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Coogan Act: Stopped parents of famous child actors seizing all the childs money

Brad Smithfield

In the 1930s, the hard-earned fortune of child actors was almost always unfairly squandered by their parents. Shirley Temple, Mimi Gibson, along with many other rising star Hollywood kids, had problems with their parents concerning ownership earnings.

The California Child Actor’s Bill was thus passed in 1939, by child star Jackie Coogan, to serve justice.

Jackie Coogan (26th October, 1914 – March 1st, 1984) was a child actor most famous for his role as “the kid” in the movie of the same name. He, along with the brilliant Charlie Chaplin, made a groundbreaking performance and the movie is regarded as a cinema gem.

Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in "The Kid".

Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in “The Kid”.

Discovered in an L.A. theater by Chaplin himself, Coogan launched a 50-year career that would bring him fame and fortune.

He starred in 19 astounding silent films such as “Long Live The King (1932)”, “Tom Sawyer (1930) and Huckleberry Finn (1931)” before he turned 18. Coogan is also famous for his memorable role as Uncle Fester in the Addams Family sitcom.

His teenage years are riddled with harsh and troublesome events. Reportedly, he has been involved in a revenge lynching of street thugs who kidnapped and killed Brooke Heart, a friend of Coogan’s. He lost his father, John Coogan, and his fellow child actor Junior Durkin in a car accident, and he was the sole survivor of the fatal crash.

Coogan as Uncle Fester in The Addams Family, 1966

Coogan as Uncle Fester in The Addams Family, 1966

Coogan’s military career had no dull moments either, as he was a glider pilot enlisted in the US Army in 1941. Performing a night landing in a small and narrow jungle, he succeeded in transporting British troops in India in 1944. He had 4 wives, 4 children, and a fulfilled life before dying at the age of 69.

He earned over $4 million but, due to his mother and step-father’s vulture-like appetite for spending money on diamonds, luxuries, and expensive cars, he only received today’s equivalent of a mere $2000.

The hard-working actor was basically robbed of his money when he got older to understand. Chaplin wholeheartedly supported him financially when Coogan fell on hard times.

Publicity poster for Charlie Chaplin's 1921 movie The Kid.

Publicity poster for Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 movie The Kid.

His mother stated, “No promises were ever made to give Jackie anything. Every dollar a kid earns before he is 21 belongs to his parents.”, as she and her husband thought that they were entitled to their son’s wealth. Coogan, appalled by his parents’ recklessness, he took matters into his own hands.

He decided to sue them in 1938 and would ultimately win the legal battle, planting the seed of a totally new and interesting legislative.

The legislation for the California Child Actor’s Bill was passed in 1939 in California, all thanks to Jackie Coogan’s complaint which, surprisingly, was heeded by the government. As the legislature stands, the money that is earned and accumulated under a contract of the code remains the sole legal property of the minor child.

Jackie Coogan in 1920

Jackie Coogan in 1920

The law has been revised a couple of times. It was not a perfect law, but it required that 15% of the child’s money needed to be set aside in a trust account for their personal use when they reached maturity.

Although this would turn out to be a law loophole, from which Jackie Coogan would have financial problems recovering the lost money. Under Californian law, all of Coogan’s earnings as a child belonged to the family. Thus, it was giving the mother special rights to the wealth that was considered as a community property state.

Shirley Temple in The Little Princess, her first color film.

Shirley Temple in The Little Princess, her first color film.

Shirley Temple, one of the most prominent names in Hollywood, was also a victim of royalty theft. Her well-garnered popularity was declining as she grew older and retired from acting at 22.

She was 20th Century Fox’s biggest box office draw during the 1930s. To her surprise, instead of the $3 million she had earned, she only had $44,000, because of her parent’s indifference and reckless spending.

Shirley Temple and Eddie Cantor cutting President Franklin D. Roosevelt's birthday cake in Los Angeles, California, 1937

Shirley Temple and Eddie Cantor cutting President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s birthday cake in Los Angeles, California, 1937

Perhaps Coogan had luck with his case, as gaining the attention of the state governments was not an easy task. Either way, Coogan got back what was left of the squandered money, $126,000 to be precise.

An extremely small sum in comparison to his rightfully deserved amount. Still, the legal battle that was waged against his own parents would go out in law history.

We have another story for you from our vault These heart-rending photos show child workers in sardine factories in 1911

Jackie Coogan will be remembered as the first spark that brought justice to the many unmentioned child actors throughout the state. Later on, his legal fame and prominence would be overshadowed by his unforgettable performance as Uncle Fester.