Startling Facts About Jackie Coogan, The Tragic Child Superstar

August 1, 2023 | Nur Karageldi

Startling Facts About Jackie Coogan, The Tragic Child Superstar

Jackie Coogan broke out as Charlie Chaplin's miniature sidekick in The Kid, then ended his career as the zappy Uncle Fester of The Addams Family. But there is a sinister twist to his life story, and, contrary to his famous films and shows, this one is R-rated. Get ready for some startling facts about Jackie Coogan.

1. It Was His Destiny To Be An Artist

Born John Leslie Coogan, “Jackie” had no chance but to become an artist. His father John and mother Lillian were both actors; in particular, his mother had been a child star in her own day. As a result, Jackie came into the world, and his parents instantly started prepping him for the stage. In fact, they had a brilliant and dangerous idea.

jackie coogan

2. His First Stage Appearance Was Bizarre

The family business was in vaudeville, and the Coogans loved to perform comedic songs and dances on stage. They knew just what to do with Jackie. Everybody loves a baby, so they plopped him in front of an audience when he was just an infant, making him part of their act.

It worked very well. Maybe a little too well.

Jackie Coogan FactsWikimedia Commos

3. He Was A Natural

It became clear to everyone who saw little Jackie on stage that he was what show business called a triple threat. But he had something more. Not only could he sing, dance, and act, he was also full of charm and possessed a wide, guileless face. By the age of five, the little dynamo was even performing at the Orpheum theatre...and that's when his life completely changed.

Jackie Coogan FactsWikimedia Commons

4. He “Shimmied” His Way Into Fame

One night at the Orpheum, destiny came for Jackie Coogan. While the little boy was performing the popular dance move the "shimmy," a very important person was watching from the audience, rapt with the rapscallion. None other than Charlie Chaplin witnessed Jackie's charm, and knew he had to use him somehow.

This one little dance move kickstarted an enormous change for Coogan. One that would define his life.

Buster Keaton EditorialFlickr

5. He Had A Breakout Role

Chaplin soon signed on Coogan for a major part in his upcoming film The Kid, where Jackie would star alongside the silent film legend as the titular kid. To say it was a breakout role would be an understatement; the part turned Jackie Coogan into the first true child star in film history. Yet there is a heartbreaking detail to Coogan's Kid role that few know about.

Jackie Coogan FactsWikimedia Commons

6. He Was Witness To Chaplin's Greatest Tragedy

The Kid is an enormous part of Coogan's legacy today, but the film has a dark secret at its heart. Coogan and Chaplin's characters have a deep, lasting relationship in the film, and film historians believe Chaplin focused on this bond while shooting because he had lost his own infant son just days before filming began.

It was the first tragedy Coogan was ever connected with. It would not be his last.

Charlie Chaplin FactsWikimedia Commons

7. He Became An Icon

Coogan came out of The Kid as the most famous child in the world, and even bigger parts, like playing Oliver in 1922's Oliver Twist, quickly came his way. He was now just eight years old, and he was everywhere: His face adorned scads of merchandise, from peanut butter jars to stationery. Yet this early fame came with a huge, disturbing downside.

Jackie Coogan FactsWikimedia Commons

8. His Life Was Unreal

During these years, Coogan raked in an unfathomable amount of money—multiple millions, to be exact. And although he wasn't able to really spend any of it until he turned 21, the little boy was certainly aware of his fame and success. He quickly grew a diva attitude match, once saying, "Other boys went to see Babe Ruth. Babe Ruth came to see me".

But even his healthy ego didn’t save him from one harrowing event.

Jackie Coogan FactsWikimedia Commons

9. He Nearly Died

During his mega-famous childhood, Coogan was in the middle of a terrifying disaster. In November 1920, a car he was a passenger in crashed into a tree. While his fellow riders were mostly safe, Coogan didn't get so lucky. His injury, a skull fracture, was so serious that medics thought he wouldn't make it, and were in awe of his recovery.

But there was another turning point in Coogan's future.

