John Leslie Coogan (October 26, 1914 – March 1, 1984) was an American actor and comedian who began his film career as a child actor in silent films.[2] Coogan's role in Charlie Chaplin's film The Kid (1921) made him one of the first child stars in the history of Hollywood.

Jackie Coogan
Coogan in 1962
John Leslie Coogan[1]

(1914-10-26)October 26, 1914
DiedMarch 1, 1984(1984-03-01) (aged 69)
Burial placeHoly Cross Cemetery, Culver City
  • Actor
  • comedian
Years active1917–1984
(m. 1937; div. 1939)
Flower Parry
(m. 1941; div. 1943)
Ann McCormack
(m. 1946; div. 1951)
Dorothea Lamphere
(m. 1952)
RelativesRobert Coogan (brother)
Keith Coogan (grandson)

He later sued his mother and stepfather over his squandered film earnings and provoked California to enact the first known legal protection for the earnings of child performers, the California Child Actor's Bill, widely known as the "Coogan Act".[3]

Coogan continued to act throughout his life, later earning renewed fame in middle age portraying Uncle Fester in the 1960s television series The Addams Family.

Early life and education

Coogan as a child, c. 1921

John Leslie Coogan was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1914 to John Henry Coogan Jr., and Lillian Rita (Dolliver) Coogan.[1][4] He began performing as an infant in both vaudeville and film, with the title role (uncredited) in the 1917 film Skinner's Baby. Charlie Chaplin discovered him in the Orpheum Theatre, a vaudeville house in Los Angeles, on the stage doing the shimmy, a then-popular dance. Coogan's father was also an actor, as was his younger brother, Robert.[citation needed]

Coogan with Charlie Chaplin in The Kid (1921)

Coogan was a natural mimic and delighted Chaplin with his abilities. Chaplin cast him in a small role in A Day's Pleasure (1919). The following year, Chaplin cast Coogan as the abandoned child raised by his Tramp character in the silent comedy-drama The Kid (1921). In 1922, Coogan was cast in the title role in Oliver Twist, directed by Frank Lloyd. Coogan was one of the first stars to be heavily merchandised. Peanut butter, stationery, whistles, dolls, records, coins and figurines were among the Coogan-themed merchandise on sale.[citation needed]

Coogan was tutored until the age of 10, when he entered Urban Military Academy and other preparatory schools. He attended several colleges, as well as the University of Southern California. In 1932, he dropped out of Santa Clara University because of poor grades.[citation needed]

In November 1933, 22-year-old Brooke Hart, a close friend of Coogan's from Santa Clara University and heir to a successful department store in San Jose, was kidnapped as he drove his car out of a parking lot. After several demands for a $40,000 ransom were delivered to the family, police arrested Thomas Thurmond and Jack Holmes in San Jose.[citation needed] Thurmond admitted to the police that he and Holmes had murdered Hart the same day he was kidnapped. Both killers were transferred to a jail in downtown San Jose. A mob broke into the jail, and Thurmond and Holmes were hanged from a tree in a nearby park, with the unapologetic approval of the state's governor. Coogan was reported to have been present and to have held the lynching rope.[5]

In May 1935, 20-year-old Coogan was the sole survivor of a car crash in eastern San Diego County that killed his father, his 19-year-old best friend, actor Junior Durkin,[6] their ranch foreman Charles Jones, and actor and writer Robert J. Horner. The party was returning from a day of dove hunting just over the Mexican border. With Coogan's father at the wheel, the car was forced off the mountain highway near Pine Valley by an oncoming vehicle and rolled down an embankment.[7][8][9]

Charity work


While a child actor, Coogan worked with Near East Relief and toured across the United States and Europe in 1924 on a "Children's Crusade" as part of his fundraising drive. His efforts provided more than $1 million in clothing, food, and other contributions ($14.8 million in 2021 dollars), and he was honored by officials in the United States and Greece. He also had an audience with Pope Pius XI.[10]

A Catholic, Coogan was a member of the Good Shepherd Parish and the Catholic Motion Picture Guild in Beverly Hills.[11]

Coogan Bill


As a child star, Coogan earned an estimated $3,000,000 (equivalent to $66,670,000 in 2023) to $4,000,000 (equivalent to $88,893,000 in 2023). When he turned 21 in October 1935, his fortune was believed to be well intact. His assets had been conservatively managed by his father, who had died in a car accident five months earlier.[12]

