Charles Cooper, a pioneer of arthouse distribution and exhibition in Britain, died Nov. 27 in London. He was 91.
Cooper, a longtime socialist, set up Contemporary Films in 1951 after being deported from the U.S. for his political affiliations. By the mid-1960s, the company had become the U.K.’s leading importer of foreign-language movies, introducing British audiences to filmmakers such as Satyajit Ray and Werner Herzog.
At its peak it employed 200 people and owned three cinemas — two in London, one in Oxford.
Cooper was born 10 years after his parents arrived in Britain from the Ukraine. He was the youngest of nine children and grew up speaking Yiddish as his first language.
He left school at 14 to become a kosher butcher, his father’s trade, and joined the Communist Party in the 1930s after visiting Nazi Germany, where he was shocked by the mounting anti-Semitism. Fearing war, he and his first wife, Cecilia, visited the United States in 1939 and remained there after war broke out in Europe.
He found work as a baby photographer and began working in the film distribution section of the Intl. Workers Assn., importing political films from the Soviet Union and other socialist countries. During this time, he and his wife cycled from New York to the Southern states to witness racism against blacks.
When the IWO was outlawed by the U.S. government in the late 1940s, he set up his own company, Contemporary Films. He was deported in October 1950, returning to the U.K. with his wife and daughter. He then relaunched Contemporary Films in a small room in Soho.
His wife died in 1957, and he remarried in 1964. With his new wife, Kitty, he embarked on an expansionist phase, winning a leading position in the arthouse market.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the company faced growing competition and eventually decided to sell its cinemas — London’s Paris Pullman and Phoenix, and the Oxford Phoenix.
In the 1990s, the emphasis switched from new movies to reissues of pics such as Jean Renoir’s “La Regle du Jeu” and Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin.” Cooper himself continued to work until well into his 80s.
He is survived by his wife and five children.