14 March 2012


Intense, charismatic, understated and devastatingly handsome – Gary Cooper was one of Hollywood’s screen icons, yet rarely gets a mention these days.  In a career that spanned almost 40 years (right up to his death at the relatively young age of sixty in 1961) he acted in some memorable films, receiving five Oscar nominations and winning two.  He was also named the 11th Greatest Actor on “The 50 Greatest Screen Legends” list by the American Film Institute.

Early Life
Cooper was born in Helena, Montana in 1901 to British parents who hailed originally from Befordshire in England.  His real name was Frank James Cooper, and he only changed his name to Gary when he hit the big time in the mid 1920s.  To all his friends and colleagues he was affectionately called “Coop”.  Though initially sent back to England to complete schooling in Dunstable, Bedfordshire (In fact there is still a public house there that bears his name “The Gary Cooper” which belongs to The Wetherspoons Group), on the outbreak of World War One, his mother Helena insisted he and his brother came back to Montana for safety.  The two Cooper sons went to High School at Bozeman, though Gary never fully completed his education.

Trying To Hit The Big Time
Gary’s father Charles Henry Cooper was a lawyer and sat on the Montana Supreme Court Bench.  They were a reasonably wealthy (by the standards of the time) family and although the move was a good one for Charles, Gary struggled to find work.  One day he happened to meet up with two boyhood friends from his hometown. He was intrigued by what they told him about their own jobs - stunt riding as cowboy extras at a movie studio.  "In rodeo you're paid to stay on a horse," they told him. "In films, it's for falling off." This chance meeting and conversation was enough to whet his appetite to try out the same…
He finally landed a role as an extra in the 1925 film version of “Dick Turpin” – his first time on screen, though uncredited.  In 1926 he worked with the actress Eileen Sedgwick in a two reeler called “Lightnin’ Wins”:Gary Cooper in Lightnin' Wins

His real breakthrough came in the film that also established Clara Bow as a firm favorite, the silent epic: “Wings”.  It was rumored that the two had an affair when they worked together, and frankly – who could blame Bow for falling for his charms, Cooper had instant sex appeal – tall, dark, handsome, with just a hint of an English accent behind the All American Cowboy.  A sad but true fact is that when Clara died in 1965, she had been watching an old Cooper film just before she took her last breath. 
In 1929, he shot the film “The Virginians” a clip of which you can view below.  This was his first full length “talkie” and came at a time when people were mourning the death of the silents and remaining suspicious about whether talking flickers would really work:Gary Cooper in The Virginian. This was the start of his ascent proper to the big time.  He’d made it and made it good.

Cooper’s Biggest Mistakes!
It’s alleged that Cooper was the producer’s first choice for the role of Rhett Butler in the 1939 epic “Gone With The Wind”.  He turned it down and was quoted as saying: “Gone With The Wind is going to be the biggest flop in Hollywood history.  I’m glad it will be Clark Gable falling on his nose and not me!”  A decision no doubt he must have come to regret after the picture’s final release and success.  Similarly, in the following years he also turned down the chance to work with Alfred Hitchcock, but later bitterly regretted that decision too – and no small wonder either!

Later Works
Despite turning down two major roles, Cooper got the chance to work with Cecil B. DeMille on the film “North West Mounted Police” in 1940 with a former paramour of Charlie Chaplin, one Ms. Paulette Goddard.  He also notably worked with Frank Capra and Howard Hawks during the late 1930s and early 1940s.  While he himself was a big box office star, he also worked with some of the other amazing talents of the time: Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, Tallulah Bankhead, and Charles Laughton to name but a few.
His career seemed to tail off during the late 1940s, but he had one last trick up his sleeve – at the age of fifty one, he made what is probably his best known film, “High Noon” in which he played the character Marshal Will Kane:High Noon

He had a simple philosophy as to why he and his films were popular: “To get folks to like you, I figured you had to sort of be their ideal. I don't mean a handsome knight riding a white horse, but a fellow who answered the description of a right guy” and it worked.  All in all, Cooper starred in more than one hundred films spanning both eras of silents and talkies – of those movies his best known were the Westerns, of which he made twenty, three of them being silent.

Cooper died in 1961 after a battle with cancer – eight years later he was still topping television personality lists in such publications as “Variety” magazine.  This just shows how popular and respected he was, and all from relatively small beginnings in Montana.

Coop was a hunting pal of my father's. I have a photograph of him  at the duck club they all belonged too near Oxnard, California. In it he is painfully thin. No doubt from the cancer. A real gentleman that Montana cowboy.


Rilly said...

Oooh, I loved Gary Cooper....word was he was quite a lover.

Walker said...


I was about 8 years old when I met him so I can't comment on that. :)

Anonymous said...

Gary's mother, Alice Louisa, took both heb and Arthusr to England about 1909 for their education at Dunstable Grammar School.They returned to the States, August, 1912 on the "Celtic"