Cooper, Gary

views updated Jun 11 2018


Nationality: American. Born: Frank James Cooper in Helena, Montana, 7 May 1901. Education: Dunstable College, England, until WWI; Wesleyan College, Bozeman, Montana; Grinnell College, Iowa. Family: Married Veronica Balfe, 1933, daughter: Maria. Career: 1924—worked as political cartoonist for newspapers in Los Angeles; began working as extra and stunt rider in Westerns; 1925—appeared as villain in Marilyn Mills's Western shorts; 1926—first major featured role in The Winning of Barbara Worth; contract with Paramount; 1928—first appearance in sound film, The Shopworn Angel; 1937—named by New York Times as highest paid entertainer; contract with Samuel Goldwyn; 1944—formed own production company, International Pictures; 1947—testified before House Un-American Activities Committee, but named no names; contract with Warners; 1952—critical comeback in High Noon after several unsuccessful films; formed production company, Baroda Productions; 1961—narrated "The Real West" episode of Project 20 for television, his last media appearance. Awards: Best Actor Academy Award, and Best Actor, New York Film Critics, for Sergeant York, 1941; Best

Actor Academy Award for High Noon, 1952; Special Academy Award 1961. Died: 13 May 1961.

Films as Actor:

(also appeared as extra in about 30 films during 1925–26 including: 1925–26 Dick Turpin; The Thundering Herd; Wild Horse Mesa; The Lucky Horseshoe; The Vanishing American; The Eagle; The Enchanted Hill; Watch Your Wife)


Tricks (Mitchell); Three Pals (Mitchell); Lightnin' Wins (Tiesler); The Winning of Barbara Worth (King) (as Abe Lee)


It (Badger) (as reporter); Children of Divorce (Lloyd) (as Ted Larrabee); Arizona Bound (Waters) (as the Cowboy); Wings (Wellman) (as Cadet White); Nevada (Waters) (as Jim Lacy); The Last Outlaw (Rossen) (as Sheriff Buddy Hale)


Beau Sabreur (Waters) (as Major Henri de Beaujolais); Legion of the Condemned (Wellman) (as Gale Price); Doomsday (Rowland V. Lee) (as Arnold Furze); Half a Bride (La Cava) (as Captain Edmunds); Lilac Time (Fitzmaurice) (as Captain Philip Blythe); The First Kiss (Rowland V. Lee) (as Mulligan Talbot); The Shopworn Angel (Wallace) (as William Tyler)


Wolf Song (Fleming) (as Sam Lash); Betrayal (Milestone) (as Andre Frey); The Virginian (Fleming) (title role)


Only the Brave (Tuttle) (as Captain James Braydon); Paramount on Parade (Arzner and others) (as himself); The Texan (Cromwell) (as Enrique "Quico"); Seven Days Leave (Wallace) (as Kenneth Dowey); The Man from Wyoming (Rowland V. Lee) (as Jim Baker); The Spoilers (Carewe) (as Glenister); Morocco (von Sternberg) (as Tom Brown)


Fighting Caravans (Brower and Burton) (as Clint Belmet); City Streets (Mamoulian) (as The Kid); I Take This Woman (Gering) (as Tom McNair); His Woman (Sloman) (as Captain Sam Whalan)


Make Me a Star (Beaudine) (as himself); The Devil and the Deep (Gering) (as Lieutenant Sempter); If I Had a Million (Lubitsch and others) (as Gallagher); A Farewell to Arms (Borzage) (as Frederic Henry); The Slippery Pearls (short); Voice of Hollywood (short) (as himself)


Today We Live (Hawks) (as Bogard); One Sunday Afternoon (Roberts) (as Biff Grimes); Design for Living (Lubitsch) (as George Curtis); Alice in Wonderland (McLeod) (as The White Knight); Operator Thirteen (Boleslawsky) (as Captain Jack Gailliard)


Now and Forever (Hathaway) (as Jerry Day)