Coogan soon discovered, though, that nearly the entire amount had been squandered by his mother and stepfather, Arthur Bernstein, on fur coats, diamonds and other jewelry, and expensive cars. Bernstein had been a financial advisor for the family and married Coogan's mother in late 1936.[13]

Coogan's mother and stepfather claimed Jackie enjoyed himself and simply thought he was playing before the camera. She insisted, "No promises were ever made to give Jackie anything",[14] and claimed he "was a bad boy".[15]

Coogan sued them in 1938,[13] but after his legal expenses, he received just $126,000 (equivalent to $2,727,000 in 2023) of the $250,000 (equivalent to $5,411,000 in 2023) remaining of his earnings. When Coogan went broke during the litigation, he asked Charlie Chaplin for assistance; Chaplin handed him $1,000 (equivalent to $22,000 in 2023) at cash without hesitation.[16]

The legal battle focused attention on child actors and resulted in the 1939 enactment of the California Child Actor's Bill, often referred to as the "Coogan Law" or the "Coogan Act". It required that a child actor's employer set aside 15% of the earnings in a trust (called a Coogan account) and specified the actor's schooling, work hours, and time off.[17][18]

Adult career




Coogan appeared with then-wife Betty Grable in College Swing, a 1938 musical comedy starring George Burns, Gracie Allen, Martha Raye, and Bob Hope.

He appeared as a police officer in the Elvis Presley comedy Girl Happy in 1965.[19]



In 1940, Coogan played the role of "a playboy Broadway producer" in the Society Girl program on CBS radio.[20] He also starred in his own program, Forever Ernest, on CBS from April 29 to July 22, 1946.[21]

World War II


Coogan enlisted in the U.S. Army in March 1941. After the attack on Pearl Harbor that December, he requested a transfer to Army Air Forces as a glider pilot because of his civilian flying experience. Graduating the Advanced Glider School with the glider pilot aeronautical rating and the rank of flight officer,[22] he volunteered for hazardous duty with the 1st Air Commando Group.[23]

In December 1943, the unit was sent to India. He flew British troops, the Chindits, under General Orde Wingate, on March 5, 1944, landing them at night in a small jungle clearing 100 miles (160 km) behind Japanese lines in the Burma Campaign.[24][25]


Coogan in a publicity shot as the character Uncle Fester for The Addams Family TV series

After the war, Coogan returned to acting, taking mostly character roles and appearing on television.

From 1952 to 1953, Coogan played Stoney Crockett on the syndicated series Cowboy G-Men. In 1959, he guest-starred in a first-season episode of Peter Gunn. He also appeared on NBC's The Martha Raye Show. He appeared, too, as Corbett, in two episodes of NBC's 1960 series The Outlaws.

In the 1960–1961 season, he guest-starred in the episode "The Damaged Dolls" of the crime drama The Brothers Brannagan. In 1961, he guest-starred in an episode of The Americans, an NBC series about family divisions stemming from the Civil War. He also appeared in episode 37, titled "Barney on the Rebound", of The Andy Griffith Show, which aired October 31, 1961.

Coogan had a regular role in a 1962–63 NBC series, McKeever and the Colonel. He finally found his most famous television role as Uncle Fester in ABC's The Addams Family (1964–1966). He later voiced Uncle Fester in The Addams Family animated series (1973–1975) and reprised the character in the TV film Halloween with the New Addams Family (1977).

He appeared four times on the Perry Mason series, including the role of political activist Gus Sawyer in the 1963 episode, "The Case of the Witless Witness" and TV prop man Pete Desmond in the final episode, "The Case of the Final Fadeout", in 1966. He was a guest several times on The Red Skelton Show, appeared twice on The Brady Bunch ("The Fender Benders" and "Double Parked"), I Dream of Jeannie (as Jeannie's uncle, Suleiman – Maharaja of Basenji), Family Affair, Here's Lucy, and The Brian Keith Show, and continued to guest-star on television, including multiple appearances on The Partridge Family[26] The Wild Wild West, Hawaii Five-O and McMillan and Wife, until his retirement in the mid-1970s. Coogan also appeared in the first season of Barnaby Jones, in the April 1, 1973 episode titled "Sing a Song of Murder".

