“Holy shit, I can’t believe I got killed by Uncle Fester.”
~An Actual Murderer
“Actors aren’t as tough as they used to be” sounds like a sentence you’d hear an angry old man shouting from his porch, possibly to children gliding down the sidewalk on Heelys. But there is some truth to it.
Sure, a lot might have to do with the times we live in, but it’s easy to forget that Hollywood wasn’t always full of glamour and George Clooneys. The Golden Age of Hollywood was pretty much fueled by animal deaths on set and carefully regimented drug cocktails forced upon strung out teenage actresses off it, and if you managed to pull through that minefield relatively successful and sane, then you had to be made of some pretty solid stuff.
We mention that because while we (correctly) look back at groundbreaking actors such as Charlie Chaplin, John Wayne, and Humphrey Bogart as visionaries and badasses, there’s one actor who probably was the toughest son of a bitch to step in front of a camera (yes, we know that list includes Danny Trejo) if for no other reason than the fact that his childhood, we’re pretty sure, was haunted. Which probably helped him prepare for the role of Uncle Fester.
Yes, we’re going to talk about Jackie Coogan, who could totally beat you up.
Jackie Coogan: Uncle Fester Was Kind of a Badass
Jackie Coogan was born in 1914 in Los Angeles, where his father, John Henry Coogan, put him to work immediately. No, we mean immediately- as an infant he performed on vaudeville and appeared (uncredited) in the 1917 film, Skinner’s Baby, where he probably played either Skinner, or the baby (footage of the film no longer exists, because that’s how Hollywood was in the early 20th century). It was while he was shimmying on stage as a four year old (gross, and what actually happened) that Charlie Chaplin discovered him in the Orpheum Theater. He was given a small role in A Day’s Pleasure before becoming a breakthrough star in the classic film The Kid.
Coogan was lucky (read as- unlucky) enough to be a child actor in the days before “labor laws” or “actors unions” or “the human desire to be kind to children” were actual things, so he managed one of the great child performances of all time in The Kid, partly due to emotional abuse! Woo! Apparently, Coogan was too fucking happy to pull off a climactic scene where he is forced to leave Chaplin’s Tramp.
So to make sure his tears were nice and authentic, his dad set him aside, told him he was going to abandon him and send him to a work camp, and once the waterworks started flowing, told Chaplin to start filming. This would not even be close to the worst thing to happen to Coogan before he turned 21.
Knowing this is actual anguish makes this picture ten times more depressing than it already was!
Coogan was given a $5,000 bonus once The Kid became a smash hit (about $60,000 in today money), and soon snagged a $500,000 studio contract (or six million bucks today) that came with 60% of the profits from his films, which included Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and probably a few movies not taken from Mark Twain novels as well. By the time he was 17, he had made 22 films, and earned somewhere between $2 and $4 million dollars. Yes, that’s in actual 1920s dollars. Before inflation. Kid was making DiCaprio money.
He was so rich that in 1921 he hired Duke Kahanamoku to be his swimming instructor. For those of you unaware of the Big Kahuna, he was a five-time Olympic medalist in the freestyle who, at the time, would have been one year removed from winning two golds at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics.
He also was one of the pioneers of surfing, and taught Coogan how to surf at a time when maybe a dozen Americans even knew what the sport was. That would basically be like Justin Beiber hiring Michael Phelps as his swim coach in 2009 and then getting Anderson Silva to teach him MMA.
His money bought his family a mansion with one of the first swimming pools in Southern California by the time he was seven. In describing his childhood, Coogan would say, “I had the flu in New York, and it pushed the President of the United States off the front pages…Other boys went to see Babe Ruth. Babe Ruth came to see me.”
He wasn’t KIDding ha ha haaaa(oh God we’re so sorry)
Coogan was tutored until he was ten, but eventually went to school, and tried out a few colleges. When he was 18, he attended Santa Clara University before dropping out due to poor grades. While there, he befriended Brooke Hart, the son of a department store owner.
The following year, in 1933, Hart was kidnapped. A $40,000 ransom was demanded, but before it could be paid, the kidnappers were caught, and admitted that they had already murdered Hart the night they kidnapped him. What follows is not an endorsement of vigilante justice, just a simple reminder that Jackie Coogan was apparently not someone you wanted to fuck with.