The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (Hathaway) (as Lieutenant McGregor); The Wedding Night (Vidor) (as Tony Barrett); Peter Ibbetson (Hathaway) (title role); Star Night at the Coconut Grove (short) (as himself)


Desire (Borzage) (as Tom Bradley); Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Capra) (as Longfellow Deeds); Hollywood Boulevard (Florey) (as guest at bar); The General Died at Dawn (Milestone) (as O'Hara); The Plainsman (DeMille) (as Wild Bill Hickok); La Fiesta De Santa Barbara (short)


Souls at Sea (Hathaway) (as "Nuggin" Taylor); Lest We Forget (short) (as himself)


The Adventures of Marco Polo (Mayo) (as Marco Polo); Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (Lubitsch) (as Michael Brandon); The Cowboy and the Lady (Potter) (as Stretch)


Beau Geste (Wellman) (title role); The Real Glory (Hathaway) (as Dr. Bill Canavan)


The Westerner (Wyler) (as Cole Hardin); Northwest Mounted Police (DeMille) (as Dusty Rivers); Meet John Doe (Capra) (as John Doe or Long John Willoughby)


Sergeant York (Hawks) (title role); Ball of Fire (Hawks) (as Prof. Bertram Potts)


The Pride of the Yankees (Wood) (as Lou Gehrig)


For Whom the Bell Tolls (Wood) (as Robert Jordan)


Memo for Joe (Richard Fleischer) (as himself); The Story of Dr. Wassell (DeMille) (as Dr. Corydon M. Wassell); Casanova Brown (Wood) (title role)


Along Came Jones (Heisler) (as Melody Jones, + pr); Saratoga Trunk (Wood) (as Col. Clint Maroon)


Cloak and Dagger (Fritz Lang) (as Prof. Alvah Jesper)


Unconquered (DeMille) (as Captain Christopher Holden); Variety Girl (Marshall) (as himself)


Good Sam (McCarey) (as Sam Clayton); The Fountainhead (King Vidor) (as Howard Roark)


It's a Great Feeling (Butler) (as himself); Task Force (Daves) (as Jonathon L. Scott); Snow Carnival (short) (as narrator, + pr); Bright Leaf (Curtiz) (as Brant Royle); Dallas (Heisler) (as Blayde "Reb" Hollister)


You're in the Navy Now (Hathaway) (as Lt. John Harkness); Starlift (Del Ruth) (as guest star); It's a Big Country (Thorpe and others) (as Texas); Distant Drums (Walsh) (as Capt. Quincy Wyatt)


High Noon (Zinnemann) (as Will Kane); Springfield Rifle (deToth) (as Major Alex Kearney)


Return to Paradise (Robson) (as Mr. Morgan); Blowing Wild (Fregonese) (as Jeff Dawson)


Garden of Evil (Hathaway) (as Hooker); Vera Cruz (Aldrich) (as Benjamin Trane)


The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (Preminger) (as Billy Mitchell)


Friendly Persuasion (Wyler) (as Jess Birdwell)


Love in the Afternoon (Wilder) (as Frank Flanagan)


Ten North Frederick (Dunne) (as Joe Chapin); Man of the West (Anthony Mann) (as Link Jones)


The Hanging Tree (Daves) (as Doc Joseph Frail); Alias Jesse James (McLeod) (as himself); The Wreck of the Mary Deare (Anderson) (as Gideon Patch); They Came to Cordura (Rossen) (as Major Thomas Thorn)


The Naked Edge (Anderson) (as George Ratcliffe)


By COOPER: articles—

"The Big Boy Tells His Story," in Photoplay (New York), April and May 1929.

"The Role I Liked Best," in the Saturday Evening Post (Philadel-phia), 6 May 1950.

"Well It Was This Way," in the Saturday Evening Post (Philadel-phia), 18 and 25 February, 3, 10, 17, 24 and 31 March, and 7 April 1956.

On COOPER: books—

Schickel, Richard, The Stars, New York, 1962.

