Gary Cooper

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Gary Cooper
Gary cooper promo image.jpg
Gary Cooper in 1941
Born Frank James Cooper
(1901-05-07)May 7, 1901
Helena, Montana, U.S.
Died May 13, 1961(1961-05-13) (aged 60)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of death
Prostate cancer
Resting place
Sacred Heart Cemetery, Southampton, New York
Alma mater Grinnell College
Occupation Actor
Years active 1925–1961
Political party
Religion Roman Catholic (former Protestant)
Spouse(s) Veronica Cooper (m. 1933–61)
Children Maria (b. 1937)
Signature Gary Cooper Signature.png

Gary Cooper (born Frank James Cooper, May 7, 1901 – May 13, 1961) was an American film actor. Cooper is well remembered for his stoic, understated acting style and appearances in western, crime, comedy, and drama films which earned him numerous awards and high recognition in Hollywood and the rest of the world.

Cooper's career spanned from 1925 until shortly before his death in 1961 and consisted of more than one hundred films. He received five Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, winning twice for Sergeant York and High Noon. He was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and received an Honorary Award by the Academy.

Decades later, the American Film Institute named Cooper among the list of fifty greatest screen legends, ranking eleventh among the males. In 2003, his performances as Will Kane in High Noon, Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees, and Alvin York in Sergeant York, made the one-hundred greatest screen characters list, all of them as heroes.

Early life[edit]

Frank James Cooper was born on May 7, 1901 at 730 Eleventh Avenue in Helena, Montana[1] to English immigrants, Alice (née Brazier, 1873–1967)[2] and Charles Henry Cooper (1865–1946).[3] His father emigrated to Montana from Houghton Regis, Bedfordshire[4] and became a prominent lawyer, rancher, and eventually a state supreme court judge.[5] His mother emigrated from Gillingham, Kent, married Charles in Montana, and became a housewife and devoted mother.[6] In 1906, Charles purchased the six-hundred acre Seven-Bar-Nine[7][8] cattle ranch about fifty miles north of Helena near the town of Craig on the Missouri River,[9] where Frank and his older brother Arthur spent their summers and learned to ride horses, hunt, and fish.[10][11] Cooper attended Central grade school in Helena.[12]

In the late spring of 1910, Alice, wanting her sons to have an English education, accompanied them to England and enrolled them in Dunstable Grammar School in Bedfordshire, where they were educated from 1910 to 1913.[13][14][15] At Dunstable, Cooper studied Latin and French, and took several courses in English history.[16] While he managed to adapt to the discipline of an English public school and learned the requisite social graces, he never adjusted to the rigid class structure and formal Eton collars he was forced to wear.[17] Following the outbreak of World War I, Cooper's mother arranged for her sons to return to the United States, where Cooper resumed his education at Johnson grammar school in Helena.[12]

At the age of fifteen, Cooper injured his hip in a car accident and returned to the Seven-Bar-Nine ranch to recuperate by horseback riding at the recommendation of his doctor.[18] The misguided therapy left him with his characteristic stiff, off-balanced walk and slightly angled riding style.[19] After attending Helena High School for two years, he left school in 1918 and returned to the family ranch to help raise their five hundred head of cattle and work full-time as a cowboy.[19] In 1919, his father arranged for his son to complete his high school education at Gallatin County High School in Bozeman, Montana.[20][21] His English teacher, Ida Davis, played an important role in encouraging him to focus on academics, join the school's debating team, and become involved in dramatics.[21][22] His parents would later credit her for helping their son complete high school, and Cooper would later confirm, "She was the woman partly responsible for me giving up cowboy-ing and going to college."[22]

In the spring of 1920, while still attending high school, Cooper took three art courses at Montana Agricultural College.[21] His interest in art was inspired years earlier by the western paintings of Charles Marion Russell and Frederic Remington.[23] Cooper especially admired and studied Russell's Lewis and Clark Meeting Indians at Ross' Hole (1910), which still hangs in the state capitol building in Helena.[23] In 1922, Cooper enrolled in Grinnell College in Iowa to continue his art education. Cooper did well academically in most of his courses,[24] but was less successful in being accepted in the college's drama club.[18] His drawings and watercolors, however, were exhibited throughout the dormitory, and he was named art editor for the college yearbook.[25] During the summers of 1922 and 1923, Cooper worked at Yellowstone National Park as a tour guide driving the yellow jitney buses.[26][27] Despite a promising first eighteen months at Grinnell, he left college suddenly in February 1924 and returned to Montana, where he managed the family ranch and contributed cartoons to a local newspaper.[13]

In the fall of 1924, Cooper's father left the Montana Supreme Court bench and moved with his wife to Los Angeles[18][28] to administer the estates of two relatives.[29] At his father's request, Cooper joined his parents in California on Thanksgiving Day, November 27, 1924.[28] In the coming weeks, after working a series of unpromising jobs, Cooper met two friends from Montana, Jim Galeen and Jim Calloway,[30][31] who were working as film extras and stuntmen in low-budget Western films for the small movie studios on Poverty Row on Gower Street.[32] With the goal of saving enough money to pay for a professional art course,[28] Cooper decided to try his hand working as a film extra for five dollars a day, and as a stuntman for twice that amount.[32]


Silent films, 1925–1928[edit]

