- Historic Sites
JACKIE COOGAN REACHED THE PINNACLE OF SUCCESS AND STARDOM WHEN HE WAS FIVE. THEN HE SET THE HOLLYWOOD PATTERN OF PAYING THE PRICE FOR EARLY FAME.
December 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 8
While his lawsuit worked its way through the court, Coogan tried to earn money. He arranged to go on tour with Bob Hope and make fun of his predicament. Hope’s gag writers worked on sketches in which, for example, a panhandler would ask Coogan for a dime. “I haven’t got a dime,” Coogan would reply, “but I’ll give you my autograph.” The panhandler: “Gee, I’m sorry, I didn’t recognize you. Say, Jackie, I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.”
HE WANTED THE ADDAMS JOB SO BADLY HE WENT IN WITH THE MAKEUP AND COSTUME ALL ON HIS OWN.
The attorneys for Coogan and his mother eventually hammered out a settlement that became final in February 1940: Each would get half of the $252,000 now left of Coogan’s childhood earnings. Years later he said that what he actually got was "$35,000, which included cashing in my life insurance policy.”
Nine months later, Betty Grable divorced him. By January 1941 he was back living with his mother and stepfather in an estate they had purchased with his money, sleeping in the bed that had been his since he was a child. His reconciliation with his mother lasted until her death more than 30 years later, but two future marriages would fail before he married Dorothea (“Dodie”) Lamphere in 1952; he remained with her for the rest of his life. He had four children.
In March 1941, now 26 and unable to get movie work, he volunteered for a one-year hitch in the Army. He joined up as a $21-amonth private.
An enthusiastic pilot since his teens, Coogan sought assignment to the Army Air Corps. Soon after Pearl Harbor, he was made a glider instructor, and two years later he volunteered to pilot one of the lead gliders on a nighttime air assault 165 miles behind Japanese lines in the all-airborne March 1944 invasion of north Burma. As a member of the 1st Air Commando Force under British Brigadier General Orde Wingate, he made seven sorties behind enemy lines. Casualty and cap- ture rates were high: Out of 100 glider pilots, 65 were killed; 15 were wounded and taken prisoner.
“He had some horrific war experiences,” recalls John Astin, who played Gomez in The Addams Family and heard Coogan’s war stories while traveling on promotional tours with him. “One time he had a crash. He was in the front of the transport glider, of course, and everyone that he was flying with was shoved up against him. He was sort of at the bottom of the pile. The Japanese soldiers came in and bayoneted everybody in the plane. And Jack was the only one that they missed. He lay alone at the bottom of this pile of dead and dying men, and eventually he got out and escaped. But he was plagued with nightmares much of his life. I know that when we were together, he would sometimes wake up with a nightmare, and all he needed was somebody to just speak to him. Then he would snap out of it and go back to sleep.”
Coogan won several decorations, received an honorable discharge in 1944, and went to work participating in War Bond drives. He had no plans to return to show business once the war was over, but that was all he knew, so when a friend needed a replacement act at a Hollywood nightclub, he took on the job, and soon he was in New York, working the nightclub circuit and appearing in plays and on early live television.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, he had some well-publicized run-ins with the law for possessing marijuana (then a scandalous offense) and was known to have developed difficulties with alcohol. But he persevered. He was nominated for an Emmy for playing a comic cook in “Forbidden Area,” a Playhouse 90 production in 1956. He took character parts in such movies as The Joker Is Wild , with Frank Sinatra, and The Actress , with Spencer Tracy, was a frequent guest on Red Skelton’s comedy show, and starred in two little-remembered TV series before landing the role as Uncle Fester on The Addams family .
He wanted that job badly. He rarely went for auditions, but this time he did—and was rejected. As his daughter Leslie told Stephen Cox, the author of a 1991 book about the series, he then “went home, got in a costume, shaved his whole head, did his makeup the way he pictured it would be—because he was an Addams fan from the cartoons. He went in with the high-pitched voice, the makeup, and costume all on his own. The producers sent everyone else home. It was a bit humiliating to him, I think, that he had to prove himself, but he obviously wanted the role.”
It proved a mixed blessing. His daughter recalled that there were times when he hated it: “He had been doing the part for a while, I guess, and he came home crying—sober. He said, ‘I used to be the most beautiful child in the world and now I’m a hideous monster.’ ... It hit him. He let go of it later, but it really had to do with his lost childhood. Later, he came to cope with the Fester character and loved doing the show.”