Jackie Coogan: The World's Boy King
By Diana Serra Cary, Scarecrow Press, 2007
You Can't Pick Your Parents
The tragedy in this kid's life is legend. When Jackie Coogan -- the world's first up-marketed child star, maker of millions, darling of silent cinema -- became a legal adult, he learned that his mother and stepfather had spent nearly every penny of his earnings. When he took the pair to court, the boy's mother asserted that, "every dollar a kid earns before he is 21 belongs to his parents. Jackie will not get a cent of his earnings." Happy Mother's Day!
The court case that ensued resulted in the California Child Actor's Bill (also known popularly as "The Coogan Act" or "The Coogan Law"), which provides that the child's employer set aside 15% of his earnings into a trust (called by many a "Coogan Account"), provide some schoolin' and give the kid time off every once in a while. I hasten to add that this didn't go into effect until 1939.
Another result of the case was that, after lawyers fees and court costs, young Mr. Coogan only wound up with half the earnings his parents hadn't already spent, roughly $125,000, all that remained from the 20 films he made before the age of 18.
Coogan was born into a vaudevillian family, his father a dancer and mother, ironically, a former child performer. Charlie Chaplin caught the family act and cast the boy in one of his upcoming pictures. He was so impressed with the child's abilities that he gave him the role of his life as the eponymous kid in The Kid, one of the best films ever. Coogan made a string of highly successful picture throughout the Twenties, but fewer into the Thirties.
When Coogan was 20 years old, he was hurt in a car accident that killed both his father and best friend. His mother married the sponge that would later help her spend his money shortly thereafter.
By the late Thirties, an older, less adorable Coogan found film roles harder to come by. He enlisted in the army during World War II, and because of his training as a glider pilot, ultimately transferred to the Air Force and flew British troops behind Japanese lines during the Burma Campaign.
He returned to acting on the smaller screen, appearing in guest spots on popular shows until finally landing the role of Uncle Fester on the excellent program, The Addams Family.
Jackie Coogan passed away at the age of 69 in 1984. His horrible upbringing is directly responsible for any security a child performer has enjoyed for the last 75 years. If you haven't seen The Kid, you should (and can, because it's streaming on the Huge Internet Megaplex named for a South American river), because he was amazing and beautiful in it.
Also Uncle Fester can put a light bulb in his mouth and make it shine.