Red-Blooded Facts About Gary Cooper, The American Cowboy

Fame is fleeting for most people, but then again most people aren’t Gary Cooper. This American heartthrob spent most of his life as a renowned movie star, with Cooper immortalizing his name through slick appearances on the silver screen. But behind the camera, Cooper’s controversial behavior made for a scandalous legacy. Tormented artist, rampant womanizer, and legendary film star: raise your glass to these 42 star-spangled facts about Gary Cooper, the American heartthrob.

Gary Cooper Facts

1. The Robert Downey Jr. of his Day

Cooper’s star power and his box office clout were so impressive that in 1939, the United States Treasury listed Cooper as the highest-paid man in the United States.

2. Renaissance Man

Aside from acting, Cooper was a jack of all trades. Whenever his schedule allowed, Cooper was busy learning new things about all kinds of fields. We’re not just talking about practical skills like auto mechanics or outdoor survival skills either. Cooper was also interested in astronomy, music, farming, photography, and even taxidermy.

3. Thirst Motivated

Few women could resist Gary Cooper’s noble cowboy persona. The wild child actress Tallulah Bankhead famously said that she only came to Hollywood so that she could hook up with “that divine Gary Cooper.” Cooper was also known for fooling around with nearly every single one of his attractive co-stars. This made for some, er, interesting movie sets (more on this later).

4. That’s Gotta Hurt

Like all film stars, Cooper turned down his fair share of projects. While most rejections were probably good decisions, Cooper made one enormous mistake. He decided not to take the role of Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. He even said that the movie would be “the biggest flop in Hollywood history. I’m glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling flat on his nose, not me.”

5. Turn of the Century

The man we know as Gary Cooper was actually born as “Frank James Cooper” on May 7, 1901. Although he was a Montana boy by birth, his parents were British immigrants named Charles and Alice Cooper.

6. Something Heartwarming

When Gary Cooper was a young man, he acted alongside a silent film star whose name is lost to history. Years later, when Cooper was an established actor, he was walking through Paramount’s studio lot when he noticed a tragic sight: His former colleague wandering aimlessly nearby. She was a huge star in the silent film era, but her career plummeted with the arrival of talkies.

The rest of Hollywood turned their backs, though Cooper responded with a heartrending gesture. He took one look at her and hurried after her, embracing her like an old friend. He spent the rest of his day catching up with his ex-colleague, and even offered to help resurrect her career in film.

7. Permanent Damage

When Cooper was still a teenager, tragedy struck. The young man was involved in a dreadful car accident from which he never fully recovered. Fans of Cooper’s films will know that, despite his immense talent, there was one thing he couldn’t help but bring to work. Every Cooper character walked with a slight limp because of the horrible car accident Cooper survived in his youth.

8. Good Guy Gary

Despite Cooper’s varied film career, one consistent trait found in his starring roles was that he was always playing the noble character, the one who did the right thing even when everyone else did the wrong thing. This desire to be the moral center can be found in a moment when Cooper, while talking with a screenwriter who was crafting a character for him, gave him the simple instruction “Just make me the hero.”

9. The Life I Didn’t Plan For

The great irony of Cooper’s life is that he never intended to become a Hollywood movie star. His original passion was visual arts, and he showed great promise early on with watercolors and sketch drawing. Acting was a career he just fell into while he was busy taking part-time jobs to save up for an art course that he wanted to take.

10. Thanks, Clara

Gary Cooper was a ladies’ man from the start, with his sex appeal playing a major role in his career. The iconic actress Clara Bow fell head over heels for Cooper, demanding that he play her love interest onscreen (and presumably behind the camera as well). In fact, Cooper really owes Bow a big favor: she was instrumental in getting him his famous role in Wings. 

11. Openhanded to a Fault

There’s an argument to be made that Cooper was the Tom Hanks of his day, not just because of his bankability or his revered acting. He was also a famously generous man. Actor Karl Malden often told an anecdote from when he worked with Cooper on The Hanging Tree. According to the contracts, Cooper’s name went above the film’s title on the posters, while Malden’s was under it. However, Cooper used his clout as a producer to let Malden get his name up alongside Cooper’s instead.

12. A New Name

When Cooper first entered the film industry as a stuntman, his agent warned him that he couldn’t use his first name. Unfortunately for Cooper, there was already a “Frank Cooper” working. As an alternative, his agent suggested that he could use the name “Gary,” which was the name of her hometown. Incredibly, Cooper was the first person to ever use “Gary” as a first name. His movie stardom popularized it from then on.

13. Hired on the Spot

Few people know that Gary Cooper’s big break into the acting business was a total fluke. He landed the leading role in The Winning of Barbara Worth because the original actor never showed up for work.

14. Happy to Oblige

In 1942, Cooper starred in Pride of the Yankees as Lou Gehrig, who tragically died of ALS just the year before. Cooper’s interest in the role wasn’t driven by a love of Gehrig’s baseball career, however. He knew virtually nothing about the sport. What inspired Cooper to pursue the role was an utterly heartbreaking visit. 