Cooper in The Winning of Barbara Worth, 1926

In early 1925, Cooper began his film career working as an extra and stuntman in silent films such as The Thundering Herd and Wild Horse Mesa with Jack Holt,[33] Riders of the Purple Sage and The Lucky Horseshoe with Tom Mix,[34][35] and The Trail Rider with Buck Jones.[34] While his skills as a horseman led to steady work in Westerns, Cooper found the stunt work "tough and cruel", sometimes resulting in injury to the horses and riders.[33] Hoping to move beyond the risky stunt work and obtain more prominent acting roles, Cooper paid for a screen test and hired casting director Nan Collins to work as his agent.[36] Knowing that other actors were using the name "Frank Cooper", Collins changed her client's first name to "Gary" after her hometown of Gary, Indiana.[37][38][39] Cooper liked the name immediately.[40]

Cooper worked in non-Western films, appearing, for example, as a masked Cossack in The Eagle with Rudolph Valentino, as a Roman guard in Ben-Hur with Ramón Novarro, and as a flood survivor in The Johnstown Flood with George O'Brien.[34] Gradually he began to land credited roles that offered him more screen time, such as Tricks, in which he played the film's antagonist, and the short film Lightnin' Wins with Eileen Sedgwick.[41] As a featured player, he began to attract the attention of major film studios.[42] On June 1, 1926, Cooper signed a contract with Samuel Goldwyn Productions for fifty dollars per week.[43]

Cooper's first important film role was in The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926) with Ronald Colman and Vilma Bánky.[43] Cooper played the role of engineer cowboy Abe Lee, who dies a hero's death after an exhaustive ride to warn a community of an impending dam disaster.[44] Cooper's experience living among the Montana cowboys gave his performance an "instinctive authenticity".[44] The film premiered on October 14 and was a major success,[45] with critics singling out Cooper as a "dynamic new personality" and future star.[46][47] Goldwyn rushed to offer the actor a long-term contract, but Cooper held out for a better deal—finally signing a five-year contract with Jesse L. Lasky at Paramount Pictures for $175 per week.[46] In 1927, with help from established silent film star Clara Bow, Cooper landed high-profile roles in Children of Divorce and Wings, the first film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture.[48] That year, Cooper also appeared in his first starring roles in Arizona Bound, a B-Western with Betty Jewel, and Nevada with Thelma Todd and William Powell—both films directed by John Waters.[49]

In 1928, Paramount paired Cooper with a youthful Fay Wray in The Legion of the Condemned and The First Kiss—advertising them as the studio's "glorious young lovers"[50]—but their on-screen chemistry failed to generate much excitement with audiences.[50][51][52] Still, with each new film, Cooper's acting skills improved and his popularity continued to grow, especially among female movie-goers.[53] During this time he was earning as much as $2,750 per film[54] and receiving a thousand fan letters per week.[55] Looking to leverage Cooper's growing audience appeal, the studio placed him opposite popular leading ladies in films such as Beau Sabreur with Evelyn Brent, Doomsday with Florence Vidor, Half a Bride with Esther Ralston, and Lilac Time with Colleen Moore.[56] The latter film, which introduced synchronized music and sound effects, became one of the most commercially successful films of 1928.[56]

Hollywood stardom, 1929–1935[edit]

Cooper in The Virginian, speaking the famous line, "If you wanna call me that, smile."

Cooper became a major film star in 1929 with the release of his first sound picture The Virginian, which was directed by Victor Fleming and co-starred Walter Huston as the villainous Trampas.[13][57] Based on the popular novel by Owen Wister, The Virginian was one of the first sound films to define the Western code of honor and helped establish many of the conventions of the Western movie genre that have lasted to the present day.[58] The romantic image of the tall, handsome, and shy cowboy hero that embodied male freedom, courage, and honor was created in large part by Cooper's performance in the film.[59] Unlike some silent film actors who could not adapt to the new sound medium, Cooper transitioned naturally, with his deep, clear, and pleasantly drawling voice, which was perfectly suited for the characters he portrayed on screen.[60] Looking to capitalize on Cooper's growing popularity, Paramount cast him in several Westerns and wartime drama films in 1930, including Only the Brave with Mary Brian, The Texan with Fay Wray, Seven Days' Leave with Beryl Mercer, A Man from Wyoming with June Collyer, and The Spoilers with Kay Johnson.[61]

Cooper and Lili Damita in Fighting Caravans, 1931

One of the high points of Cooper's early career was his portrayal of a sullen legionnaire in Josef von Sternberg's 1930 film Morocco[62] with Marlene Dietrich in her introduction to American audiences.[63] Despite conflicts with his authoritarian German director—whose entire focus was on Dietrich[63]—Cooper produced one of his finest performances to that point in his career.[63][64][65] In 1931, after returning to the Western genre in Zane Grey's Fighting Caravans with spirited French actress Lili Damita, Cooper appeared in the Dashiell Hammett crime drama City Streets with Sylvia Sidney playing a misplaced cowboy in a big city who gets involved with gangsters to save the woman he loves.[66] Cooper finished the year appearing in I Take This Woman with Carole Lombard, and His Woman with Claudette Colbert.[67] The demands and pressures of making ten films in two years left Cooper exhausted and in poor health, suffering from anemia and jaundice.[63][68] He had lost thirty pounds during that period,[68][69] and felt lonely, isolated, and depressed by his sudden fame and wealth.[70][71] In May 1931, Cooper left Hollywood and sailed to Algiers and then Italy, where he lived for the next year.[70]