Marriages and children


Coogan was married four times and had four children. His first three marriages to actresses were short-lived.[3] Betty Grable and he were engaged in 1935 and married on November 20, 1937,[27][28][29] and they divorced on October 11, 1939. On August 10, 1941, he married Flower Parry (d. 1981). They had one son, John Anthony Coogan (writer/producer of 3D digital and film, also known as Jackie Coogan Jr.),[30] born in Los Angeles; they divorced on June 29, 1943.[31] Coogan married his third wife, Ann McCormack, on December 26, 1946.[32][33] A daughter, Joann Dolliver Coogan, was born[34] in Los Angeles. They divorced on September 20, 1951.[35][36][37]

Dorothea Odetta Hanson, also known as Dorothea Lamphere (but best known as Dodie), was a dancer and became Coogan's fourth wife in April 1952. They were together over 30 years until his death in 1984. She died in 1999. They had two children together; daughter Leslie Diane Coogan was born in Los Angeles, while son Christopher Fenton Coogan was born in Riverside County, California. Christopher died in a motorcycle accident in Palm Springs, California in 1990.[38][39]

Leslie Coogan has a son, actor Keith Coogan, who was born Keith Eric Mitchell. He began acting in 1975 and later changed his name two years after his grandfather's death, in 1986. His roles include the oldest son in Adventures in Babysitting and Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead.

Footage of Jackie with his grandson Keith can be seen in the 1982 documentary Hollywood's Children.


Grave at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California

After suffering from heart and kidney ailments, Coogan died of heart failure on March 1, 1984, at age 69, in Santa Monica, California.[40] Coogan had a long history of heart trouble and hypertension and had previously suffered several strokes. He had been undergoing kidney dialysis when his blood pressure dropped. Coogan was taken to Santa Monica Hospital, where he died from cardiac arrest.[3]

At Coogan's request, his funeral was open to the public and was attended by several fans. John Astin, Coogan's co-star from The Addams Family, delivered the eulogy. Coogan was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City.[41][42] His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is located at 1654 Vine Street, just south of Hollywood Boulevard.[43]