Fenin, George, and William K. Everson, The Western, From Silents to Cinerama, New York, 1962.

Gehman, Richard, The Tall American: The Story of Gary Cooper, New York, 1963.

Escoubé, Lucienne, Gary Cooper: Le Cavalier de l'ouest, Paris, 1965.

Dickens, Homer, The Films of Gary Cooper, New York, 1970.

Carpozi, George Jr., The Gary Cooper Story, New Rochelle, N.Y., 1970.

Jordan, René, Gary Cooper, New York, 1974.

Arce, Hectore, Gary Cooper, An Intimate Biography, New York, 1979.

Kaminsky, Stuart, Coop: The Life and Legend of Gary Cooper, New York, 1980.

Swindell, Larry, The Last Hero: A Biography of Gary Cooper, New York, 1980.

Chardair, N., Gary Cooper, Paris, 1981.

Ortega, Josette. Gary Cooper, Paris, 1984.

McDonald, Archie P., editor, Shooting Stars: Heroes and Heroines of Western Film, Bloomington, Indiana, 1987.

Wayne, Jane Ellen, Cooper's Women, New York, 1988.

Meyers, Jeffrey, Gary Cooper: American Hero, New York, 1998.

Janis, Maria Cooper, Gary Cooper Off Camera: A Daughter Remembers, introduction by Tom Hanks, New York, 1999.

On COOPER: articles—

Busby, Marquis, "The New Two-Gun Man," in Photoplay (New York), April 1930.

Wood, Tom, "Gary Cooper," in Look (New York), 16 May 1944.

Goodman, Ezra, "Average Guy: Gary Cooper Reflects on Twenty Years in Film," in the New York Times, 19 December 1948.

Clarens, Carlos, "Gary Cooper," in Films in Review (New York), December 1959.

Guy, Rory, "Gary Cooper Was a Great Actor, No, He Was Not! He Was. . . ," in Cinema (Beverly Hills), October-November 1964.

Carle, Teet, "Gary Cooper: The Man Who Seemed Eternal," in Hollywood Studio, May 1972.

Schwartz, W., "Gary Cooper," in Films in Review (New York), January 1973, + filmo added to 1959 article.

Corey, Jeff, "Gary Cooper: Natural Talent" in Close-Ups: The Movie Star Book, edited by Danny Peary, New York, 1978.

Schickel, Richard, "Gary Cooper" in The Movie Star, edited by Elisabeth Weis, New York, 1981.

Brown, J.A. "Putting on the Ritz: Masculinity and the Young Gary Cooper," Screen (Oxford), vol. 36, no. 3, 1995.

* * *

The film career of Gary Cooper seems to fall into six distinct periods:

1926–30: The Naive Young Hero. In this four-year period Cooper made 23 films, an average of five a year from The Winning of Barbara Worth to The Spoilers. More than half of them are Westerns or military pictures, films in which Cooper appeared as the tentative, shy young man, loose and limber of body, sure of the moral position he shared with the world. In this pre-Depression era, Cooper represented the young American who believed in the triumph of simple virtues and his commitment to them. In his own life, Cooper was, in fact, developing more and more confidence, was at the peak of his physical appearance and health, and was by the conclusion of this period not a tentative, shy man at all.

1930–36: Cynicism and Disillusion. In this six-year period Cooper made 19 films, an average of about three a year, from Morocco to Desire. Only one of these films is a Western. The Western image of affirmation was submerged by the Depression. In these films Cooper emerges as a tense and cautious figure, one who distrusts others or is loath to commit himself to others, though he can be touched.

1936–41: Altruism and Dedication. In this four-year period Cooper made 14 films, from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town to Sergeant York. Cooper's character is now that of a determined man, a man who sees hope in the future and is willing to sacrifice himself for the future of mankind. Many of these films are set in the past.

