GARY COOPER

Biography

(1901-1961)

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"It's not good to become a big star with your first film."
- Gary Cooper


Biography

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More than any other actor, Gary Cooper epitomized the quiet, staunch, gallant virtues of the pioneer American as portrayed in the cinema. The Western hero of The Virginian (1929) and High Noon (1952) was, in principle, not so different from the rebellious adventurer of The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) or the hick-from-the-sticks who becomes a crusading millionaire in Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936).

Within a certain range, from comedy to near-documentary drama, he was a peerless film performer. Ernest Hemingway insisted he play the lead in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) because he was the perfect Hemingway hero, a man who could fight the good fight and still retain his own integrity and dignity.

John Barrymore observed:

'That fellow is the world's greatest actor. He can do with no effort what the rest of us spent years trying to learn - to be perfectly natural.'

Certainly he was one of the first actors who achieved an instant rapport with the camera.

At the height of his popularity in the Thirties and Forties, he tended to be regarded as a 'personality' actor, who always played the same role in different settings. Later, his performances were reassessed. Because he appeared so 'natural', the public and even the critics believed he was simply playing himself. But, as countless stars have said, playing yourself is the most difficult art in the cinema.

high noon

© Paramount

He was born in 1901, the son of British immigrants. His father was a judge who owned a ranch. Gary was christened Frank, the name Gary being bestowed on him later by an agent. They lived in Helena, Montana, which Cooper remembered when it was a goldmining town - called Last Chance Gulch. During the making of his penultimate film, The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959), he reminisced about the old days:

'I saw a gunfight once; a couple of characters had had a fight, gone home and thought about it, then they met up in town and shot it out. My pal and I were standing on the street outside the saloon. Darn near got shot, too.'

He never liked the idea of Westerns which were based on the legend of the fastest draw:

'Wyatt Earp, now, he hardly ever shot a man. But he frequently used to hit them between the eyes with the butt of his pistol. Don't know how he got away with it.'

He learned to sit tall in the saddle because of a road accident which damaged his hip. The doctor advised him that the best therapy would be horse-riding, a pastime at which he became skilled.

During his time at college - where he also developed his skill as a cartoonist - he thought he'd like to join the staff of a newspaper. By then his parents were living in Los Angeles, and Cooper was strolling down Hollywood Boulevard when he met a couple of chums who were playing extra roles in cheap Westerns for $10 a day. He decided to join them.

From 1925 Cooper appeared briefly in countless films. Then in 1927, Clara Bow - who had been having a much-publicized romance with Cooper - managed to secure him a minor role in Wings, directed by William Wellman, where he played an easy-going but doomed young flyer in World War I. The idea of heroically dying for one's country and the philosophy that what will be will be, were easy for Cooper to convey. In barely more than five minutes screen time he communicated a magnetism that made the audience sit up and take notice.

Paramount signed him up and he worked non-stop. As the uncompromising lawman in The Virginian (1929) he followed the code of good versus bad, allowing no deviation in his search for justice. It was in this film that he coined that famous misquoted phrase 'when you call me that, smile!' Cooper believed that this was his best Western although:

'I like The Plainsman, the one I did for Cecil B. Demille. But, of course, it was romanticized. Wild Bill Hickok, the character I played, wasn't really a very nice man.'

He then co-starred with Marlene Dietrich in Morocco (1930) but loathed Josef von Sternberg who was only concerned about how his protegee, Dietrich, would look.

Hollywood really didn't know what to do with Cooper in the Thirties. Incredibly handsome, he also conveyed a toughness that was eveident in his eyes. Helen Hayes, who co-starred with him in the first film version of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (1932) - remembers him as 'the most beautiful man I have ever met'.

In 1936 he established a professional relationship with director Frank Capra which extended from the classic Mr Deed Goes to Town (1941). The characters remained true to type and true to Cooper: men of integrity faced with the nauseous machinations of big business or big politics.

In 1941 Cooper won his first Oscar for his performance as the conscientious objector who becomes a war hero in Sergeant York, and in Ball of Fire (also 1941) he put his shy manner to fine use in a comedy role in which he played a meek professor researching slang who pursues a gangster's moll and finds himself in trouble.

high noon

© Paramount

The Fountainhead (1949), based on Ayn Rand's novel about an idealistic architect and his fight against big business, was a turning point in his private life. Married to a New York socialite Veronica Baife since 1933, he found himself in love with his co-star Patricia Neal, but Cooper's wife - being an ardent Catholic - would not give him a divorce. In 1951 the romance, a very discreet affair, was over. In the meantime Warners starred Cooper in action films such as Task Force (1949), a routine naval drama, because they felt that the public would not accept Cooper in his usual spotless-hero guise until the adverse publicity died down.

