The Rags-to-Riches Saga of Jackie Coogan
Anyone who has toiled in Hollywood can attest to this fact: Child actors are hell to work with. These demanding performers have the deluded bravado of career-focused 30-somethings, all condensed in a little preadolescent body. Their needs are many: Constant attention and stimulation, on-set schooling, parental supervision and dietary restrictions are just a few of the many accommodations producers need to make.
It wasn’t always like this, though. Back in the underregulated days of silent film, Hollywood producers treated child performers with the same regard robber barons afforded the many orphans who toiled in their factories: as a bunch of small-limbed workers there to remove pesky clogs from heavy machinery. Jackie Coogan was one such abused and exploited actor. The son of monstrous stage parents, poor Coogan became the very first child star, branded and marketed long before Shirley Temple came on the scene, purely for his guardians’ financial benefit.
Born in 1914, Coogan got an early start, performing at age three in vaudeville and various small films. After Charlie Chaplin discovered him doing the shimmy at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles, his career exploded. In just a few short years he would play the title role in Oliver Twist (1922), and perform his legendary turn as Chaplin’s smart-aleck sidekick in The Kid (1921).
Coogan’s parents made sure to cash in on their meal ticket’s newly found stardom, merchandising peanut butter, whistles and dolls based on their prodigious son. As a child actor he earned an astonishing $3 to $4 million (around $45 million today), but according to the New York Herald Tribune, all of it was spent by his mother and stepfather, Arthur Bernstein, on “fur coats, diamonds and exotic cars.”
After his transition from cute child star to out-of-work adult actor, Coogan was hard up for cash. Times got so hard he was forced to go to Chaplin for a $1,000 loan. In 1938, he sued his parents for the remaining $250,000 from his wages they hadn’t spent, but only received $138,000 after legal expenses.
The media storm prompted by his legal troubles drew the attention of California legislators. When the dust settled on the case, the California Child Actor Bill (known as the Coogan Act) was put into law. Apart from other protections the law specifically mandates the allotment of 15 percent of a child actor’s earnings into a trust that remains sealed until his 18th birthday.
It all turned out pretty well for Jackie Coogan. After he made it past the psychological nightmare that is coming of age as a celebrity, Coogan found work as a character actor. Most notably he created the role of Uncle Fester on The Addams Family on ABC. His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame can be found at 1654 Vine Street, but his real legacy lives on in the protection of child actors on network and movie sets throughout Southern California.