During his time abroad, Cooper stayed with the Countess Dorothy di Frasso at the Villa Madama in Rome, where she taught him about good food and vintage wines, how to read Italian and French menus in the finest restaurants, and how to socialize among Europe's nobility and upper classes.[72] After guiding him through the great art museums and galleries of Italy,[72] she accompanied him on a ten-week big-game hunting safari on the slopes of Mount Kenya in Nairobi,[73] where he was credited with over sixty kills, including two lions, a rhinoceros, an oryx, and various antelopes.[74][75] His safari experience in Africa had a profound impact on Cooper and intensified his love of the wilderness.[75] After returning to Europe, he and the countess set off on a Mediterranean cruise of the Italian and French Rivieras.[76] Rested and rejuvenated by his yearlong exile, a healthy Cooper returned to Hollywood in April 1932[77] and negotiated a new contract with Paramount for two films per year, a salary of $4,000 per week, and director and script approval.[78]

Cooper and Helen Hayes in A Farewell to Arms, 1932

In 1932, after completing Devil and the Deep with Tallulah Bankhead to fulfill his old contract,[79] Cooper appeared in A Farewell to Arms,[80] the first film adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway novel.[81] Co-starring Helen Hayes, a leading New York theatre star and Academy Award winner,[82] and Adolphe Menjou, the film presented Cooper with one of his most ambitious and challenging dramatic roles to date.[82] Critics praised his highly intense and at times emotional performance,[83][84] and the film went on to become one of the year's most commercially successful films.[82] In 1933, after making Today We Live with Joan Crawford and One Sunday Afternoon with Fay Wray—both poorly received by audiences and critics—Cooper appeared in the Ernst Lubitsch comedy Design for Living with Miriam Hopkins and Fredric March.[85] Based loosely on the successful Noël Coward play,[86][87] the film received mixed reviews and did not do well at the box office,[88] but Cooper's performance was singled out for its versatility[89] and revealed his genuine ability to do light comedy.[90] Cooper changed his name legally in August 1933.[91]

In 1934, Cooper was loaned out to MGM for the Civil War romance drama Operator 13 with Marion Davies, about a beautiful Union spy who falls in love with a Confederate soldier.[92] Despite Richard Boleslawski's imaginative direction and George J. Folsey's lavish cinematography, the film did poorly at the box office.[93] Back at Paramount, he appeared in his first of seven films by director Henry Hathaway,[94] Now and Forever, with Carole Lombard and Shirley Temple.[95] In the film, he plays a confidence man who tries to sell his daughter to the relatives who raised her, but is eventually won over and reformed by the adorable girl.[96] Impressed by Temple's intelligence and charm, Cooper developed a close rapport with her, both on and off screen.[94] The film was a box-office success.[93]

Cooper and Ann Harding in Peter Ibbetson, 1935

The following year, Cooper was loaned out to Samuel Goldwyn Productions to appear in King Vidor's romantic drama The Wedding Night with Anna Sten,[97] who was being groomed as "another Garbo".[98][99] In the film, Copper plays an alcoholic novelist who retreats to his family's New England farm where he meets and falls in love with a beautiful Polish neighbor.[97] Cooper delivered a performance of surprising range and depth,[100] and the on-screen chemistry between the romantic leads worked well.[101] Despite receiving generally favorable reviews, however, the film was not popular with American audiences who may have been put off by the film's depiction of an extramarital affair and its tragic ending.[100] That same year, Cooper appeared in two Henry Hathaway films: the melodrama Peter Ibbetson with Ann Harding, about a man caught up in a dream world created by his love for a childhood sweetheart,[102] and the romantic adventure The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, about a daring British officer and his men who defend their stronghold at Bengal against rebellious local tribes.[103] While the former was more successful in Europe than in the United States, the latter was nominated for six Academy Awards[104] and became one of Cooper's most popular and successful adventure films.[105][106] Hathaway had the highest respect for Cooper's acting ability, calling him "the best actor of all of them".[94]

American folk hero, 1936–1940[edit]

Cooper and Jean Arthur in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, 1936

The year 1936 marked an important turning point in Cooper's career.[107] After making Frank Borzage's romantic comedy Desire with Marlene Dietrich at Paramount—and delivering a performance considered by some contemporary critics as one of his finest[107]—Cooper returned to Poverty Row for the first time since his early silent film days to make Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town with Jean Arthur for Columbia Pictures.[108] In the film, Cooper plays the character of Longfellow Deeds, an innocent, sweet-natured writer of greeting cards who inherits a fortune, leaves behind his idylic life in Vermont, and travels to New York where he faces a world of corruption and deceit.[109] Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin were able to leverage Cooper's well-established screen persona as the "quintessential American hero" who symbolized honesty, courage, and goodness[107][110][111] to create a lasting image of a "mythological folk hero"[107][112] that would inform and inspire many of the actor's future roles.[107] Commenting on Cooper's impact on the character and the film, Capra observed:

As soon as I thought of Gary Cooper, it wasn't possible to conceive anyone else in the role. He could not have been any closer to my idea of Longfellow Deeds, and as soon as he could think in terms of Cooper, Bob Riskin found it easier to develop the Deeds character in terms of dialogue. So it just had to be Cooper. Every line in his face spelled honesty. Our Mr. Deeds had to symbolize uncorruptibility, and in my mind Gary Cooper was that symbol.[113]

Both Desire and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town opened in April 1936 to critical praise and were major commercial successes.[114] For his performance in Mr. Deeds, Cooper received his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.[115]

Cooper and Jean Arthur in The Plainsman, 1936

Cooper appeared in two additional films for Paramount in 1936. In Lewis Milestone's adventure film The General Died at Dawn with Madeleine Carroll, he plays an American soldier of fortune in China who helps the peasants defend themselves against the oppression of a cruel warlord.[116][117] Written by playwright Clifford Odets, the film was a critical and commercial success.[116][118] In Cecil B. DeMille's sprawling frontier epic The Plainsman with Jean Arthur—his first of four films with the director—Cooper portrays Wild Bill Hickok in a highly fictionalized version of the opening of the American western frontier.[119] The film was an even greater commercial success than its predecessor,[120] due in large part to Arthur's definitive depiction of Calamity Jane and Cooper's inspired portrayal of Hickock as a provocative and enigmatic figure of "deepening mythic substance".[121] That year, Cooper appeared for the first time on the Motion Picture Herald exhibitor's poll of top ten film personalities, where he would remain for the next twenty-two years.[122]

