The personification of American integrity and self-determination, this rangy, laconic Montanan carved his screen legend with a gallery of regular Joes who refused to compromise their codes of conduct in the face of those who’d skew the rules. Frank James Cooper was born in Helena in 1901 to British immigrants; his father, an attorney who would serve on the state Supreme Court, bought a 600-acre ranch when Coop was five, and the youngster would there develop his affinity for the saddle.
He’d spend his adolescence attending school in his parents’ homeland, returning to the States with the outbreak of World War I. After dropping out of Grinnell College, Cooper returned to Helena, where he tried his hand at editorial cartooning. His parents retired to the Los Angeles region soon afterward, and he followed; the handsome, horse-trained youth had little trouble getting stunt and extra work in Hollywood westerns. Among those he impressed early was agent Nan Collins, who took him on as a client as Gary Cooper (she picked his stage name from her hometown of Gary, Indiana). Years later, remembering his name change, he quipped, “Nan felt it was more exciting than Frank. I figured I’d give it a try. Good thing she didn’t come from Poughkeepsie.”
He’d make about two dozen films before landing his first featured part, a last-minute substitution as second lead in the 1926 Ronald Colman western The Winning of Barbara Worth. During those years of silent films, he met fellow actor Walter Brennan and forged a friendship which lasted a lifetime, with the duo eventually appearing in eight films together. Signing with Paramount, Cooper continued to get small roles over the next few years, with notables including 1927’s It, opposite vivacious screen persona Clara Bow, and Wings, the first Academy Award-winner for Best Picture. It took the advent of the talkies for his career to hit the next gear, commencing with the title role in the 1929 version of The Virginian. This prototypical strong, laconic (“If you want to call me that, smile!”) saddle buster role set the tone for a decade’s worth of building success, as the studio looked to him as an ideal match for leading ladyMarlene Dietrich–playing a Parisian cafe singer who falls for legionnaire Gary and eventually follows him to the desert of Morocco (1930)–in her first American feature. It was rumored the pair were romantically linked, and they would appear together again six years later in Desire.
Next, in the classic Zane Grey western Fighting Caravans (1931), Coop is a wagon scout charged with delivering his people to California. He was cast opposite another big Paramount star, Claudette Colbert, in His Woman (1932) and, also in ’32, found himself at odds with Cary Grant over the love of Tallulah Bankhead in Devil and the Deep. Gary established his bona fides as an on-screen Hemingway hero opposite Helen Hayes in the timeless WWI romance A Farewell to Arms (1932). In 1933, he clashed with Fredric March over beautiful new roommate Miriam Hopkins in the romantic comedy Design for Living, and that same year he joined a heavily made-up array of Paramount stars and rode in as the White Knight in the surreal first sound filming of Lewis Carroll’s classic tale Alice in Wonderland, followed by One Sunday Afternoon, with Cooper as an aspiring dentist who meets and loses Fay Wray to best friend Neil Hamilton (It would later be remade at Warners as The Strawberry Blonde). Before the year was out, he also appeared in Today We Live, a Howard Hawks-directed WWI romantic drama showcasing Joan Crawford as a British party girl who falls for dashing American flyer Cooper and which also starred Franchot Tone and Robert Young.
Other highlights from his ’30s output include 1934’s Operator 13, a Civil War drama involving an actress/Union spy (Marion Davies) who, in order to get Confederate secrets, poses as a washerwoman at a Southern general’s mansion and falls for handsome Rebel scout Cooper; and Now and Forever (1934), where con man Cooper takes his daughter (the always-adorable Shirley Temple) on the road with him and girlfriend Carole Lombard, for further scams before attempting to reform.
In Peter Ibbetson (1935), he was cast as an architect who learns his latest client’s wife (Ann Harding) is his old childhood sweetheart; also in ’35, Cooper co-starred with Franchot Tone as veteran British soldiers in colonial India in the superlative adventure The Lives of a Bengal Lancer. And, and as a disillusioned novelist in The Wedding Night, Gary Cooper meets a Polish girl while at his Connecticut farm. Drawn to her naïveté, he decides to write a book based on her and her family, with tragic results.
One of director Frank Capra’s most endearing films boasted a “pixilated” Coop as the archtypal everyman protagonist in 1936’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, the first of two movies he made with Jean Arthur, and which brought him his first career Oscar nomination. As a soldier-of-fortune, Gary agrees to smuggle gold across China to help finance a “peasants’ rebellion” against warlord Akim Tamiroff in The General Died at Dawn, also in ’36. The Plainsman (1937) was an epic C.B. DeMille production (what other kind was there?) of the opening of the American West, starring Cooper as Wild Bill Hickok and Arthur as Calamity Jane, trying to put down an Indian uprising and ruthless gunrunners; and in Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938), he’s reunited with Claudette Colbert in a Ernst Lubitsch comedy, as a millionaire who’s gone through seven marriages and looks to make Colbert his next bride.