Jackie Coogan FactsWikimedia Commons

10. He Had A Difficult Transition

Coogan's young fame continued well into the 1920s, but by the 1930s, he had turned into a gangly teen, with little traces of the cherubic boy people had fallen in love with in The Kid. As a result, his star began to fade, and he booked fewer and fewer jobs. But don't go thinking Coogan left behind the drama. Instead, it exploded.

Jackie Coogan FactsWikimedia Commons

11. There Was A Second Car Crash

In May of 1935, Coogan was 20 years old and driving back home from a day of dove hunting with his father, best friend, and a few others. Then it all went so wrong again: Coogan's father, trying to avoid an oncoming vehicle, swerved off the mountain highway. The results were catastrophic.

Jackie Coogan FactsWikimedia Commons

12. He Kept Losing Loved Ones

This misty day in May became the “single saddest day” of Coogan's life. Coogan miraculously managed to survive this second car accident, but no one else did. In that one instant, he lost both his father and his best friend, plus some trusted adults. Most of the people he called family were no more, yet the horrible news just kept on coming for Coogan.

Jackie Coogan FactsWikimedia Commons

13. He Had A Cruel Birthday

In October of 1935, just five months after his father perished in the car accident, Coogan turned 21 at last. Remember: This was the magic year that would give Coogan full access at last to the massive amounts of money he'd made during his time as a child star. Thankfully, his father had always managed the money well, and Coogan believed it was all still in tact.

But if he thought it was going to be smooth sailing from here on out, all I can tell you is he was very wrong.

Jackie Coogan FactsWikimedia Commons

14. He Got A New Stepfather In Record Time

The car accident threw Coogan's surviving relatives into a tailspin of grief, but he couldn't have possibly been prepared for the next nasty surprise. Just a bare year after the accident, his mother Lillian re-married, this time walking down the aisle to a man named Arthur Bernstein. Still, this story gets more unpleasant.

Jackie Coogan FactsWikimedia Commons

15. His Mother Married His Business Manager

In case it wasn't weird enough to watch his mother move on so quickly from his father's violent demise, Coogan's new stepfather also came with baggage of his own. Namely, Bernstein had been—and still was—the Coogans' financial advisor, and had helped caretake all Jackie's money. If that sound ominous to you, well, hold onto your hat.

Jackie Coogan FactsWikimedia Commons

16. His Mother Denied Him

Shortly after his momentous 21st birthday, Coogan decided that yes, he'd very much like access to his money please. The answered horrified him. His mother and evil stepfather refused to let him have it. They claimed that his acting was just "playing," and that "No promises were ever made to give Jackie anything".

In fact, his mother even called him a "bad boy" to justify her stealing his earnings. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Jackie Coogan FactsWikimedia Commons

17. His Family Took Advantage Of Him

Not content to deprive Jackie of his money, his mother and stepfather also started spending it with alarming enthusiasm. Together, the blew through the fund, buying fur coats, enormous jewels, and luxury cars, all while Jackie didn't see a cent of it. Some of Coogan's last family members on Earth had betrayed him, and he saw only one painful way forward.


Jackie Coogan FactsWikimedia Commons

18. He Sued His Own Mother

Brought to the end of his rope, Coogan made a difficult decision: He went ahead with a lawsuit against his own mother for the money he was owed, or at least what was still remaining in his accounts. It fired up the entire nation, with the New York Herald Tribune quipping that "Mr and Mrs Bernstein will never be serious contenders for the title of Mr and Mrs America".

Yet just as the trial was heating up, something unexpected occurred.

Jackie Coogan FactsWikimedia Commons

19. He Crossed Paths With A Pin-Up Girl

In the midst of his mommy issues, against all odds, Coogan fell in love. Yes, his timing was horrible, but his taste wasn’t. He fell in with the famous pin-up girl and actress Betty Grable, who was one of the most beautiful women in a city full of beautiful women.

Reeling from the emotional blow of his mother’s betrayal, Coogan plunged in headfirst with Grable. Maybe he should have looked before he leaped.

Betty Grable FactsWikimedia Commons

20. He Tied The Knot

They say love is the best medicine, and Coogan took that to heart. Before long, he had proposed to Grable, and Hollywood’s newest “power couple” made it official in a ceremony in November of 1937. For a time, they were happy…but Coogan couldn’t control the train wreck that was the rest of his life, and other problems soon flared up.

