Remember Jackie Coogan of The Addams Family? He played Uncle Fester, the hilarious and beloved relative of the kooky clan. No one in that family was ordinary, and yet, believe it or not, Coogan’s life was possibly even more interesting than Uncle Fester’s. Not only that, but it had a huge impact on the movie industry as we know it.
Yet Uncle Fester certainly wasn’t Coogan’s first famous role. That, in fact, came decades beforehand. A young Coogan played the title character in The Kid, Charlie Chaplin’s famous 1921 silent film.
Coogan was already a child performer when Chaplin spotted him. In fact, his dances on stage at the Los Angeles Orpheum Theatre convinced Chaplin that the little boy would make a great movie star. But he couldn’t have known just how big he would get.
Coogan’s performances in The Kid and in Oliver Twist the following year made him the first real child star of the movie industry. Moreover, audiences couldn’t get enough of him, and a huge amount of merchandise bearing his name and face made its way into stores.
Unfortunately, as subsequent stories right up to the present day have shown, the life of a child star is rarely pleasant. The pressures of the lifestyle can lead to difficulties and mental health issues. These are only made worse if the parents of the child don’t have their best interests at heart.
And Coogan’s parents, or his mother at least, weren’t looking out for him at all. They had signed contracts which entitled them to vast sums of money, but it was money that Coogan himself was not getting to spend. And as their famous child grew older, his life took a turn for the worse.
Indeed, as he grew into adulthood, Coogan’s acting career appeared to be coming to an end. He entered a military academy and then university, but quit because of his bad grades. Later, in 1933, a horrific and violent tragedy marred his life.
In November that year, Coogan’s good friend Brooke Hart was kidnapped from his family’s San Jose department store and later murdered. The townspeople were so appalled at the crime that they dragged the killers from the local prison and lynched them. Reportedly, the then 19-year-old Coogan held one of the ropes.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Coogan suffered yet another, even more personal, terrible event just two years later. In 1935 he was involved in a car crash which claimed the life of his best friend, his father, and two other people. In fact, Coogan was the sole survivor.
In an ideal world, Coogan would have recuperated from all of this with the help of his mother, Lillian. But it wasn’t to be. Lillian, who had married the family’s financial advisor Arthur Bernstein in 1936, was not in the least bit supportive of her son. Furthermore, she had spent most of his earnings on fur coats and other frivolities.
In 1938 Coogan eventually sued her for the return of the money which was rightfully his. He won, but after legal fees he ended up with only a small amount of the cash he’d spent his whole childhood earning. He turned to his old mentor Charlie Chaplin for financial help and the silent movie star gave him $1,000, no questions asked.
The story might have ended there, but there was a twist. The movie-going public who had once loved little Coogan so dearly were appalled to hear of his treatment. Much disgust was leveled at his mother and her husband. “Mr. and Mrs. Bernstein will never be serious contenders for the title of Mr. and Mrs. America,” the New York Herald Tribune commented dryly.
The result was a bill officially called the Child Actor’s Bill, but known more colloquially as the Coogan Bill. When it was established in 1939, it ensured that no other child would have their earnings stolen by their parents. And it still stands today, albeit with a few revisions, the most recent one in 2004.
After such a traumatic few years, Coogan could have retired from public life entirely and no one would have blamed him. But he wasn’t ready to give up acting just yet. First, however, came yet another difficult and traumatizing situation: World War II.
By now married to actress Betty Grable, Coogan eventually became a Flight Officer of the 1st Air Commando Group. The work he did in the war was unfathomably dangerous. Indeed, it involved flying British soldiers behind the Japanese enemy lines.
Once the war was over, Coogan started to take roles on television. It wasn’t a bad line of work to be in, but his personal life was in tatters. Within less than two decades he had divorced three wives: Betty Grable, Flower Parry and Ann McCormack. Two of them had given him a child, as well.
In fact, Coogan didn’t find true love until 1952, when he married dancer Dorothea Hanson. He settled down with her and had two more children, Leslie and Christopher. By now, things were looking up for him. Indeed, in 1964 he was given what would prove to be his most famous adult role: Uncle Fester in The Addams Family.
From 1964 to 1966 Jackie Coogan entertained thousands of children every week. Moreover, most of them would have been completely unaware about his turbulent past. The character he portrayed might have been a bit creepy and kooky, but it was a million miles away from the real horrors Coogan had witnessed throughout his life.
Sadly, Coogan only got to enjoy 20 years of Uncle Fester fame in the end. In 1984, after many health problems, he suffered a cardiac arrest and died at age 69. As per his own request, his funeral was opened up to the public.
Many of the obituaries written for Coogan made mention of the Coogan Bill, but with the passing of time it grew more and more forgotten. Coogan went down in history as Uncle Fester first, with his other work placed second. But one thing’s for sure: today’s child actors owe him a huge debt.