- 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
Indeed, long after the program’s two seasons had ended, he and Ted Cassidy, who played Lurch, the butler, kept making personal appearances together, sometimes at circuses. In a pitch-dark hall packed with 30,000 fans, Coogan would ride a motorcycle into the center ring, his bald head gleaming, a lightbulb in his mouth. He had gone a long way from The Kid , from private audiences with the Pope, from keys to the city, but he had survived.
He had a brief reunion with Charlie Chaplin in 1972, when the 82-year-old comedian returned to the United States for the first time in 20 years to accept an honorary Academy Award. Surrounded by other celebrities, fans, and the press, the onetime co stars could only exchange awkward pleasantries, but Dodie Coogan would not forget the aged Chaplin whispering in her ear, “Remember, your husband’s a genius.”
His last movie job was a small, supporting role in a 1980 feature titled The Escape Artist . On the set, his path briefly crossed my own.
As a Baltimore newspaperman, I decided to spend several days watching the movie being made, in Cleveland, and write a piece about its director, whom I had known in college at Johns Hopkins. The film told the story of a teenage boy who sets out to follow in his late father’s footsteps as a magician. I knew that the stars of the film were to be Raul Julia, Teri Garr, Joan Hackett, Desi Arnaz, and the 15-vear-old Griffin O’Neal, but I did not know until I got to Cleveland that Jackie Coogan, then 65, would also appear in it.
The Coogan I met was a heavy set, chain-smoking man with a deeply lined, jowly face. He was entirely bald but for a fringe of gray and brown hair. I had lunch with him, and he seemed happy to talk about a long-lost Hollywood that really was like a small town in which major stars could casually stroll along the streets and in which he was one of them.
After lunch, we returned to the set, where technicians were setting up the next scene. Griffin O’Neal—bright-eyed, auburn-haired, freckle faced—was scurrying around, practicing card tricks, joking, and laughing. When The Escape Artist came out, in 1982, O’Neal received excellent reviews, but life turned grim for him shortly thereafter.
By 1983 he was enrolled in a private drug and delinquency program; in 1986, at the helm of a small speedboat, he was involved in an accident that took the life of one of his best friends, Gian Carlo Coppola, the son of the director Francis Ford Coppola. O’Neal was found innocent of manslaughter charges but was given 18 months’ probation, ordered to perform 400 hours of community service, and later jailed for 18 days after he failed to do it.
All that was far in the future as Jackie Coogan and I stood by ourselves, off to the side of The Escape Artist set, watching O’Neal cut up for the technicians and support personnel. Coogan, who would die of a heart attack in 1984, gazed steadily at the handsome, laughing youngster. In a low, weary voice that no one but I could hear, he muttered: “Enjoy it, kid. You think it’s going to last forever.”