In the fall of 1936, while Paramount was preparing a new contract for Cooper that would raise his salary to $8,000 per week,[123] Cooper signed a contract with Samuel Goldwyn for six films over six years with a minimum guarantee of $150,000 per picture.[124] Paramount brought suit against Goldwyn and Cooper, and the court ruled that Cooper's new Goldwyn contract afforded the actor sufficient time to also honor his Paramount agreement.[125] Cooper continued to make films with both studios, and by 1939 the United States Treasury reported that Cooper was the country's highest wage earner, at $482,819 (equal to $8,185,977 today).[124][126][127]

In contrast to his impressive output the previous year, Cooper appeared in only one picture in 1937: Henry Hathaway's adventure film Souls at Sea with George Raft and Frances Dee.[128] A critical and commercial disappointment,[129] Cooper referred to it as his "almost picture", saying, "It was almost exciting, and almost interesting. And I was almost good."[129] In 1938, he appeared in Archie Mayo's The Adventures of Marco Polo with Sigrid Gurie for Samuel Goldwyn Productions.[130] Plagued by production issues and a weak screenplay,[131] the film became Goldwyn's biggest failure, losing $700,000.[132] During this period, Cooper turned down several major roles,[133] including the role of Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind.[134] Cooper was producer David O. Selznick's first choice for part.[134] He made several overtures to the actor for over a year,[135] but Cooper had doubts about the project,[135] and did not feel suited to the role.[136] Cooper later admitted, "It was one of the best roles ever offered in Hollywood ... But I said no. I didn't see myself as quite that dashing, and later, when I saw Clark Gable play the role to perfection, I knew I was right."[136][Note 1]

Cooper and Claudette Colbert in Bluebeard's Eighth Wife, 1938

Back at Paramount, Cooper returned to a more comfortable genre in Ernst Lubitsch's romantic comedy Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938) with Claudette Colbert.[132][139] In the film, Cooper plays a wealthy American businessman in France who falls in love with an impoverished aristocrat's daughter and persuades her to become his eighth wife.[139] Despite the clever screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder,[140] and solid performances by Cooper and Colbert,[139] audiences could not accept Cooper in the role of a shallow philanderer.[140] For many of his fans, Cooper had become "Mr. Deeds incarnate".[140] The film was a commercial failure.[141] In the fall of 1938, Cooper appeared in H. C. Potter's romantic comedy The Cowboy and the Lady with Merle Oberon.[142] In the film, Cooper plays a sweet-natured rodeo cowboy who falls in love with the wealthy daughter of a presidential hopeful, believing her to be a poor, hard-working lady's maid.[142] The efforts of three directors and several eminent screenwriters could not salvage what could have been a fine vehicle for Cooper.[141] While more successful that its predecessor, the film was Cooper's fourth straight box-office failure.[143]

In the next two years, Cooper was more discerning about the roles he accepted and made four critical and commercial successes, playing more congenial roles in large-scale adventure and cowboy films.[143] In William A. Wellman's adventure film Beau Geste (1939) with Ray Milland and Robert Preston, he played one of three daring English brothers who join the French Foreign Legion to find adventure in the Sahara fighting local tribes.[144] Filmed in the same Mojave Desert locations as the original 1926 version with Ronald Coleman,[143][145] Beau Geste provided Cooper with magnificent sets, exotic settings, high-spirited action, and a role tailored to his personality and screen persona.[146] This was the last film in Cooper's contract with Paramount.[146] In Henry Hathaway's The Real Glory (1939) with David Niven and Andrea Leeds, he plays a military doctor who accompanies a small group of American Army officers to the Philippines to help the Christian Filipinos defend themselves against fanatical Muslim radicals.[147] Many film critics praised Cooper's performance, including Graham Greene who recognized that he "has never acted better".[148]

Cooper returned to the Western genre in William Wyler's The Westerner (1940) with Walter Brennan and Doris Davenport. In the film, Cooper plays a drifting cowboy who defends homesteaders against a corrupt judge known as the "law west of the Pecos River".[149][150] Screenwriter Niven Busch relied on Cooper's extensive knowledge of western history while working on the script.[151] The film was a critical and commercial success,[152] with reviewers praising the performances of the two lead actors.[153] Brennan went on to receive his third consecutive Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.[154] That same year, Cooper appeared in his first Technicolor picture,[155] Cecil B. DeMille's adventure film North West Mounted Police (1940) with Madeleine Carroll for Paramount.[156] In the film, Cooper plays a Texas Ranger who pursues an outlaw into western Canada where he joins forces with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who are after the same man, a leader of the North-West Rebellion.[157] While not as popular with critics as its predecessor,[158] the film was another box-office success—the sixth-highest grossing film of 1940.[159][152]

Prime years, 1941–1943[edit]

Edward Arnold, Barbara Stanwyck, Cooper, and Walter Brennan in Meet John Doe, 1941

