- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 4, 2011

LOS ANGELES (AP) - With his boyish looks and his thick head of blond hair, Jackie Cooper seemed to be eternally young. He was “Skippy,” taking the popular comic strip character to the big screen in a turn that would garner a best actor Oscar nod at age 9.

Cooper remained the youngest player to be nominated for that category, an accolade that he likely didn’t care much about at the time: The handsome kid with the winning smile fell asleep during the ceremony in the lap of another nominee, Marie Dressler.

It was that honesty that kept Cooper grounded about life in the spotlight and the realities of being a working actor, whether he was starring in films or TV shows, or behind the scenes as a director or studio honcho.

“He was a fascinating guy who really did everything, from all different aspects of the business,” said his son, Russell Cooper. “You can’t really say that about many people.”

Jackie Cooper, 88, died Tuesday at a nursing facility in Santa Monica, Calif., said his other son, John.

Cooper reigned with Shirley Temple as one of the most popular child stars of the 1930s. Starting in comedy shorts, he rose to top ranks with “Skippy,” a sentimental adaptation of a popular comic strip. He followed with such hits as “The Champ,” “The Bowery,” “Treasure Island” and “O’Shaughnessy’s Boy,” all co-starring Wallace Beery.

With his career fading after World War II, Cooper left Hollywood for the New York theater. He returned to Hollywood and starred in two successful situation comedies, “The People’s Choice” (1955-58) and “Hennessey” (1959-62). He appeared as a Navy doctor in “Hennessey,” which he also produced and directed.

“I think it’s tough to direct and star in a feature,” he commented in a 1971 interview. “Either the direction or the performance will suffer. But an actor can direct himself in television. I found it essential to relieve the crushing boredom of starring in a series.”

He directed more than 250 half-hour and hour-long series episodes, 16 two-hour movies and numerous pilots and commercials. At one point, he vowed he would never act again. But he returned for an occasional role, most notably as gruff Daily Planet editor Perry White in Christopher Reeves’ four “Superman” movies.

“He managed to change with the business,” said his son John. “Early in his life, he experienced the kind of success that many people do not have, if they have that kind of success at all, until much later.”

Jackie had a memorable bit in the 1929 musical “Sunny Side Up” and appeared in eight of the popular “Our Gang” comedies, including “Pups Is Pups” and “Teacher’s Pet.” Those credits led to a test that won him the title role of “Skippy.”

The director of the 1931 film was his uncle, Norman Taurog. A crucial scene called for Jackie to cry. The tears wouldn’t come, and Taurog became angry. He called the boy’s beloved dog a nuisance and said he would send it to the pound. Jackie threw a tantrum, infuriating the director.

“If you don’t do what I say, I’ll have the policeman shoot the dog,” Taurog threatened, pointing to the armed security guard.

The tears flowed, and the scene was filmed, and Taurog went on to win the Oscar for best director. Fifty years later, Cooper titled his autobiography, “Please Don’t Shoot My Dog.”

He was born John Cooper Jr. on Sept. 15, 1922, in Los Angeles. His Jewish father, who ran a music store, had married an Italian musician, Mabel Leonard, but deserted her when their son was 2. Destitute, his mother found work at Fox studio as a secretary. Through her brother-in-law, Taurog, she was able to arrange extra work in movies for young Jackie.

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