they would have one kid, writer/producer/3D pioneer John Anthony Coogan).
And when Pearl harbor dragged the US into World War 2, Coogan requested transfer to the Army Air Corps and ended up becomming a Flight Officer and glider pilot.
For those not familiar with WW2 gliders, they were how you inserted soldiers behind enemy lines before the helicopter. Litterally nothing more than a fragile, fabric-covered, engineless airframes with seats, they were towed to altitude by a cargo plane, then released and left to glide down to the ground. The pilot had to dead-stick the plane to a landing, typically in a rough field far from a runway. It was a dangerous task even under ideal conditions.
But Flight Officer Jackie Coogan, rather than shirk, volunteered for progressively more daring missions, eventually joining the 1st Air Commando Group. This group, which remains in existance today, was and is one of the primary US military forces for inserting special operations forces deep behind enemy lines.
Coogan saw action in Southeast Asia on March 5th, 1944, when his glider was among those delivering General Orde Wingate's "Chindits" (British special forces, including elements from the 2nd Gurkha Rifles) deep behind Japanese lines.
Landing a heavy glider is hard enough under training conditions. Landing one onto a crude strip hacked from out of virgin jungle, at night, under blackout, hundreds of miles behind enemy lines in a war zone...let's just say that takes a level of daring and skill few posess. He completed his mission. Enough said.
He was also well-loved by the commandos he served with, where the sheer fact that he had been married to Betty Grable - pin up queen of the war - made him a legend.
After the war, Coogan returned to California. His marriage with Flower was over, but he soon married Anne McCormak (divorced 1951, one daughter Joann) and looked for work as an actor. The burgeoning medium of Television gave him the opportunity, where he initially starred in the Cowboy Spy Adventure series Cowboy G-Men. If that's not Pulp I don't know what is!
Soon film and television roles proliferated, many of them in Westerns or science fiction. He married one last time in 1952 to Dorthea Hanson; this one would last their lifetime together and they would have two kids, Leslie and Christopher. Leslie's son Keith Coogan would go on to become an actor himself in the 80's. Jackie Coogan's new career proved steady, if no longer "A-list", with many small roles and a coule bigger ones. It was among these roles that, in 1964, he took the role that would define him for another generation and make him an icon of the Golden Age of Television as well:
Say it with me: "Dah-dah-dah-dun!" *snap-snap*
Yes, John Leslie "Jackie" Coogan, star of legendary, pioneering films, husband to Betty Grable, bad-ass air commando of WW2, is best known to people today for his portrayal of the lovable but kooky Curly-esque Uncle Fester from The Addams Family TV series. I'll let that one sink in for a moment.
Note: for our younger Dieselpunks, this is like finding out that Neil Patrick Harris, whom you know as Barney from "How I Met Your Mother" but whom your parents know as "Doogie Howser", was once married to Megan Fox and flew one of the helicopters in the mission that took down Osama Bin Laden. [Note: just to quash any net rumors before they start, Mr. Harris was never a commando pilot nor married to Megan Fox (and as an openly gay man likely has no desire to!)]
Jackie Coogan was truly a man of the 20th Century. A man whose career spanned Vaudeville to Television and who saw the golden ages of both Cinema and TV. A warrior who performed death-defying flights in an unpowered glider to deliver special forces commandos. A man whose face has become indellibly associated with iconic roles not just once, but three times.
Jackie Coogan died 29 years ago today (March 1st), leaving behind a nearly forgotten legacy. He was a true icon of the Diesel Age.