The early 1940s were Cooper's prime years as an actor.[160] In a relatively short period, he appeared in a remarkable string of five critically acclaimed and commercially successful films that produced some of his finest performances.[160] When Frank Capra offered him the lead role in Meet John Doe before Robert Riskin even developed the script, Cooper accepted the offer, saying, "It's okay, Frank, I don't need a script."[161] In the film, Cooper plays Long John Willoughby, a down-and-out bush-league pitcher who is hired by a newspaper to pretend to be a man who promises to commit suicide on Christmas Eve to protest all the hypocrisy and corruption in the country.[162] Considered by some critics to be Capra's finest film at the time,[163] Meet John Doe was received as a "national event"[163] with Cooper appearing on the front page of Time magazine on March 3, 1941.[164] Cooper's performance received superb reviews, with one critic calling it a "splendid and utterly persuasive portrayal"[165] and another praising his "utterly realistic acting which comes through with such authority".[164]

Joan Fontaine and Cooper at the Academy Awards, 1942

That same year, Cooper made two films with director and good friend Howard Hawks.[166] In the biographical film Sergeant York, Cooper portrays war hero Alvin C. York,[167] one the most decorated American soldiers in World War I.[168] The film chronicles York's early backwoods days in Tennessee, his religious conversion and subsequent piety, his stand as a conscientious objector, and finally his actions at the Battle of the Argonne Forest, which earned him the Medal of Honor.[169][170] Initially, Cooper was nervous and uncertain about playing a living heroic figure, so he traveled to Tennessee to visit York at his home, and the two quiet men established an immediate rapport and discovered they had much in common.[171] Inspired by York's encouragement, Cooper delivered a performance that critics called "one of his best"[172] and one of "extraordinary versatility and conviction".[172] After the film's release, he was awarded the Veterans of Foreign Wars Distinguished Citizenship Medal for his "powerful contribution to the promotion of patriotism and loyalty".[173] York admired Cooper's performance and helped promote the film for Warner Bros.[174] Sergeant York became the top-grossing film of the year and was nominated for eleven Academy Awards.[173][175] Accepting his first Academy Award for Best Actor from his friend James Stewart, Cooper said, "It was Sergeant Alvin York who won this award. Shucks, I've been in the business sixteen years and sometimes dreamed I might get one of these. That's all I can say ... Funny when I was dreaming I always made a better speech."[175]

Barbara Stanwyck showing Cooper the meaning of "yum-yum" in Ball of Fire, 1941

Cooper finished up the year back at Goldwyn with Howard Hawks to make the romantic comedy Ball of Fire with Barbara Stanwyck.[176] In the film, Cooper plays a shy linguistics professor who leads a team of seven scholars who are writing an encyclopedia. While researching slang, he meets Stanwyck's flirtatious burlesque stripper Sugerpuss O'Shaw who blows the dust off their staid life of books.[177] The inventive screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder provided Cooper the opportunity to exercise the full range of his light comedy skills.[177] For her performance in the film, Stanwyck earned her second Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.[178] Though small in scale, Ball of Fire was one of the top-grossing films of the year[178]—Cooper's fourth consecutive picture to make the top twenty.[178]

Cooper's only film appearance in 1942 was also his last under his Goldwyn contract.[179] In Sam Wood's biographical film The Pride of the Yankees,[180] Cooper portrays baseball star Lou Gehrig who established a record with the New York Yankees for playing in 2,130 consecutive games.[181] Cooper was reluctant to play the seven-time All-Star, who only died the previous year from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—now commonly called "Lou Gehrig's disease".[182] In addition to the challenges of effectively portraying such a popular and nationally recognized figure, Cooper knew very little about baseball[183] and was not left-handed like Gehrig.[182] After Gehrig's widow visited the actor and expressed her desire that he portray her husband,[182] Cooper accepted the role that covered a twenty-year span of Gehrig's life—his early love of baseball, his rise to greatness, his loving marriage, and his struggle with illness, culminating in his heartrending farewell speech at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939 before 62,000 fans.[184] Cooper quickly learned the physical movements of a baseball player and developed a fluid, believable swing.[185] The handedness issue was solved by reversing the print for certain batting scenes.[186] The film was one of the year's top ten pictures[187] and received eleven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Cooper's third), and Best Actress for Teresa Wright.[115]

Ingrid Bergman and Cooper in For Whom the Bell Tolls, 1943

Soon after the publication of Ernest Hemingway's novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, Paramount paid $150,000 for the film rights with the express intent of casting Cooper in the lead role of Robert Jordon,[188] an American explosives expert who fights alongside the Republican loyalists during the Spanish Civil War.[189] The original director, Cecil B. DeMille, was replaced by Sam Wood who brought in Dudley Nichols for the screenplay.[188] After the start of principal photography in the Sierra Nevada in late 1942, Ingrid Bergman was brought in to replace ballerina Vera Zorina as the female lead—a change supported by Cooper and Hemingway.[190] Bergman delivered a superb performance, especially in her close-ups, and her love scenes with Cooper were rapturous and passionate.[191][192] While the film distorted the novel's original political themes and meaning,[193][194] For Whom the Bell Tolls was a critical and commercial success and received ten Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Cooper's fourth), and Best Actress.[192]

Cooper signing an autograph for a servicewoman in Brisbane during his tour of the South West Pacific, November 1943