Betty Grable FactsGetty Images

21. He Went Broke

As Coogan's case against his mother and stepfather dragged on, he had to face a heartbreaking reality. Lawyers were expensive, and—given the nature of his case—he didn't exactly have access to much money. Soon enough, Coogan realized he was broke, with barely enough support himself, let alone his new wife. So he made a desperate plea.

Jackie Coogan FactsWikimedia Commons

22. Charlie Chaplin Gave Him A Heartwarming Gift

Miserable and dejected, Coogan went to his old father figure, Charlie Chaplin, for financial help. Chaplin, who grew up poor and knew what the film-making grind was like, immediately handed over his old friend a hefty $1,000 to help with the court fees. But neither Chaplin nor his money could save Coogan from the emotional and physical devastation that was on the horizon.

Alma Rubens FactsFlikr, Insomnia Cured Here

23. He Was Deteriorating

The gruesome court battle was destroying Coogan. His sorrow not only took away his sparkly childhood memories, but he also started to lose his beautiful, light hair that had been beloved since his first appearance on the big screen. He could no longer recognize the bald man in the mirror...but this was actually the least of his problems.

Jackie Coogan FactsGetty Images

24. He Had A Monkey On His Back

Discovering that your own mother has selfishly spent all of your earnings will do a number on you, and it certainly did a number on Coogan. Around this time, he took up drinking like it was an Olympic sport, and was very clearly suffering from depression brought on by all the betrayal and stress.

But when his case finally came to an end, it was like nothing he had predicted.

Jackie Coogan FactsWikimedia Commons

25. He Had A Bill Named After Him

In the year 1939, Jackie Coogan made history. The court battle with his mother finally ended with Coogan as the victor. With the ruling came the "Coogan Act," which stopped greedy guardians from fleecing their child actors. It was one of Coogan's biggest contributions to society, but there was an underbelly to all this you wouldn't believe.

Jackie Coogan FactsWikimedia Commons

26. He Got A Nasty Reveal

Coogan should have been triumphant at the closing of his court case, but the truth is he didn't have much to be triumphant about. His lawyers' fees were astronomical, but more than that, by the time he finally did gain access to his fund, his mother and stepfather had all but cleared it out.

Out of the multi-millions he started with, he only ever saw $126,000. Then there were the less obvious wounds.

Jackie Coogan FactsWikimedia Commons

27. He Never Trusted His Mother Again

After the court battle, Coogan and his mother were never the same. Although he kept in contact with her throughout the rest of his life, he never forgot the harsh lesson she taught him. When giving advice to other child stars, Coogan spoke four poisonous words. He would adamantly say, "stay away from mothers".

It wasn't easy for Coogan to trust women again, and he was about to go through devastating experience with another woman in his life.

Jackie Coogan FactsWikimedia Commons

28. He Had A Miserable Divorce

Coogan's court case may have wrapped up, but the rest of his life was falling apart. On the verge of his second anniversary with Betty Grable, Coogan and his pin-up girl finally came to terms with their failing marriage. With Coogan depressed, drinking, and stressed all the time, the last two years had been full of misery, and there was no way for them to shake it off.

The couple filed for divorce on October 11, 1939. Coogan went right on the rebound.

Robert Harrison factsWikipedia

29. He Sought Out Danger

Shortly after his divorce, WWII really began heating up in Europe. Single and restless, Coogan decided to join the US Army, eventually becoming a Glider Pilot sent in to do dangerous missions. Yes, Coogan was still in his 20s and already acting like he was in a full-blown mid-life crisis. Apparently, child stardom will do that do you.

Unfortunately, his next actions didn't help matters.

Jackie Coogan FactsWikimedia Commons

30. He Met Someone

Around this time, Coogan still liked to indulge in his old Hollywood lifestyle, and frequented many Los Angeles clubs for a late-night tipple. While schmoozing around at the Florentine Gardens Revue one evening, he met and fell for a serving girl named Flower Parry.

She was nearly a decade younger than him and still a teenager, but the Coogans weren't famous for rational decision-making. In fact, Coogan was about to make another ill-advised choice.