After a period in the doldrums, he won his second Oscar for his performance in High Noon (1952) which revitalized his screen career. He couldn't quite understand why:

'It was just a good story of the policeman who had to do a job and the townsfolk who were prepared to let him do it alone. But it was a good script and we had a fine director. Fred Zinnemann. I really didn't see it as a psychological Western.'

In the last two years of his life he was surprised that he should be regarded as a Western hero, not having made many Westerns. He recalled with more affection films like The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955), about an American general brought before a judicial court for accusing the war department of criminal negligence, and Ten North Frederick (1958), where the members of a dead man's family look back on the events of his life. In both films Cooper played characters wrestling with the realities of contemporary life.

Before he died in 1961, he was awarded an honorary Oscar for his services to the film industry. As a screen actor, Cooper had the same fundamental idea as all the great stars:

'You have to go through the mill first. It's not good to become a big star with your first film. An actor has to have lived a little.'

Cooper lived a lot and died too soon.



Filmography
M O V I E S

1923

- Blind Justice

1925

- The Thundering Herd
- Wild Horse Mesa
- The Lucky Horseshhoe
- The Vanishing American
- The Eagle
- Tricks
- Lightnin' WWins (short)

1926

- Three Pals
- The Enchanted Hilt - Watch Your Wife
- The Winning of Barbara Worth

1927

- It
- Children of Divorce
- Arizona Bound
- Wings
- The Last Outlaw
- Nevada

1928

- Beau Sabreur
- Doomsday
- Legion of the Condemned
- Haifa Bride
- The First Kiss
- Lilac Time
- The Shopworn Angel

1929

- Wolf Song
- Betrayal
- The Virginian

1930

- Seven Days Leave/Medals
- Only the Brave
- Paramount on Parade
- The Texan
- A Man from Wyoming
- The Spoilers
- Morocco

1931

- Fighting Caravans
- City Streets-- I Take This Woman
- His Woman

1932

- Make Me a Star (guest)
- Devil and the Deep
- If I Had a Million
- A Farewell to Arms
- The Stolen Jools (guest) (short)
- Voice of Hollywood (guest) (short)

1933

- Today We Live
- One Sunday Afternoon
- Alice in Wonderland
- Design for Living

1934

- Operator 13
- Now and Forever

1935

- The Lives of a Bengal Lancer
- Starrr Night at the Cocoanut Grove (guest)
- The Wedding Night
- Peter Ibbetson

1936

- Desire
- La Fiesta de Santa Barbara (guest)
- Mr Deeds Goes to Town
- Hollywood Boulevard (guest)
- The General Died at Dawn
- The Plainsman

1937

- Lest We Forget (guest) (short)
- Souls at Sea

1938

- The Adventures of Marco Polo
- Blueebeard's Eighth Wife
- The Cowboy and the Lady

1939

- Beau Geste
- The Real Glory

1940

- The Westerner
- North West Mounted Police

1941

- Meet John Doe
- Sergeant York
- Ball of Fire

1942

- The Pride of the Yankees

1943

- For Whom the Bell Tolls

1944

- Memo for Joe (guest) (short)
- The Story of Dr Wassell
- Casanova Brown

1945

- Along Came Jones (+ prod)
- Saratoga Trunk (begun in '43)

1946

- Cloak and Dagger

1947

- Variety Girl (guest)
- Unconqueredd

1948

- Good Sam

1949

- The Fountainhead
- Snow Carnival (guest) (short)
- It's a Great Feeling (guest)
- Task Force

1950

- Bright Leaf
- Dallas
- It's a Big Country

1951

- You're in the Navy Now/USS Teakettle
- Starlift (guest)
- Distant Drums

1952

- High Noon
- Springfield Rifle

1953

- Return to Paradise
- Blowing Wild

1954

- Garden of Evil
- Vera Cruz

1955

- The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell- Hollywood Mothers (guest) (short)

1956

- Friendly Persuasion

1957

- Love in the Afternoon

1958

- Ten North Frederick
- Man of the West
- The Hanging Tree

1959

- Alias Jesse James (guest)
- They Came to Cordura
- The Wreck of the Mary Deare

1961

- The Naked Edge
- The Real West (TV doc) (narr. only)

1976

- Hollywood on Trial (featured in doc. footage)


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