Cooper did not serve in the military during World War II due to his age and health,[160] but like many of his colleagues, he got involved in the war effort by entertaining the troops.[195] In June 1943, he visited military hospitals in San Diego,[195] and often appeared at the Hollywood Canteen serving food to the servicemen.[196] In late 1943, Cooper undertook a 23,000-mile tour of the South West Pacific with actresses Una Merkel and Phyllis Brooks, and accordionist Andy Arcari.[195][196][197] Traveling on a B-24A Liberator bomber,[195] the group toured the Cook Islands, Fiji, New Caledonia, Queensland, Brisbane—where General Douglas MacArthur told Cooper he was watching Sergeant York in a Manila theater when Japanese bombs began falling[195]New Guinea, Jayapura, and throughout the Solomon Islands.[198] The group often shared the same sparse living conditions and K-rations as the troops.[199] Unable to sing or dance,[195] Cooper enjoyed meeting with the servicemen and women, visiting military hospitals, introducing his attractive colleagues, and participating in an occasional skit.[199] The shows concluded with Cooper's moving recitation of Lou Gehrig's farewell speech.[199] When he returned to the United States, he visited military hospitals throughout the country.[199] Cooper later called his time with the troops the "greatest emotional experience" of his life.[197]

Mature roles, 1944–1952[edit]

In 1944, Cooper appeared in Cecil B. DeMille's wartime adventure film The Story of Dr. Wassell with Laraine Day for Paramount—his third film with the director.[200] In the film, Cooper plays an American doctor and missionary who leads a group of wounded sailors through the jungles of Java to safety.[201] Despite receiving poor reviews, the film was one of the top-grossing films of the year.[202] With his Goldwyn and Paramount contracts now concluded, Cooper decided to remain independent and formed his own production company, International Pictures, with Leo Spitz, William Goetz, and Nunnally Johnson.[203] The fledgling studio's first offering was Sam Wood's romantic comedy Casanova Brown with Teresa Wright. In the film, Cooper plays a man who learns his soon-to-be ex-wife is pregnant with his child, just as he's about to marry another woman.[204] The overly sentimental film received poor reviews[205] and was barely profitable.[206] In 1945, Cooper starred in and produced Stuart Heisler's Western comedy film Along Came Jones (1945) with Loretta Young for International.[207] In this lighthearted parody of his past heroic image in Westerns,[208] Cooper plays comically inept cowboy Melody Jones who is mistaken for a ruthless killer.[208] For the film's location, Cooper selected Iverson Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, California, where he built a Western town later called "Iverson Village".[209][210] Audiences embraced Cooper's character, and the film was one of the top box-office pictures of the year—a testament to Cooper's still vital audience appeal.[211] It was also International's biggest financial success during its brief history before being sold off to Universal Studios in 1946.[212]

Ingrid Bergman and Cooper in Saratoga Trunk, 1945

Cooper's career in the post-war years drifted in new directions as American society was changing.[213] While he still played conventional heroic roles, his films now relied less on his heroic screen persona and character and more on novel and exotic settings and stories.[214] In November 1945, Cooper appeared in Sam Wood's romantic drama Saratoga Trunk with Ingrid Bergman for Warner Bros.[215] Filmed in early 1943, the picture's release was delayed for two years due to the increased demand for war movies.[216] In this nineteenth century period piece based on the Edna Ferber novel, Cooper plays a Texas cowboy and his ongoing relationship with a beautiful fortune-hunter.[215] While the film received poor reviews, it did well at the box office,[217] and was one of Paramount's top moneymakers of the year.[218] Cooper's only film in 1946 was Fritz Lang's romantic thriller Cloak and Dagger with Lilli Palmer for Warner Bros.[219] In the film, Cooper plays a mild-mannered physics professor who is recruited by the OSS during the last years of World War II to investigate the German atomic bomb program.[219] Playing a part based on physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer,[220] Cooper was uneasy with the role and was unable to convey the "inner sense" of the character.[221] The film was a critical and commercial failure.[222]

In 1947, Cooper appeared in Cecil B. DeMille's epic adventure film Unconquered with Paulette Goddard for Paramount.[223] In the film, Cooper plays a Virginia militiaman who defends settlers against an unscrupulous gun trader and hostile Indians on the Western frontier during the eighteenth century. The film received mixed reviews, but even long-time DeMille critic James Agee acknowledged the film had "some authentic flavor of the period".[224] This last of four films made with DeMille was Cooper's most lucrative, earning the actor over $300,000 in salary and percentage of profits.[225] Unconquered would be his last unqualified box-office success for the next five years.[224] Beginning in 1948, Cooper made several films that received poor reviews and failed at the box office. In Leo McCarey's romantic comedy Good Sam with Ann Sheridan for RKO Pictures, Cooper plays a family man determined to help others at the expense of his own family.[226] A minor comedy done in the Capra style, the film might have worked a few years earlier but came across as overly sentimental and maudlin.[227]

Cooper in The Fountainhead, 1949

After selling his company to Universal Studios, Cooper signed a long-term contract with Warner Bros. that gave him script and director approval and a guaranteed $295,000 per picture.[228] His first film under the new contract was King Vidor's drama The Fountainhead (1949) with Patricia Neal and Raymond Massey.[229] In the film, Cooper plays an idealistic and uncompromising architect who struggles to maintain his integrity and individualism in the face of societal pressures to conform to popular standards.[230] Based on the novel by Ayn Rand who also wrote the screenplay, the film's Objectivist philosophy attacks the concepts of altruism and collectivism and promotes the virtues of selfishness and individualism.[231] For most critics, Cooper was hopelessly miscast in the role of Howard Roark.[232] In his review for the New York Times, Bosley Crowther concluded he was "Mr. Deeds out of his element".[233] Cooper returned to his element in Delmer Daves' war drama Task Force (1949) with Jane Wyatt.[234] In the film, Cooper plays a retiring rear admiral who reminisces about his long career as a naval aviator and his role in the development of aircraft carriers.[234] Cooper's fine performance and the Technicolor newsreel footage supplied by the United States Navy made the film one of his most popular during this period.[235]

