Appropriately enough, the actor who became filmdom’s first major child star made his mark in a dramatic comedy called The Kid. While many child stars don’t go on to become successful adult actors, Coogan found fame and a new generation of fans in his middleage as the wacky Uncle Lester on the hit 1960s TV show The Addams Family.
But it wasn’t an easy path: In between those famous roles, his real life was full of its own remarkable and rocky drama, notably the loss of $4 million to his greedy guardians.
John Leslie “Jackie” Coogan was born to a theater family on October 26, 1914, in Los Angeles. He appeared on stage before he could walk or talk. The silent-film superstar Charlie Chaplin discovered young Jackie performing in vaudeville, and cast him in a small role in A Day’s Pleasure, when the boy was just four years old.
Young Jackie’s breakout role was playing Charlie Chaplin’s adopted son and sidekick in The Kid, Chaplin’s first full-length film as star and director.
It was a huge hit, establishing the big-eyed boy as an early celebrity-merchandiser’s dream: dolls, figurines, records, even peanut butter were marketed in his name. In one popularity poll of the era, he topped Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks, according to the New York Times.
By the time he turned 21, Jackie Coogan had appeared in more than 20 films, starring in Oliver Twist, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, among many other classic films. His earnings during these lucrative early years were estimated to be $4 million—an astounding amount in those days. He spent his youth in an enormous house with one of the first private swimming pools in Southern California; his swim instructor was an Olympic gold medalist.
In early May of 1935, Jackie’s life took a dark turn. Along with his father, his best friend and actor Junior Durkin, actor and writer Robert J. Horner, and a ranch foreman, Jackie went on a hunting adventure across the border in Mexico. Returning home with his father at the wheel, the party drove off the side of a mountain highway and tumbled down the embankment, killing everyone in the car but Jackie.
Six months later, Jackie turned 21 and expected to come into his celluloid earnings, which his father had carefully managed over the years. Only instead of receiving the expected $4 million, Jackie discovered that the money was gone. His mother and her new husband, Hollywood attorney Arthur Bernstein, had spent it all, on furs, diamonds, and expensive cars. Furthermore, they never had any intention of giving Jackie his money.
“You haven’t got a cent,” Jackie recalled his mother saying, as reported by the Associated Press in 1938. “There never has been a cent belonging to you. It’s all mine and Arthur’s, and so far as we are concerned, you will never get a cent.”
His stepfather had his own cutting words, according to the Associated Press: “[Jackie’s] mother was entitled to all his earning up to the time he became of age.”
Jackie Coogan was by then struggling with the transition between child star and adult actor. He’d gotten engaged to Betty Grable in 1935; they were married two years later and divorced two years after that. But he was having trouble finding work.
Jackie took his mother and stepfather to court. “I have waited patiently for some time for my mother and Mr. Bernstein to make an accounting to me of my property. … It is a course which I deeply regret to take.”
By the time the case was settled and Coogan’s legal fees paid, he received just a paltry fraction of his previous earnings: $35,000. His personal misfortune did have beneficial consequences for future child stars, however.
In 1939, California enacted the Child Actor’s Bill, which requires that 15 percent of a child actor’s gross wages be set aside in a blocked trust, as well as stipulating young actors’ schooling and work hours. It became known as the Coogan Law.
Coogan served in the second world war as a glider pilot, during which time he flew behind Japanese lines in Burma. Upon his post-war return to civilian life, he tried to revive his acting career, with modest success, taking recurring character roles on such TV series as The Martha Raye Show, McKeever and the Colonel, and The Perry Mason Show. He would make guest appearances on many hit shows until his retirement in the middle 1970s, including The Brady Bunch, Here’s Lucy, Hawaii Five-O and McMillan and Wife.
In 1964, Coogan finally won back a measure of his fame and fortune—at least among a new generation of fans—when he landed his iconic role as the hilarious, hairless, hunchbacked Uncle Fester on the quirky black-and-white TV show The Addams Family.
Though it only ran for two years, the series still airs on TV in syndication and on streaming services, and has been adapted into multiple movies, reunions, sequels, animated series, and Broadway shows. Jackie Coogan passed away of a heart attack in 1984. He was 69 years old.