Today winds up the week’s series covering some of the classic Hollywood screen personalities who actually saw combat — often heroically so — in World War II.
We’ve written about just a few of the personalities who did, with apologies to Neville Brand, Audie Murphy and Lee Marvin, among others, for not giving all these battle seasoned veterans the full blog treatment they certainly deserve.
Now to today’s subject (can you identify him from the photo above?). A definitive clue comes from regular reader Graham Hill — who, in mentioning Hollywood veterans not often associated with the image of “war heroes”– writes:
Like most veterans, there were so many other actors who kept their military service, decorated or not to themselves. And… you wouldn’t get one such example like say Jackie Coogan, playing the hero part in a picture. As just like Brand (who usually played super nasty bad guys), he wouldn’t fit the perception.
But there it is: one of the Hollywood stars who served in the war was former child star, Jackie Coogan, who’d become famous playing opposite Charlie Chaplin in The Kid.
Born into a show biz family in 1914, Coogan was introduced to the silent movie world three years later in something called Skinner’s Baby (he was, of course, the baby). Thus began a 55-year screen and tv career that certainly had its ups and downs. (Coogan died in 1984 at age 69.)
The turn with Chaplin in 1921’s The Kid made his early career fortune. Chaplin as the Tramp finds himself caring for an abandoned child (again, Coogan). The masterful tear-jerker was a hit. Coogan was thus in line to become perhaps the most famous child actor of that time.
During the Twenties, the roles kept coming and so did the money. By the mid-Thirties, the sums involved became the subject of a publicized legal battle over just who controlled Coogan’s film earnings as a child actor. His mother and step-father or Coogan, who claimed he was being cheated out of millions? The legal jousting resulted in a celebrated case that in turn resulted in legislation (the Child Actors Bill, informally known as the “Coogan Act”) mandating trust funds to protect earnings of young performers.
Just after the Pearl Harbor bombings, Coogan enlisted in the Army, and thanks to previous flying experience found himself assigned to the 1st Air Commando Group. What this involved in his case was both dangerous and fascinating — landing troops at night via transport gliders into remote locations often behind enemy lines. This was largely in the China-Burma-India theater.
Coogan survived this hazardous duty, and returned to a career replete with challenges. (What is it about child actors who “can’t grow up” onscreen?) By the the mid-Sixties, Coogan was in financial straights, reversed by good fortune — landing the Uncle Fester role on tv’s The Addams Family.
Coogan is remembered for several things — one being his first marriage to WW2 pinup Betty Grable — but not generally for his war service. That was the way he liked it. Jackie Coogan — the “Kid” as quiet WW2 hero.