A lynch mob formed and broke into the prison, grabbed the men, stripped them down, and hung them from a tree in a nearby park. Not only was Jackie Coogan part of that lynch mob (arguably the last lynching to occur in California) but he was the motherfucker holding onto the rope.
Be thankful we decided to go with the mugshots of the killers, as opposed to the pictures of the lynching that absolutely actually exist.
Jackie Coogan wasn’t free from Death’s assholish fingers just yet. A few years later, at the age of 20, he went out for a day of dove hunting in Mexico (yes, that’s a thing apparently) with his father, his best friend, a ranch foreman, and another actor. With his father behind the wheel, the car rolled down an embankment after being forced off the road by an incoming car.
Coogan was the only survivor, which was tragic, but also astonishing because he himself only suffered light bruising.
So by the time he was 20, Jackie Coogan had already watched a minimum of six people die while establishing himself as the inspiration for the Bruce Willis’ role in Unbreakable.
Now, having your dad and best friend die in front of you is a pretty shitty thing to happen to anyone, but it was especially worse for Coogan due to his mom having a very unique case of “being the worst person ever.” She didn’t waste much time remarrying, and her new lawyer husband, Arthur Bernstein, found a way to get rich and be a shithole of a human being at the same time.
Coogan had made millions, but was only allotted a weekly allowance of $6.25 (about $75 today). He assumed that the rest of the money would come over to him when he turned 21, and if his dad had survived it probably would have. Instead, his mom and stepdad decided to keep all his money. Bernstein, not content to be a garbage person just in private, held a news conference where he said, “The law is on our side, and Jackie Coogan will not get a cent from his past earnings.”
Lillian Coogan, seen here plotting the longest con
To really solidify his dickheadedness, Bernstein, who had connections throughout Hollywood, got Coogan blackballed—he did not appear in a movie as an adult until 1938. If there was one saving grace for Coogan, it was his 1935 engagement to Betty Grable, who he married in 1937.
While they got divorced just two years later, he still could say that he for a moment managed to snag one of the most iconic pin-up girls of all time. Around the time of the divorce, Coogan, who at this point had been shit on more than any other actor in the history of cinema, decided to try to get some of his money back, suing his mom and stepdad for the money that he earned that they stole.
He was awarded only $35,000 in damages because justice isn’t fair, but also spurred the passage of the California Child Actor’s Bill, known as the Coogan Act, which said that a child actor’s earnings had to be deposited in court-administered trust funds. According to Coogan, the bill was rushed through the Legislature 48 hours after the filing of his law suit.
Coogan remarried in 1941, this time to a 19-year-old dancer named Flower Parry with whom he had a son before divorcing two years later. We can’t speak to the origin of this relationship, but we can point out that it seems very possible that the marriage was spurred on by World War II, since Coogan joined the Army and served from 1941 to 1945, where he was a flight officer and the first glider pilot to land Allied troops behind Japanese lines during the Burma campaign. No big deal. He received the Air Medal for his service, and was honorably discharged with the rank of Lieutenant.
We’re sure it wasn’t awkward at all that a picture of his ex-wife in a swimsuit could be found in the bunk of literally 20% of ALL SERVICEMEN.
Upon returning stateside, Coogan began acting again, largely appearing in television work, though he is of course best known as Uncle Fester in the original Addams Family, which you’d be surprised to hear only ran for two seasons from 1964 to 1966. Sure, it’s a bit of a letdown that his biggest role in all of his adulthood was “that bald dude who puts light bulbs in his mouth” but hey, the bills were getting paid.
He would marry twice more, first to Ann McCormack, who gave birth to a daughter, from 1946 to 1951 and finally to Dorothea Lamphere, a dancer (dude had a type) who he married in 1951 and spent the rest of his life with. He had two more children from that marriage, which ended with him passing from a heart attack in 1984 at the age of 69. He worked steadily throughout the rest of his career, and was probably relieved that the last 2/3 of his life were a bit less rocky than the first 20 years.
So here’s to Jackie Coogan, the child star that weathered countless misfortunes with a smile, except for that one time his dad terrorized him in order to get him to cry on command.