The Kid

PrintPrintEmailEmailOnce he had been the most famous child in the world, praised by the Pope, celebrated by the League of Nations, loved by millions—even by the Sultan of Swat. “Other boys went to see Babe Ruth,” Jackie Coogan said. “But Babe Ruth came to see me.” This might have seemed preposterous, coming as it did from a bald, heavy, 58-year-old man with a weather-beaten face, bulbous nose, and droopy mustache. But it was the simple truth.

By 1923, when he was nine, Coogan was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, more popular at the box office than either Rudolph Valentino or Douglas Fairbanks. Although a later generation would know him only as Uncle Fester in the 1964-66 television series The Addams Family , he had been the motion-picture industry’s first child superstar.

A cornucopia of products bore his name: coats, caps, shoes, dolls, toothbrushes. He received what then was the largest movie salary check ever written—$500,000. He lived in mansions, drank milk supplied by his own dairy ranch, rode in his own private railway car, and had a fleet of Rolls-Royces with special, upholstered, swivel rocking chairs installed just for him.

HIS MOTION-PICTURE CAREER GREW OUT OF CHARLIE CHAPLIN’S CHANCE DECISION TO SEE WHAT WAS ON THE VAUDEVILLE BILL AT A LOS ANGELES THEATER ONE NIGHT.

Yet Coogan’s story is for the most part one of lifelong struggle, with a dose of heroism thrown in.

John Leslie Coogan, Jr., was born in Los Angeles on October 26, 1914. His father, John, Sr., “Big Jack,” was a song-and-dance man, and his mother, the former Lillian Dolliver, had been on the stage since her own childhood. The Coogans naturally looked for ways to introduce their child into show business and were happy to allow “Broncho Billy” Anderson to use him in a Western in 1916, when he was 18 months old.

That might have been the beginning and the end of Coogan’s motion-picture career but for the chance decision of Charlie Chaplin, already a star, to go to Los Angeles’s Orpheum Theater one Monday night in 1919 and see what was on the vaudeville bill. A half-century later, Chaplin wrote in his autobiography: ”… I saw an eccentric dancer—nothing extraordinary, but at the finish of his act he brought on his little boy, an infant of four, to take a bow with him. After bowing with his father, he suddenly broke into a few amusing steps, then looked knowingly at the audience, waved to them and ran off. The audience went into an uproar, so that the child was made to come on again, this time doing quite a different dance. It could have been obnoxious in another child. But Jackie Coogan was charming …”

Chaplin decided to use the young performer in a movie, The Kid , in which his own tramp character discovers an abandoned baby. The picture, released in 1921, made Chaplin the most famous name in Hollywood, and it showered stardom on Coogan too. Seen today, The Kid still has the power to move. When child-welfare officials accost Chaplin in his tenement and grab Jackie to haul him away, the child’s pleading gestures, silent sobs, and clearly mouthed “Oh, Papa! Oh, Papa!” are truly stirring. Coogan’s performance was no lucky, one-shot effort; he was a genuine prodigy. After The Kid , he made one hit after another: Peck’s Bad Boy, My Boy, Trouble, Oliver Twist, Daddy, Circus Days . By 1922 his father had established his own company, Jackie Coogan Productions, to make his son’s movies.

The riches piled up. In June 1922, when he was seven, his parents went to the Los Angeles Supreme Court and, as one newspaper put it, “for the first time in American jurisprudence,” applied for legal sanction for their guardianship of their child’s burgeoning fortune. Jack Coogan, Sr., was named his son’s business manager, Lillian posted a $100,000 bond as the manager of her son’s “estate,” and the two parents posed for newspaper photographs on the courthouse steps.

It turned out to be largely a publicity stunt. Six months later, just four days before Jackie received a $500,000 check as an advance on a million-dollar contract to star in four movies, his parents quietly went back to the court and asked it to dismiss their guardianship petition. They claimed that they now planned “the creation of a trust for the investment and preservation of the estate of said Jackie Coogan.” As Coogan would discover 15 years later, it never happened.