1942–47: Intellect and Purpose. In this five-year period Cooper made eight films, from Ball of Fire through Unconquered. In these films made during and immediately after World War II Cooper is a man out of his natural environment, a man who must deal with the riddles of an unfamiliar world and triumph by his native wit and determination, even when others distrust him. The only exceptions to this pattern are the two films his production company or Cooper himself produced, Casanova Brown and Along Came Jones, both of which represent an earlier Cooper image, an attempt to create a variation on what he had done before. It seems that the public image of Cooper changed slowly, even though he himself wanted to try broader variations on that image. It was surely a source of unhappiness to him that whenever he strayed from his accepted image in a particular period, the public failed to respond.

1948–56: The Man Alone. In this eight-year period Cooper made 16 films, from The Fountainhead to The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell. It is significant that half of the films he made in this period are Westerns, often harking back to the period of his tentative shyness. Now however, Cooper was a rapidly aging man who stood resolutely against the world. That The Virginian should be the culmination of his earlier Western period and High Noon the peak of his second Western period is not a coincidence. Cooper as well as others saw the similarity of the two films. The differences between them are equally striking. Will Kane in High Noon seeks help from his society; the Virginian wanted to be on his own. Will Kane learns the bitter lesson of having to be alone; the Virginian never has to face this problem. Throughout this period, the Cooper character is faced with defeat and indecision—a character alone by choice, as in The Fountainhead, or because his society rejects him, as in The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell. It is the time of the Cold War, in which the Cooper character's old values were rejected.

1956–61: Questioning the Past. In this five-year period Cooper made eight films, from Love in the Afternoon through The Naked Edge. This period is ushered in by a transition film, Friendly Persuasion, a film in which Cooper's character discarded his guns and rejected the violence that characters in the other periods had accepted with little question. This questioning of the past continues to the end of Cooper's life. It is significant that this is the period in which Cooper had the most control of his parts, was producing his own films, but felt he had let his public down. He was now trying to extend his range as an actor and was willing to do so by questioning his image in the past. His role as the lover in Love in the Afternoon is an ironic comment on his past comedy images. In his Westerns of this period, he is a self-sufficient but highly reluctant, somber man. His final films constantly question his past. In They Came to Cordura the very essence of filmic courage that Cooper had represented is questioned, and in his final film, The Naked Edge, the possibility of Cooper being a vicious murderer is proposed. It is true that in all these films the Cooper character is ultimately heroic, but the films play with the image, toy with the possibilities of that image. Cooper's work is certainly no less good in this period. What was reacted to by critics and public was what Cooper now represented, the weary questioner of the American mythic past.

It is perhaps appropriate that Cooper's two Academy Awards (for Sergeant York and High Noon) should be for two separate periods, one in which he was the optimistic hero of the past and the other in which he was the pessimistic retainer of the past. In fact, more than 60 of Cooper's films were set in the past. It may well have been that it was what he represented in American history and culture as well as his performances in these films for which he was honored.

As one critic said, Gary Cooper's face was the map of America. In it, we read our past. We liked it or did not like it, but we could not turn away from the compelling man who represented it.

—Stuart M. Kaminsky

Gary Cooper

views updated Jun 11 2018

Gary Cooper

Gary Cooper (1901-1961) possessed a distinctive screen image that mirrored much that was worthy in the American character. By box office figures, Cooper was the most popular male film star of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Although he had great limitations, such accomplished performers as Charles Laughton, John Barrymore, and Charles Chaplin considered him America's most skilled film actor.

Gary Cooper was born on May 7, 1901 in Helena, Montana, to Charles Henry Cooper, a lawyer, and Alice Louise Brazier, both English immigrants. As a lawyer, assistant U.S. attorney, and State Supreme Court justice, Charles Cooper was grimly determined to bring order to Helena, which still honored the vigilante tradition. His wife was equally fixed upon providing her two sons with a proper education, removed from the crudeness of a small western community. For four years Cooper attended Dunstable Public School in England. Totally unprepared for the rigor and snobbery of English secondary education, he found the experience sufficiently painful to become permanently shy and withdrawn.