Gehrig’s widow told Cooper that if anyone was going to play her husband in a film, she wanted it to be him. Cooper compassionately agreed to pursue the role. It became one of his most enduring and emotional performances.

15. Two Legends Hanging Out

One of Cooper’s closest friends was the famed American author Ernest Hemingway. Even though the men never agreed on politics, they bonded over their love of hunting and fishing, with Cooper starring in several film adaptations of Hemingway’s novels. But their friendship has a dark side: In a haunting parallel, Hemingway took his own life just a month after Cooper’s own death.

16. Doing the Right Thing…

Cooper’s onscreen persona of the noble hero wasn’t completely unfounded. In 1951, during the Red Scare, one of Cooper’s Hollywood friends was persecuted for having been a member of the Communist Party. Cooper went to bat for his friend, even though he was threatened with being blacklisted. Cooper also made sure that his friend continued to get screenwriting work and continued to get onscreen credits on the films he wrote.

17. From the Right Wing

Regarding the above story, it’s worth pointing out that Cooper was famously opposed to communism. In the 1940s, Cooper helped co-found the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, which was devoted to keeping both communist and fascist ideals out of American cinema. During the Red Scare, Cooper testified that he’d turned down several scripts because they were too left-wing for his preference.

With all that in mind, him risking his whole career to protect his friend’s sounds like the plot to a movie.

18. “Duck, You Sucker” was Already Taken

Anyone who’s heard of the Western genre will know that one of its most famous clichéd lines is “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.” The origin of this famous phrase was none other than Cooper, who said the line in his film The Virginian. The rest is history.

19. Understatement of the Century

Cooper’s colleagues and collaborators often said that Cooper’s acting had a strange element. According to his High Noon co-star, Lloyd Bridges, he was baffled by Cooper’s flat and dull performance, but when he later saw the print, his jaw hit the floor. Bridges later praised Cooper for his “magnificent” acting and making it seem so simple, yet so layered.

20. A Star is Dead

In 1960, Cooper began a furious bout with cancer, undergoing several operations across several months. However, the cancer spread to both his lungs and bones and tragically became inoperable. Cooper died on May 13, 1961, just six days after his 60th birthday.

21. All of Us

Throughout Cooper’s brief battle with cancer, the actor kept his terrible pain secret. The press had no idea that a cinema icon was fighting for his life. However, the terrible truth was revealed when Jimmy Stewart accepted an honorary Oscar on Cooper’s behalf. As he accepted the statue, Stewart’s composure crumbled, with the veteran actor saying “We’re very proud of you, Coop. All of us.”

22. Forlorn Love

Cooper’s death was mourned by many around the world, but few mourned him as passionately (and disturbingly) as a costume designer mainly known by her first name Irene. Caught in an unhappy marriage, Irene fell head over heels for Cooper. She later confessed to a close friend that Cooper was the only man she ever loved. A year after Cooper’s passing, Irene took her own life.

23. Or…Patriarchy?

Even when Cooper spoke out on set or picked battles with co-workers, he never lost anyone’s admiration. Cooper infamously made demand after demand during the production of Vera Cruz. While most of us would probably hate him for being difficult, producer Burt Lancaster couldn’t help but respect Cooper’s determination. He even claimed that Cooper was the greatest businessman he ever worked with in his life.

24. Supporting the Troops

Although he was deemed too old unhealthy to serve in the Second World War, that didn’t stop Cooper from getting involved. Not only did he visit injured soldiers in hospitals, he also embarked on a tour of the southwest Pacific, entertaining the soldiers while also living off the same rations as they got. Cooper referred to his time in the Pacific during the war as being the “greatest emotional experience” of his entire life.

25. Never More Wrong in Your Life!

During Cooper’s time at college, a professor in the theater department dismissed the future star’s acting aspirations. In a moment of great irony, the professor wrote that Cooper “shows no promise.”

26. Major Player

Gary Cooper starred in some of the most important classic movies ever made. From Ben-Hur to Wings, High Noon to Morocco, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town to Sergeant York, Cooper definitely made his mark in cinema history.

27. Shout Out To My Ex

Lupe Vélez once said that Gary Cooper had “the biggest organ in Hollywood.”

28. Busy Bee

Even in his early career in the 1920s, Cooper was in extremely high demand. He received over 1,000 letters from fans each week, and Paramount was eager to get him into as many films as possible. Between 1929 and 1930, the studio released a whopping ten films starring Gary Cooper. Sadly, Cooper’s success had a twisted, dark side. 

29. A Very Long Vacation

Doing ten films in just two years was a serious strain on Cooper. Being exhausted was the least of his problems. He lost 30 pounds and suffered from anemia, jaundice, and depression. In 1931, Cooper’s baffling actions proved that truth is stranger than fiction. The superstar ran away from Hollywood and sailed across the Atlantic. He spent the next year of his life living abroad as he recuperated.

