charlie-oscar2A weekly feature in which my five-year-old son is let loose on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Los Angeles, and chooses a star from among the more than 2,500 honorees. His “random” picks sometimes reveal unexplained connections such as the summer day in 2012 when he sat down on the star of actress Celeste Holm and refused to budge. We later learned that the Oscar-winning actress had died only hours earlier. There are five categories on the Walk of Fame: motion pictures, television, radio, music and theater but Charlie tends to favor the movies. 

It’s funny that with all the time Charlie has spent on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, he’s never once chosen any of the child stars who are honored there. That changed this week when Charlie chose the actor who has had a greater impact on the lives of young actors than any other child star in the history of the entertainment industry.

John Leslie Coogan, Jr., was born in Los Angeles on October 26, 1914. Called Jackie by his actor parents, the young Coogan began performing in vaudeville from the time he was an infant. He was only three years old when he made his first appearance in a movie, an Essanay fillm called Skinner’s Baby directed by Harry Beaumont who went on to make The Broadway Melody and several Joan Crawford films. Discovered by Charlie Chaplin while performing at the Orpheum Theater in downtown Los Angeles, Coogan appeared in Chaplin’s 1919 short A Day’s Pleasure about the mishaps that occurred during a ride in a family’s broken-down Model T Ford. But it was Coogan’s next film with Chaplin, shot when Jackie was seven years old, that made him an international superstar overnight.


Written, directed, and produced by Charlie Chaplin, The Kid (1921) features Jackie Coogan as Chaplin’s adopted son. It was the first full-length film that Chaplin directed and ended up being 1921’s second highest-grossing film (after The Four Men of the Apocalypse). After an unwed mother (Edna Purviance) abandons her baby in the backseat of a fancy car, the car is stolen and the thieves leave the baby on the street. Chaplin’s Tramp character finds the boy and after first refusing to take responsibility for it, ultimately agrees to raise him. Five years later we see Coogan and Chaplin in a series of scenes in which the kid is the Tramp’s partner in crime. Chaplin loses the boy to the authorities at one point but eventually gets him back. I won’t give away the rest of the plot in case you’ve never seen it, but let’s just say that the boy’s mother makes another appearance. When The Kid was chosen to be preserved by the Library of Congress, it was cited as “an artful melding of touching drama, social commentary, and inventive comedy.”


Now a bona fide star, Coogan starred in a series of film in the years that followed incuding Peck’s Bad Boy (1921), My Boy (1921), Oliver Twist (1922), and Long Live the King (1923).

peanutbutterHe was one of the first stars to be merchandised by the studios. There were Jackie Coogan dolls, records, stationery, peanut butter, and many other products. Before he turned 10, Jackie Coogan earned an estimated $4 million (the equivalent of over $50 million today!). But Jackie’s mother and stepfather famously spent every cent of his earning on extravagances for themselves including fur coats, jewels, and luxury cars. When Coogan later tried to sue them for his wages, his mother stated, “No promises were ever made to give Jackie anything. Every dollar a kid earns before he is 21 belongs to his parents. Jackie will not get a cent of his earnings.” Yeesh. While Coogan never did see any of his childhood fortune, his legal battle resulted in the Coogan Act, a law that to this day requires that all employers of child actors place 15% of the child’s earnings into a special trust (which is still called a Coogan Account). The legislation also put limits on work hours for child actors and dictates how much schooling and time off they must have while working.

betty-grable-jackie-coogan-cut-wedding-cake-ap__oPtAs his mother was pilfering away Coogan’s big paychecks, Jackie was growing up and began to suffer from the waning he’s-no-longer-cute career issues that would afflict many child stars who would come after him. He did make a few successful talkies, such as Paramount’s Tom Sawyer (1930) and Huckleberry Finn (1931), but the hits were few and far between. Poor Jackie did not have an easy time of it. He dropped out of college in 1932 and in 1936 was involved in a serious car accident that killed his father and his best friend, fellow child actor Junior Durkin (Huckleberry Finn to Coogan’s Tom Sawyer). While at Paramount in 1937, Coogan met a pretty 21-year-old starlet by the name of Betty Grable and the two were married. They made one film together, a low-budget movie called Million Dollar Legs (1939) and divorced later that year. Jackie served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II, volunteering for hazardous duty while flying with the 1st Air Commando Group.

addams festerAfter the war, Coogan found work in television. He played Stoney Crockett in the series Cowboy G-Men and guest-starred on many other shows (including The Ann Sothern Show, Charlie’s pick from last week) before finding fame once again as Uncle Fester on The Addams Family, the popular ABC series based on Charles Addams’ New Yorker cartoons. That show ran from September 1964 to April 1966 and has probably been in reruns ever since. He reprised his role in The Addams Family animated series in the 1970s and continued to appear in other TV series (including The Partridge Family, I Dream of Jeannie, McMillan & Wife, and Hawaii Five-O) and occasional movies such as Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood.

Coogan married three more times and had four children. In 1972, Jackie was reunited with his old friend and partner, Charlie Chaplin, who was returning to the U.S. after a very long absence to receive an honorary Oscar. Coogan joined a group of people to welcome Chaplin at the L.A. airport. Spotting Jackie, the elderly Chaplin hugged him warmly and said “I think I would rather see you than anybody else.” Jackie Coogan died of a heart attack on March 1, 1984 at the age of 69.