09 July 2009
I'll get to the story about Robert Coogan shortly, but so many had trouble guessing Jackie Coogan, that I thought a refresher course on America's first child star might be in order.
As a child actor, Jackie Coogan is best remembered for his role as Charlie Chaplin's sidekick in The Kid (1921) and for the role of Oliver Twist. The scene below where a social worker takes him away from Chaplin is one of the most famous scenes in cinema. These early roles made him a millionaire, on paper at least, while still a child.
In 1935, at age 21, Coogan lost his father and best friend in an auto accident which he survived. When he went to lay claim to his earnings from his mother and stepfather, he found that they had taken the money for their lifestyle of houses, furs, and autos. He sued successfully, but despite having earned more than four million dollars as a child star, after legal expenses and accounting was only able to recapture a little over a hundred thousand dollars.
The legal battle did, however, bring attention to child actors and resulted in the state of California enacting the the Coogan Bill. This requires that 15% of the child's earnings be placed in trust. Although there was an eventual reconcilliation with his mother and stepfather, his advice to future child stars was "stay away from mothers."
In 1972 after 20 years abroad, Chaplin Chaplin returned to the United States to receive a special lifetime achievement Oscar in Hollywood. Coogan was on hand to greet Chaplin when he arrived. Chaplin, recognized Coogan (whom he hadn't seen in decades), warmly embraced him, saying, "You know, I think I would rather see you than anybody else."
When he was cast as Uncle Fester on The Addams Family" (1964), Coogan was fifty years old and nearly broke. After the show ended in 1966, he never lacked work again, with numerous TV and film appearances.