Jackie Coogan FactsGetty Images


31. He Didn’t Waste Any Time

Despite one failed marriage under his belt, Coogan decided the second time was the charm. On August 10, 1941, Coogan took off his military uniform and put on a tuxedo, marrying the 19-year-old Parry in the blink of an eye. It was a fast love, fast marriage, and even faster honeymoon; Coogan went back to his training camp a day after their wedding.

Then again, there might have been a big reason for his haste.

Jackie Coogan FactsGetty Images

32. His Bride Had A Secret

Though an outsider probably couldn't tell, on the day of their wedding Flower Parry was very likely pregnant. After all, she gave birth to a son, John Anthony Coogan, less than seven months after their church bells rang. Like it or not, Coogan now had a small, young family to support. But life wasn't done throwing him curveballs.

Jackie Coogan FactsGetty Images

33. He Neglected His Family

Just months after Coogan married Parry, Pearl Harbor happened and the United States plunged into WWII. Suddenly Coogan was too busy performing fighting duties to be around the house much anymore, even though this was exactly when his wife and son needed him the most. And when he could get away from the fight, his actions were far from honorable.

Jackie Coogan FactsGetty Images

34. He Did His Wife Dirty

When Coogan did go back into town, his first priority had more to do with popping champagne than changing diapers. In fact, his young wife often read about him being out at Hollywood nightclubs and on benders for days on end, yet when he'd finally show up at their doorstep, he'd lie and tell her he'd just gotten in.

In June 1943, Parry had enough and divorced him. Still, Coogan didn’t take this as a wake up call. In a way, he just regressed further.

Jackie Coogan FactsGetty Images

35. He Made A Comeback

After WWII, the world changed, yet Coogan’s love for acting didn’t. So he packed his suitcase and returned his uniform, ready to get back on the big screen. He already knew there was no real way to get back to the sweet little boy he once was in The Kid. Instead, he asked: Did Hollywood want a bald man with many battle scars to his name? At first, that answer crushed him.

Jackie Coogan FactsGetty Images

36. He Suffered A Big Disappointment

When Coogan came home, his job hunt didn’t go as well as he had hoped. In the 1950s, he only landed on small roles for TV shows. He faced a cold, hard truth. The child mega star had officially become a C-list actor in Hollywood. So Coogan did what he did best: He tried to survive. He played in as many shows as he could...and then his second big break came along.

Jackie Coogan FactsGetty Images

37. He Finally Scored Another Iconic Role

In 1964, after years and years of grinding, Coogan landed the role that would make him a household name twice over. He played the exuberant Uncle Fester in ABC's sitcom The Addams Family. 

Although he was now approaching middle-age, Coogan still retained some of that impish spark that had made him famous all those years ago, and it was perfect for the prank-loving Addams uncle. Ironically, Uncle Fester was also famous for his bald look—so at last Coogan could accept his shiny dome completely. But Coogan had an even deeper connection to the part.

Addams Family FactsThe Addams Family,MGM Television

38. He Thought He Was A Monster

By the time Coogan was portraying Uncle Fester, his life had put him through the absolute ringer. In fact, his personal journey from childhood to adulthood seemed to mirror his professional trajectory. As he once jokingly said of his time as Uncle Fester, “I used to be the most beautiful child in the world and now I'm a hideous monster”.

Jokes aside, however Coogan once confessed that Fester was his favorite role ever, even above his breakout part in The Kid.

Addams Family FactsThe Addams Family,MGM Television

39. He Had Another Failed Marriage

There seems to be a pattern in Coogan’s life—in stages of his life where he didn't know what to do, he stepped into marriage. In 1946, when he was still struggling to make it as an adult actor, he married his third wife, Ann McCormack. She became the mother of Coogan’s second child, Joann Dolliver Coogan.

Yet, like so many of his other marriages, this one imploded. After five years, the pair parted ways in 1951. Only at long last, Coogan was about to have a lucky romantic break.

