Charlie Chaplin’s film classic The Kid (1921) made Jackie Coogan one of the first child stars in film history.
Many years later, he became known as Uncle Fester on the 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, widely known as the Coogan Act.
He was born as John Leslie Coogan in 1914 in Los Angeles, California, to John Henry Coogan, Jr. and Lillian Rita (Dolliver) Coogan.
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 popular dance at the time. Coogan’s father was also an actor. Jackie 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 Chaplin’s irascible companion 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 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 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 the night he was kidnapped. Both killers were transferred to a prison in downtown San Jose. A mob broke into the jail, and Thurmond and Holmes were hanged in a nearby park. Coogan was reported to be present and had held the lynching rope.
In 1935, 20-year-old Coogan was the only survivor of a car crash in eastern San Diego County that killed his father, his best friend: 19-year-old actor Junior Durkin, their ranch foreman Charles Jones, and film producer 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.
As a child star, Coogan earned an estimated $3 to $4 million, but the entire amount was spent by his mother and stepfather, Arthur Bernstein, on fur coats, diamonds and other jewelry, and expensive cars. 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,” and claimed he “was a bad boy.” Coogan sued them in 1938, but after his legal expenses, he received just $126,000 ($2,120,000 in 2016) 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.
When Coogan turned 21 in October 1935, his fortune was believed to be well intact. His assets had been conservatively managed by his late father, who died in the car accident less than six months earlier. Bernstein had been a financial advisor for the family and married Coogan’s mother in late 1936.
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. 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 (160 km) 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.
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.
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.
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 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, and Hawaii Five-O) until his retirement in the middle 1970s.
Coogan was married four times, and had four children. His first three marriages to actresses were short lived. He and Betty Grable were engaged in 1935 and married on November 20, 1937, and they divorced less than two years later on October 11, 1939.
After suffering from heart and kidney ailments, Coogan succumbed to heart failure on March 1, 1984, at age 69 in Santa Monica, California. He had been undergoing kidney dialysis when his blood pressure dropped. Coogan was taken to Santa Monica Hospital, where he had a heart attack and expired