Cooper worked on his father's ranch in 1918 and 1919, then enrolled in Wesleyan College at Bozeman, Montana, in 1920. After a serious automobile accident, which left him with a broken hip (and a characteristic gait), Cooper transferred to Grinnell College, in Grinnell, Iowa, in 1921. At Grinnell he proved to be an indifferent student. Art ranked as his sole passion, but he displayed little talent as an illustrator. Quitting Grinnell in 1924, Cooper went to Los Angeles. There he unsuccessfully sought work as a political cartoonist or artist for an advertising agency. He became a door-to-door salesman of discount coupons for a photography studio in order to earn a living.

Secured Key Supporting Role

Cooper took the advice of two Montana friends who were former rodeo stars, and joined them as an extra in motion picture westerns in 1925. Soon realizing how much leading cowboy players earned, he decided to become an actor. He took the name "Gary" to distinguish himself from an abundance of Frank Coopers then in Hollywood. But not until The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926) did he secure a key supporting role. Although the film received mixed notices, Cooper won much praise. Paramount Pictures soon signed a contract with him.

Cooper possessed a natural, understated capacity to project himself before a camera. In Wings (1927), a World War I epic, he appeared for only 127 seconds, yet his portrayal of a doomed flyer stole the film. Somehow, Cooper bridged the gap between the male acting styles of the 1920s. Neither completely the child-boy of Buddy Rogers, nor the hardened warrior of William S. Hart, he managed to combine a measure of innocence about women and ideas with a knowledge about the ways of the West and its traditions.

Success with Talking Pictures

Cooper was soon starring in films and, with the aid of skilled sound engineers, easily shifted his talents and light baritone voice to talking pictures. One of his first, The Virginian (1929), helped to stereotype him as the classic cinema man of the West (even though fewer than one-fourth of all his feature films were Westerns). In Morocco (1930) Cooper played a narcissistic cad in the Foreign Legion, while in A Farewell to Arms (1932) he sensitively portrayed the suffering protagonist of Ernest Hemingway's novel. His critical notices tended to improve, though some reviewers dismissed him as a mere matinee idol.

Cooper married Veronica Balfe, an aspiring actress, on December 15, 1933; they had one daughter. The marriage supposedly indicated Cooper's inclination to settle down after a series of torrid love affairs with such actresses as Clara Bow and Lupe Velez. But Cooper proved an unfaithful husband. He frequently had affairs with female costars and briefly separated from his wife in 1951-1952.

Part of Cooper's success on screen was due to his capacity to appeal to both women and men. Women found his boyish charm and good looks irresistible. Men regarded his unassuming, polite manner less threatening than the style of such other love idols as Clark Gable.

Screen Image was Transformed

Between 1936 and 1943, Cooper's career took a new direction. He enjoyed a succession of box office and critical triumphs that transformed his screen image from the young (sometime) roue to an inherently good Mr. Everyman. For director Frank Capra, Cooper starred in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Meet John Doe (1941). An Academy Award and New York Film Critics Prize for best actor resulted from his portrayal of the title character in Sergeant York (1941). A year later he gave what some critics held to be an even finer performance as Lou Gehrig, in The Pride of the Yankees. In 1943 he again starred as a Hemingway hero in For Whom the Bell Tolls, which, while drained of its leftist political material, proved a box office hit because of the romantic pairing of Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. Most of these films cast him as a noble hero. "Whatever the deep psychological or physiological roots of his fascination" wrote the New York Times's Frank Nugent in 1942, "the simple fact is that to a large bloc of the population, Mr. Cooper has come to represent the All-American man."