In the next two years, Cooper made four poorly received films. In Michael Curtiz' period drama Bright Leaf (1950) with Lauren Bacall and Patricia Neal, he plays an ambitious Southern businessman who returns to his North Carolina home town to bankrupt the aristocratic tobacco growers who once rejected him.[236] Reviewers gave Cooper high marks for his performance, but gave the film and the two female leads strong negative reviews.[237][238] Despite the critics, the film earned a respectable half million dollars in profit.[237] In Stuart Heisler's Western melodrama Dallas (1950) with Ruth Roman, Cooper plays an ex-Confederate officer who arrives in Dallas looking for the three brothers who destroyed his land and killed his family.[239] Several critics noted Cooper's age and apparent weariness on screen.[240] In Henry Hathaway's wartime comedy You're in the Navy Now (1951) with Jane Greer for 20th Century Fox, he plays a Reserve officer with little naval experience who is assigned to an experimental patrol craft manned by an equally inexperienced crew.[241] A generation too old for the part, Cooper still managed to give a winning performance in an otherwise modest film.[242] In Raoul Walsh's Western action film Distant Drums (1951) with Mari Aldon, Cooper plays an experienced Indian fighter who leads a small force into the Everglades to put down a Seminole uprising.[243] Cooper's performance was satisfactory, but the "second-string" supporting cast and the "inept storyline" provided few memorable moments.[244]

Cooper and Grace Kelly in High Noon, 1952

Cooper's most important film during the post-war years was Fred Zinnemann's Western drama High Noon (1952) with Grace Kelly for United Artists.[245] In the film, Cooper plays retiring sheriff Will Kane who is preparing to leave town on his honeymoon when he learns that an outlaw he helped put away and his three henchmen are returning to seek their revenge at noon. Unable to gain the support of the frightened townspeople, and abandoned by his young bride, Kane nevertheless stays to face the outlaws alone.[246] During the filming, Cooper was in poor health and in considerable pain from stomach ulcers.[247] His ravaged face and discomfort in some scenes photographed as self-doubt and contributed to the effectiveness of his performance.[247][248] Considered one of the first "adult" Westerns for its theme of moral courage,[249] High Noon received enthusiastic reviews for its artistry, with Time magazine placing it in the ranks of Stagecoach and The Gunfighter.[250] The film earned $3.75 million in the United States[250] and $18 million worldwide.[251] Cooper, following the example of his friend James Stewart,[252] accepted a lower salary in exchange for a percent of the profits, and ended up making $600,000.[251] Cooper's understated performance was universally acclaimed,[253][248] and earned him his second Academy Award for Best Actor.[254]

Later films, 1953–1961[edit]

Following Cooper's appearance in André de Toth's Civil War Western Springfield Rifle (1952)[255]—a standard Warner Bros. film that was overshaddowed by the success of its predecessor[256]—Cooper made four films outside the United States.[257] In Mark Robson's drama Return to Paradise (1953), Cooper plays an American wanderer who liberates the inhabitants of a Polynesian island from the puritanical rule of a misguided pastor.[258] Cooper endured spartan living conditions, exhausting hours, and ill health during the three-month location shoot on the island of Upolu in Western Samoa.[259] Despite its beautiful cinematography, the film received poor reviews.[260] Cooper's next three films were shot in Mexico.[261] In Hugo Fregonese's action adventure film Blowing Wild (1953) with Barbara Stanwyck, he plays a wildcatter in Mexico who gets involved with an oil company executive and his unscrupulous wife with whom he once had an affair.[262] In 1954, Cooper appeared in Henry Hathaway's Western drama Garden of Evil with Susan Hayward. In the film, Cooper plays one of three soldiers of fortune hired by a woman in Mexico to take her to a gold mine to rescue her husband.[263] That same year, he appeared in Robert Aldrich's Western adventure Vera Cruz with Burt Lancaster. In the film, he plays an American adventurer in Mexico hired by Emperor Maximilian I to escort a countess to Vera Cruz during the Mexican Rebellion of 1866.[264] All three of these Mexican films received poor reviews but were commercially successful.[265]

William Wyler's Friendly Persuasion (1956),[266] in which he portrays a Quaker farmer during the American Civil War, Billy Wilder's Love in the Afternoon (1957) with Audrey Hepburn,[267] and Anthony Mann's Man of the West (1958), a hard-edged action Western with Lee J. Cobb.[268] Cooper's final motion picture was the British film, The Naked Edge (1961), made in London in the autumn of 1960.[269]

Final year and death[edit]

Cooper's grave in Sacred Hearts Cemetery in Southampton, New York

On April 14, 1960, Cooper underwent surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston for prostate cancer after it had metastasized to his colon.[270] He fell ill again on May 31 and underwent further surgery at Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles in early June to remove a malignant tumor from his large intestine.[270] After recuperating over the summer, Cooper took his family on vacation to the south of France[271] before traveling to England in the fall to make his last film, The Naked Edge.[270] In December 1960, he worked on the NBC television documentary The Real West,[272] which was part of the company's Project 20 series.[273] On December 27, his wife learned from their family doctor Rexford Kennamer that Cooper's cancer had spread to his lungs and bones and was inoperable.[274] His family decided not to tell him immediately.[275]

On January 9, 1961, Cooper attended a dinner given in his honor at the Friars Club hosted by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.[272] Attended by many of his industry friends, including Sam Goldwyn, Jack Warner, Greer Garson, and Audrey Hepburn,[276] the dinner concluded with a brief speech by Cooper who said, "The only achievement I'm proud of is the friends I've made in this community." In mid-January, Cooper took his family to Sun Valley for their last vacation together.[275] While the women skied, Cooper and Hemingway hiked through the snow and talked for the last time.[277] On February 27, after returning to Los Angeles, Cooper learned that he was dying.[278] He later told his family, "We'll pray for a miracle; but if not, and that's God's will, that's all right too."[279]