30. Fighting Fire with Fire

Despite Cooper’s famous generosity, he wasn’t above losing his temper when push came to shove. Such an incident happened during the filming of Morocco in 1930. Cooper had a very tense and argumentative relationship with director Josef von Sternberg, who was prone to scream at Cooper in German. Eventually, Cooper had enough. He put the director in his place with a vicious gesture.

Cooper grabbed von Sternberg, lifting him up in midair before yelling “If you expect to work in this country, you’d better get on to the language we use here.”

31. Ladies’ Man

Over his career, Gary Cooper romanced his fair share of beautiful actresses and socialites. He had affairs with Carole Lombard, Countess Dorothy di Frasso, and Ingrid Bergman. But one of the most famous Gary Cooper stories comes from his rumored affair with Marlene Dietrich. Apparently, Cooper’s ex-girlfriend Lupe Vélez was so jealous of Dietrich that she would insist on going to set with the duo every day and sitting in Cooper’s lap to make sure Dietrich didn’t try anything.

32. Woman Scorned

Let’s not forget that Cooper, in the middle of all these love affairs, was married to New York socialite and heiress Veronica Balfe, better known as “Rocky.” By the late 1940s, Balfe couldn’t ignore the rumors of Cooper’s bedroom adventures. The couple separated in 1951 but didn’t divorce.

33. Divine Intervention

Incredibly, Cooper’s marriage to Veronica Balfe was reconciled by none other than the Pope himself! In 1953, Cooper followed Balfe and their daughter to Rome, where they got to have a private meeting with Pope Pius XII. Though he’d been raised an Episcopalian all his life, Cooper reached an epiphany after this meeting. Not only did he convert to Catholicism, he also reconciled with his wife in 1954.

34. Full Frontal

Few people know that Gary Cooper actually appeared nude in one of his films. In 1929’s Wolf Song, his cowboy character decides to disrobe before brushing his teeth in a stream. Unsurprisingly, Cooper went on to start a wild relationship with his co-star, the famous Mexican Spitfire herself, Lupe Vélez. The good times soured quickly as Cooper strayed and Velez got increasingly possessive.

35. Honoring the Salt of the Earth

During the 1950s, a reporter asked Cooper why he appeared in so many western films. Cooper replied that he “[felt] real when [he was] making them” and he felt that it was a tribute to the courageous “pioneers” who settled the frontier and helped make America what it was.

36. Hot-Headed Woman

Cooper’s affair with Lupe Velez was known for its violence. Velez, famous for her hot-blooded disposition, reportedly attacked Cooper with a knife, hurting him so much that Cooper needed stitches.

37. Red Flags

Even though Cooper was smitten with Vélez, his mother absolutely detested her. She thought she was too crass and outrageous. Stressed and unhappy, Cooper ended up losing 40 pounds over his rocky relationship with Vélez. After listening to his mother and his studio, both of whom wanted Cooper to get away from the Mexican Spitfire, Cooper finally called it quits. But the nightmare was just beginning.

38. Lucky She Missed

Cooper went to the train station to leave, only for Velez to follow him and, in a scandalous twist, took her jealousy to the next level. She actually tried to shoot her ex-lover. Thankfully, she missed, and if this story is true, she hightailed it before she was arrested.

39. Wild Rumors

During his passionate affair with Lupe Velez, Cooper aroused her suspicions that he was sleeping around with men as well as women. Specifically, Velez suspected that Cooper’s friendship with gay actor Anderson Lawler was more than platonic. According to Velez herself, she regularly checked Cooper for the smell of Lawler’s cologne whenever he came back from Lawler’s house. It’s not known whether she ever confirmed her suspicions, or whether he ever did sleep with Lawler.

40. May-December Romance

When Gary Cooper filmed The Fountainhead, his bad-boy ways got the better of him. He embarked on a torrid affair with young actress Patricia Neal, who was just 21 to Cooper’s 47. Unsurprisingly, the mismatched couple was doomed to an utterly chilling end. Neal became pregnant and when Cooper found out, he demanded that she get an abortion.

41. Spit Take

Gary Cooper’s wife knew all about her husband’s infidelities, but the Neal affair was a bridge too far. She sent Cooper a telegram, insisting that he end the relationship. He didn’t, leading Cooper and Balfe to separate (though they didn’t divorce). The separation was extremely messy, with Cooper’s preteen daughter Maria spitting on Neal in public.

42. Come On, Cooper

Sadly, things wouldn’t get better for young Patricia Neal. She went from being the object of Cooper’s affections to the chip on his shoulder. He embarked on yet another affair with a young co-star, this time Grace Kelly, who he met while filming the acclaimed Western High Noon. The affair led Neal to the edge of insanity. She had a breakdown and left Hollywood permanently.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

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