That image was hard to maintain between 1943 and 1952, as Cooper groped for good vehicles. Such attempts at self-parody as Casanova Brown (1944) and Good Sam (1948) served him ill, and potboilers like Dallas (1950) were best forgotten. His boyish thinness turned to middle-aged gauntness, and improper lighting often caused him to appear far older than his years. Furthermore, into the 1950s he was wracked by an unhappy personal life and ill health (a painful back and ulcers), which often prevented him from selecting good scripts and delivering able performances. His lack of self-confidence caused Cooper to rely for career advice on such middlebrow trendsetters as director Cecil B. DeMille and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. They encouraged him to protect his screen image by choosing "safe" stories.

The influence of DeMille and Hopper showed in other ways. In 1944 they persuaded Cooper to deliver a radio talk opposing President Franklin Roosevelt's bid for reelection. Cooper referred to Roosevelt's "foreign notions," adding, "I don't like the company he's keeping." Some construed such references as aimed at the president's Jewish counselors.

Two years later Cooper testified as a "friendly" witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which was investigating Communism in the film industry. He vaguely described Communist infiltration at social gatherings and story conferences while demonstrating his total ignorance of Karl Marx. "From what I hear, I don't like it [Communism] because it isn't on the level," he said.

High Noon

Ironically, in the years after his HUAC testimony, Cooper's greatest critical success came with a film scripted by Carl Foreman, a writer accused of Communist biases. In High Noon (1952), a western, Cooper played Will Kane, a retiring town marshal. On his wedding day Kane has to defend himself against an old nemesis—arriving on the midday train—who intends to kill him. As noon approaches, both the townspeople he has served and his bride desert him. Cooper masterfully played the tortured marshal, whom he admiringly identified with his father. His physical maladies and weariness, which so hampered his later performances, worked to his advantage in High Noon. So did close editing, skillful direction, and an evocative musical score. The film brought Cooper a second Academy Award for best actor.

Cooper's subsequent roles drew mixed notices. Occasionally critics underrated good films such as Vera Cruz (1954), directed by Robert Aldrich, and Man of the West (1958), directed by Anthony Mann. Most hailed his portrayal of a Quaker father in Friendly Persuasion (1956). Otherwise he remained subject to miscasting or indifferent work and inept direction, problems he eventually recognized.

By 1960, Cooper had decided to alter the direction of his career. Entering television, he narrated a widely hailed documentary, "The Real West" (1961), which tried to separate the frontier realities from the images in the television westerns he had come to detest. Cooper also planned to play more morally ambivalent characters, beginning with The Naked Edge (1961), in which he portrayed a mercurial businessman suspected of murder by his wife.

As Cooper lay dying of cancer, Pope John XXIII, President John F. Kennedy, and Queen Elizabeth II sent get-well messages, which demonstrated Cooper's position as a beloved modern folk hero, and also the industry's mythmaking capacity. He died at Los Angeles on May 13, 1961. His death, which followed Gable's by about six months, seemed to many to signal the end of an era in Hollywood.

Like many American movie stars, Cooper was not a great actor. Yet he possessed a distinctive screen image that mirrored much that was worthy in the American character. By box office figures, Cooper was the most popular male film star of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Although he had great limitations—ones he perhaps too willingly accepted—such accomplished performers as Charles Laughton, John Barrymore, and Charles Chaplin considered him America's most skilled film actor. On stage or live television, Cooper was usually a disaster. But before a camera he could evoke the most favorable image of the wholly decent and innocent American. He epitomized what one writer called "our pioneer belief in the triumph of good over evil."


Anger, Kenneth, Hollywood Babylon, 1965.

Arce, Hector, Gary Cooper, 1979.

Carpozi, George, The Gary Cooper Story, 1970.

Dickens, Homer, The Films of Gary Cooper, 1970.

Jordan, Rene, Gary Cooper, 1974.


Esquire, May 1961.

McCall's, January 1961.

New York Times, on May 14, 1961.

New York Times Magazine, July 5, 1942.

Quarterly Journal of Speech, April 1975.

Saturday Evening Post, February 18-April 7, 1956.

This Week Magazine, August 23, 1936.

Time, March 3, 1941. □