On April 17, Cooper watched the Academy Awards ceremony on television and saw his good friend James Stewart, who had presented Cooper with his first Oscar years earlier, accept on Cooper's behalf an honorary award for lifetime achievement— his third Oscar.[280] Speaking to Cooper, an emotional Stewart said, "Coop, I want you to know I'll get it to you right away. With it goes all the friendship and affection and the admiration and deep respect of all of us. We're very, very proud of you, Coop."[280] The award dedication read, "To Gary Cooper for his many memorable screen performances and the international recognition he, as an individual, has gained for the motion picture industry."[281] The following day, newpapers around the world announced the news that Cooper was dying.[282] In the coming days he received numerous messages of appreciation and encouragement, including telegrams from Pope John XXIII[283] and Queen Elizabeth II,[283][284] and a phone call from President John F. Kennedy.[283][284]

On May 4, Cooper, in his last public statement, said, "I know that what is happening is God's will. I am not afraid of the future."[285] He received the last rites from Monsignor Daniel Sullivan on May 12. Cooper died quietly the following day, Saturday May 13, 1961 at 12:47 pm.[286] A requiem mass was held at the Roman Catholic Church of the Good Shepherd, attended by many of Cooper's friends, including James Stewart, Henry Hathaway, Joel McCrea, Audrey Hepburn, Jack Warner, John Ford, John Wayne, Edward G. Robinson, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Randolph Scott, Walter Pigeon, Bob Hope, and Marlene Dietrich.[287] Cooper was buried in the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.[288] In May 1974, after his family relocated to New York, Cooper's remains were exhumed and reburied in Sacred Hearts Cemetery in Southampton, New York.[289][290] His grave is marked by a massive three-ton boulder from a Montauk quarry.[289]

Personal life[edit]


Cooper was raised as a Protestant. In his fifties, he was slowly drawn to Catholicism, and became a Catholic on April 9, 1959.[291] He met Pope Pius XII at Vatican City on June 26, 1953 while touring Europe to promote High Noon.[292]

Love life[edit]

Cooper had several high-profile relationships with actresses, including Clara Bow, Lupe Vélez, Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly, Anita Ekberg, Tallulah Bankhead, and Patricia Neal.[293]

On December 15, 1933, Cooper married Veronica Balfe, a Catholic actress.[292] In 1937 the couple had a child they named Maria.[294] Some ten years after the marriage, Cooper began an affair with Patricia Neal after meeting her on the set of The Fountainhead.[295] The relationship eventually became an open secret in Hollywood, and Veronica confronted Cooper with the rumors which he admitted were true and also confessed that he was in love with Neal, and continued to see her.[296] In 1950 Neal discovered she was pregnant; Cooper arranged and paid for her to have an abortion to avoid the public scandal of having a child out of wedlock.[295][297] Cooper and his wife separated in May 1951, but he was hesitant to divorce her, fearing he would lose the respect of his daughter.[298] Neal finally ended the affair at Christmas 1951.[295][299]

Political views[edit]

Cooper was a staunch supporter of the Republican Party. He voted for Calvin Coolidge in 1924, and for Herbert Hoover in 1928 and 1932. He campaigned for Wendell Willkie in 1940.[300] In 1944 he attended a 93,000-large Republican rally in the Los Angeles Coliseum in support of the Dewey-Bricker ticket.[300][301] While filming Good Sam in October 1947, he testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities where he was asked if he had observed "communistic influence in Hollywood".[302] Cooper named no one in particular but said he had "turned down quite a few scripts because I thought they were tinged with communistic ideas".[302] He also testified that he had heard statements such as, "Don't you think the Constitution of the United States is about 150 years out of date" and, "Perhaps this would be a more efficient government without a Congress"—statements he characterized as "very un-American".[302]


Cooper's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

For his contribution to the film industry, Cooper has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6243 Hollywood Boulevard.[303] He also has a star on the sidewalk outside the Ellen Theater in Bozeman, Montana.[304]

Cooper was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City in 1966.[305] Cooper's popularity is directly responsible for the popularity of the given name Gary from the 1930s to the present day.[306]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Throughout his thirty-six year long acting career, Cooper received numerous awards and nominations, which can be seen below:

Year Award Film Result
1937 Academy Award for Best Actor[115] Mr. Deeds Goes to Town Nominated
1937 New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor Mr. Deeds Goes to Town Nominated
1941 New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor[57] Sergeant York Won
1942 Academy Award for Best Actor[115] Sergeant York Won
1943 Academy Award for Best Actor[115] The Pride of the Yankees Nominated
1944 Academy Award for Best Actor[115] For Whom the Bell Tolls Nominated
1952 Photoplay Award for Most Popular Male Star[57] High Noon Won
1953 Academy Award for Best Actor[115] High Noon Won
1953 Golden Globe Award for Best Actor[57] High Noon Won
1957 Golden Globe Award for Best Actor[57] Friendly Persuasion Nominated
1959 Laurel Award for Top Action Performance[307] The Hanging Tree Won
1960 Laurel Award for Top Action Performance[307] They Came to Cordura Won
1961 Academy Honorary Award[115] Won


The following is a list of feature films in which Cooper appeared in a leading role, excluding cameos.[308][309]


  1. ^ Cooper turned down the lead roles in Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Saboteur (1942),[137] later acknowledging he had made a mistake in both cases.[138]


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External links[edit]