Jackie Coogan FactsGetty Images

40. He Found His Soulmate On The Fourth Try

They say that the fourth time is the charm, and this proved true for Jackie Coogan, too. When he met Dorothea Hanson, a gorgeous dancer, it was love at first sight. Then again, with Jackie, it usually was, so it surprised no one when the couple married in April 1952, not long after his last divorce came through. What did surprise them came next.

Jackie Coogan FactsGetty Images

41. He Had Four Kids And Four Wives

With Hanson, Coogan had finally found something lasting. The couple went on to have two children together...and no divorce. They had a happy and successful marriage, and were together until the end of Coogan's days. Sadly, though, Coogan was about to find out that those days were tragically numbered.

Jackie Coogan FactsGetty Images

42. He Body Began Giving Up

Food for thought: If you went through kidnappers, car accidents, and hazardous army duties, would you be able to go back from all that? Well, Coogan couldn’t. The distress in his soul diffused to his body. By the time he was middle-aged, he suffered from a long history of heart trouble, and he even had a couple of strokes. Eventually, the writing was on the wall.

Jackie Coogan FactsGetty Images

43. His Heart Couldn’t Handle It Anymore

Jackie Coogan had delighted audiences since he was an infant, but the little rapscallion didn't get to delight them very long as an adult. When he was just 69 years old, the grim reaper—and his battered heart—came for him. He passed from heart failure in 1984 in Santa Monica, California. Nonetheless, he had one more show business twist for his fans.

Jackie Coogan FactsWikimedia Commons

44. He Had A Public Funeral

Coogan loved his fans. After all, he shared his childhood, his family feuds, and his marriages with them. So, as his final act, he wanted to share his funeral with them, too. He had a public funeral, where his co-star John Astin, who played Gomez Addams in The Addams Family, delivered his eulogy.

His body now rests at the Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.

Addams Family FactsThe Addams Family,MGM Television

45. He Reunited With An Old Friend

In 1972, Coogan experienced one of the proudest moments of his life. That year, his old co-star Charlie Chaplin received a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars, and had come over to America after long years in exile. Coogan hadn't seen the screen legend in decades, and must have wondered how the reunion would go. The answer? Adorably.

D.W. Griffith FactsWikipedia

46. Charlie Chaplin Remembered Him

Coogan was in a line with a group of other people greeting Chaplin at the airport, but the elder actor met most of these people with polite yet cold handshakes. When he got to Coogan, everything changed. The funny legend was excited to see his precious, talented boy. As he approached Coogan, he said, “You know, I think I would rather see you than anybody else”.

Jackie Coogan FactsWikimedia Commons

47. He Was A College Boy

When his career was going down as an adolescent, Coogan tried his hand at school, eventually attending Santa Clara University. While there, he befriended Brooke Hart, the son of a prominent department store owner in San Jose, California. It was the beginning of an enormous scandal. That's because in an instant, Hart and Coogan's lives turned into a national nightmare.

Jackie Coogan FactsWikimedia Commons

48. His Friend Went Through A Tragedy

In November of 1933, Coogan's friend Hart was kidnapped. That was far from all: His alleged kidnappers, two white men named Thomas Harold Thurmond and John M Holmes, made several phone calls to the family demanding $40,000 in ransom money. Everyone, Coogan especially, prayed for Hart's safe return. That’s not what happened.

Jackie Coogan FactsWikimedia Commons

49. He Discovered A Horrible Truth

A week after the kidnapping, authorities detained Thurmond and Holmes as the kidnappers of Brooke Hart—and that's when the men made a disturbing revelation. They told officers that they'd killed Hart before they even made their first ransom call to his family.

Jackie Coogan was beyond devastated to learn of his friend’s end, but he didn't sit idle. His grief led him to a chilling act.

Jackie Coogan FactsWikimedia Commons

50. He Got Vengeance

In response to Hart's violent passing, Coogan was part of a bloodthirsty revenge plot. Shortly after learning the authorities had Hart’s assailants in custody, a mob broke into the penitentiary, took the two men, and hung them from a tree. According to reports, Coogan was one of the men in the group; witnesses saw him at the scene of the violence, holding the rope.

It was an event Coogan would never get out of his head…but another horrific one was just around the corner.

Jackie Coogan FactsWikimedia Commons

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

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