Famed child star became busy TV director

Jackie Cooper, the first child star of the talkie era who continued acting into adulthood and also had a career as a TV director, producer and executive, died Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 88.

As of 2011, Cooper’s Oscar nomination for “Skippy” was the earliest nom — 1931 — in any Academy Award category in which the nominee was still living. He was also the youngest nominee ever, and until 13-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes was nominated for best actress in 2004, he was the only person to earn a best actor/actress nom before his/her 18th birthday (others have been nominated in supporting categories).

Paramount’s “Skippy,” a film now largely forgotten, was also nominated for best picture.

Cooper was a star in the early 1930s, before Shirley Temple got her start, crying often and well onscreen.

He was born John Cooper Jr. in Los Angeles; his father abandoned the family when he was a toddler. A nephew (by marriage) of film director Norman Taurog, Cooper began appearing in short comedy films with Lloyd Hamilton and Bobby Clark when he was 3. It was Taurog who would direct him in “Skippy.”

He was one of the most prominent stars in a number of “Little Rascals” or “Our Gang” films produced by Hal Roach in 1930 and 1931 and scored again with 1931 sentimental boxing tale “The Champ,” in which he starred with Wallace Beery. (That film was remade with Jon Voight and Ricky Schroder in 1979). Beery and Cooper starred in a series of films together at MGM including “The Bowery” and “Treasure Island”; the pair captivated movie audiences, but Cooper would later accuse Beery of seeking to undermine him.

Cooper continued to find roles as he aged into adolescence but did not regain his earlier stardom, replaced by the likes of Freddie Bartholomew and Roddy McDowall in the public eye. He did draw favorable notices for his performances in 1940′s Booth Tarkington adaptation “Seventeen” and in 1942′s “Syncopation.”

Cooper served in the Navy during WWII, eventually attaining the rank of captain.

He did not find much acting work immediately after the war, appearing in the 1947 comedy “Kilroy Was Here” with another former child star, Jackie Coogan.

Cooper soon found himself without a Hollywood contract for the first time since he was 3. He headed for New York and made his Gotham stage debut in a 1949 production of “Magnolia Alley” at the Mansfield Theater. Soon thereafter, he toured the U.S. as Ensign Pulver in “Mr. Roberts” and played the role in the London production in 1951.

Transitioning to television, he found occasional roles on “Schlitz Playhouse,” “Robert Montgomery Presents” and “Studio One in Hollywood,” among many others.

In 1955 he began a three-year run as star of NBC sitcom “The People’s Choice.” Subsequently Cooper starred in the title role of a Navy doctor in CBS sitcom “Hennesey,” from 1959-62, drawing Emmy noms for best actor in a comedy two years running.

He was already beginning to extend his skill set, directing three episodes of “The People’s Choice” and four episodes of “Hennesey” and producing an episode of the latter.

Cooper next became an executive. He was hired in 1964 as VP of program development for Columbia Pictures’ TV division (formerly Screen Gems). For five years he was responsible for packaging series (such as “Bewitched”) and selling them to the networks.

After exiting Col in 1969, Cooper spent more time directing for TV than acting.

In 1971, however, he appeared in the fairly daring ABC telepic “Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring.” He and Eleanor Parker played the parents of Sally Field, who runs away but eventually returns only to discover that establishment hypocrisy remains. In 1975 he made a last effort at a series-regular role, playing a news reporter in ABC’s “Mobile One.” Cooper was still guesting on the likes of “Hawaii Five-O” and “Ironside,” but he directed 13 episodes of “MASH” in 1973-74, winning an Emmy for comedy directing for one of them.

He helmed an episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”; five episodes of “The Rockford Files”; five of “Black Sheep Squadron”; three of “Quincy, M.E.”; and three of “The White Shadow.” For directing the pilot of “The White Shadow” he won an Emmy.

In 1978 he appeared in the feature film role for which he would become best known to generations unaware of his work as a child many decades earlier: newsman Perry White in “Superman,” starring Christopher Reeve. He returned for “Superman II,” “Superman III” and 1987′s “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.”

He continued directing during the 1980s, with four episodes of “Sledge Hammer!”; two of “Magnum, P.I.”; four of “Cagney and Lacey”; two of “Simon and “Simon”; and two of “Jake and the Fatman” in 1989.

In his last acting job, he appeared in two episodes of the ABC series “Capital News” in 1990.

Cooper announced his retirement in 1989, although he was still directing episodes of the syndicated series “Superboy.”

After 1989 he occasionally appeared in retrospective and documentary programs about Hollywood.

Cooper’s autobiography, “Please Don’t Shoot My Dog,” was published in 1982. The title comes from director Norman Taurog’s threat to shoot young Jackie’s dog if he could not cry in “Skippy.”

He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1501 Vine Street.

Cooper was married three times: to June Horne (1944-49), to Hildy Parks (1950-51) and to Barbara Kraus from 1954 until her death in 2009. He is survived by two sons. Two daughters predeceased him.

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