  1. ^ a b "Research". Coogan Research Group. April 7, 2012. Retrieved May 15, 2013.
  2. ^ Barron, James (March 2, 1984). "Jackie Coogan, Child Star of Films, dies at 69". The New York Times. Retrieved May 15, 2013.
  3. ^ a b c "Former child star Jackie Coogan dies". Daily News. Bowling Green, Kentucky. Associated Press. March 4, 1984. p. 17B.
  4. ^ "Coogan Research Group". April 30, 2013. Retrieved May 15, 2013.
  5. ^ Farrell, Harry (1993). Swift justice : murder and vengeance in a California town. Internet Archive. New York : St. Martin's Press. p. 165. ISBN 978-0-312-08901-6.
  6. ^ "Final rites held for young actor". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Associated Press. May 8, 1935. p. 2.
  7. ^ "Four killed in auto accident". Bend Bulletin. Oregon. United Press. May 6, 1935. p. 1.
  8. ^ "Jackie Coogan hurt, four killed in accident". Milwaukee Journal. (photo). May 5, 1935. p. 3.
  9. ^ "Jackie Coogan tells court of fatal crash". Milwaukee Journal. Associated Press. April 6, 1936. p. 1, Final.
  10. ^ Babkenian, Vicken (January 7, 2011). "Hollywood's First Celebrity Humanitarian that America Forgot". Armenian Weekly. Watertown, MA. Retrieved May 15, 2013.
  11. ^ "Our History". Church of the Good Shepherd. 1998. Archived from the original on July 8, 2021. Retrieved February 16, 2022.
  12. ^ Shaffer, Rosalind (October 25, 1935). "Jackie Coogan 21 tomorrow; gets fortune". Chicago Daily Tribune. p. 1.
  13. ^ a b "Jackie Coogan sues mother". Prescott Evening Courier. Arizona. Associated Press. April 12, 1938. p. 1.
  14. ^ "The Strange Case of – Jackie Coogan's $4,000,000". Life. April 25, 1938. p. 50. Retrieved May 15, 2013.
  15. ^ "Newspictures of the Week (photograph)". Life. May 2, 1938. p. 16. Retrieved May 15, 2013.
  16. ^ Robinson, David (1985). Chaplin: His Life and Art. New York: McGraw Hill. ISBN 978-0070531819.
  17. ^ Terry, Jennifer Robin (2018). "The Wolf at the Door: Child Actors in Liminal Legal Spaces". The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth. 11: 57–62. doi:10.1353/hcy.2018.0005. S2CID 148900901 – via
  18. ^ "Coogan Law". SAG-AFTRA. Retrieved May 15, 2013.
  19. ^ "Girl Happy (1965)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved May 15, 2013.
  20. ^ "Thursday's Highlights" (PDF). Radio and Television Mirror. 13 (5): 50. March 1940. Retrieved February 24, 2015.
  21. ^ Dunning, John (1998). On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio (Revised ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. p. 258. ISBN 978-0-19-507678-3.
  22. ^ "Jackie Coogan now Air Force officer". Free Lance-Star. Fredericksburg, Virginia. Associated Press. January 19, 1943. p. 2.
  23. ^ "Jackie Coogan, air commando". Sunday Morning Star. Wilmington, Delaware. United Press. March 19, 1943. p. 1.
  24. ^ Martin, Frank L. (March 29, 1944). "Jackie Coogan taken for god in Burma". Evening Independent. St. Petersburg, Florida. Associated Press. p. 7.
  25. ^ Webster, Donovan (2003). The Burma Road: The Epic Story of the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II. Harper Collins. p. 187. ISBN 0-06-074638-6. Retrieved May 15, 2013.
  26. ^ "Maid in San Pueblo". Rotten Tomatoes. Archived from the original on November 23, 2020. Retrieved November 23, 2020.
  27. ^ "Jackie Coggan plans to marry actress". Reading Eagle. Pennsylvania. Associated Press. December 3, 1935. p. 8.
  28. ^ "Betty Grable, Jackie Coogan marry on coast". Sunday Spartanburg Herald-Journal. South Carolina. Associated Press. November 21, 1937. p. 2.
  29. ^ "Time off for marriage". Sydney Morning Herald. Australia. November 22, 1937. p. 9.
  30. ^ Evans, Art (June 25, 2020). World War II Veterans in Hollywood. McFarland. p. 65. ISBN 978-1-4766-7777-4.
  31. ^ "Jackie Coogan is divorced by Flower Perry". St. Petersburg Times. Florida. INS. June 30, 1943. p. 9.
  32. ^ "Jackie Coogan on honeymoon with third wife". Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Florida. Associated Press. December 27, 1946. p. 4.
  33. ^ "WEDDING CAKE FOR THE COOGANS". Oxnard Press Courier. January 2, 1947. p. 20.
  34. ^ "Coogan Is Father For Second Time". Berkeley Daily Gazette. April 3, 1948. p. 2.
  35. ^ "Jackie Coogans Call It Quits After 4 Years of Marriage". Long Beach Independent. March 7, 1950. p. 22.
  36. ^ "Coogans Drop Divorce Plans". Long Beach Independent. March 24, 1950. p. 28.
  37. ^ "The Kid and 'Da Mkk' Having Trouble Again". Long Beach Independent. August 23, 1950. p. 21.
  38. ^ "Christopher Coogan; Youngest Son of Actor". Los Angeles Times. July 7, 1990. Retrieved May 15, 2013.
  39. ^ "Christopher Coogan, son of actor, dead at 22". Ocala Star-Banner. Florida. July 3, 1990. p. 4B.
  40. ^ Aaker, Everett (1997). Television Western Players of the Fifties: A Biographical Encyclopedia of All Regular Cast Members in Western Series, 1949–1959. McFarland. p. 141. ISBN 0-7864-0284-9.
  41. ^ "Public funeral set for Jackie Coogan". Nashua Telegraph. New Hampshire. Associated Press. March 3, 1984. p. 5.
  42. ^ "Friends remember Jackie Coogan". Bangor Daily News. Maine. Associated Press. March 6, 1984. p. 20.
  43. ^ "Jackie Coogan". Hollywood Chamber of Commerce Star Finder. Retrieved November 3, 2018.

Further reading

  • Jackie Coogan: The World's Boy King: A Biography of Hollywood's Legendary Child Star, Diana Serra Cary, Scarecrow Press, 2003, ISBN 0-8108-4650-0.
  • Holmstrom, John. The Moving Picture Boy: An International Encyclopaedia from 1895 to 1995, Norwich, Michael Russell, 1996, pp. 65–67.
  • Dye, David. Child and Youth Actors: Filmography of Their Entire Careers, 1914-1985. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1988, pp. 37–40.