He followed with a lavish costume drama as the famed medieval explorer who travelled from Italy to China in The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938) for Samuel Goldwyn, and wooed Merle Oberon in a rousing romantic comedy, The Cowboy and the Lady. The actor finished the decade with two rousing adventure classics: The Real Glory (1939) finds Army doctor Cooper as the last chance for survival in a lonely American outpost in the Philippines beseiged by savage natives; and in one of Gary’s most popular films, Beau Geste, Cooper joins brothers Ray Milland and Robert Preston as the trio enlists in the French Foreign Legion to escape a family scandal. He would have played in another Capra film that year, but producer Goldwyn refused a loan-out to Columbia Pictures, so his lifelong friend James Stewart got the title part in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington…and was Oscar-nominated for his efforts.
The early ’40s found Cooper at the height of his power and popularity, and on a remarkable run. He followed the classic William Wyler oater The Westerner (1940), interacting with Walter Brennan (in an Oscar-winning performance as Judge Roy Bean), with another DeMille extravaganza, North West Mounted Police (co-starring Paulette Goddard), the second of four films he would do with the master showman. Next, in one more feel-good favorite for Capra, Meet John Doe (1941), he was paired again with Brennan and love interest Barbara Stanwyck. Decorated WWI hero Alvin York personally requested Gary for Warner Brothers’ biopic project, and Sergeant York resulted in the performer’s first Best Actor Academy Award.
After the enjoyable Howard Hawks screwball comedy Ball of Fire re-teamed him with Stanwyck, he’d again be Oscar-nominated successively over the next two years for his turns portraying ill-fated baseball superstar Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees (1942) and Hemingway’s American embroiled in the Spanish Civil War in For Whom the Bell Tolls, co-starring with Ingrid Bergman in the Technicolor epic. He knew he had a lot of good fortune in acting and understood his natural abilities when he said, “To get folks to like you, I figured you had to sort of be their ideal. I don’t mean a handsome knight riding a white horse, but a fellow who answered the description of a right guy.”
In 1944, Gary reunited with Pride of the Yankees screen spouse Teresa Wright in a change of pace, warm-hearted farce Casanova Brown, as a college professor whose planned second marriage is halted upon the news that his first wife has given birth to a baby girl; and in the funny sagebrusher Along Came Jones (1945), mild-mannered cowpoke Cooper is paired with Loretta Young and mistaken for an ornery outlaw. The resultant career momentum carried Coop through the immediate post-war era, even if the critical and box-office responses grew less enthused; notable efforts from this period include Saratoga Trunk (1945), based on the Edna Ferber novel, in which he and Ingrid Bergman match wits in New Orleans; and the taut espionage thriller from Fritz Lang Cloak and Dagger (1946), which cast Cooper as an American professor who is dropped behind enemy lines to procure valuable Nazi military secrets and becomes involved with mysterious Lilli Palmer.
Unconquered (1947) brought Cooper together again with DeMille and co-star Goddard in a thrilling costume saga; in 1948, he was in Good Sam, a comedy with Ann Sheridan; and 1949’s Task Force depicted World War II as seen through the eyes of determined Navy officer Cooper, in the last of eight films he co-starred in with Walter Brennan. Also in ’49, Coop was a brilliant, uncompromising architect fighting to maintain his personal integrity in The Fountainhead, based on Ayn Rand’s classic novel. In Bright Leaf (1950), two beauties–Lauren Bacall and Patricia Neal–vie for his affections as Coop tries to run his family’s tobacco business in the South. Gary followed this with Raoul Walsh’s Distant Drums (1951), a blazing adventure about early 1800s swamp fighter Cooper storming the Florida Everglades to suppress an attack of insurgent Seminole Indians. Also in ’51, Coop took part in MGM’s all-star tribute to America It’s a Big Country, which was designed to boost morale during the Korean conflict; and in a realistic military comedy, Cooper is plucked from obscurity to captain an experimental vessel powered by steam turbines in the rarely seen You’re in the Navy Now (1951).
By the early ’50s, Cooper was in sore need of a career boost, and it came with Fred Zinnemann’s western classic High Noon. His labors in this blacklist parable as an aging marshal abandoned by all on the news of a vengeful gunslinger’s return brought the actor his last competitive Oscar in 1952. Coop was described by many as a conservative, but close friend Patricia Neal said, “you couldn’t call him right-wing.” His romance with the actress did not become a public issue until this time, as he was already separated from his wife — mostly because of the affair with Neal. He was a friendly witness appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but refused to name names. He vigorously defended blacklisted High Noon screenwriter Carl Foreman, who claimed that Cooper was the only major star in Tinseltown who attempted to help him, despite mounting pressure from militant Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Cooper apparently had a good sense of humor when he asked John Wayne to accept his Oscar for him, after Wayne complained that High Noon was “anti-American.”
He realized how it was and offered, “This is a terrible place to spend your life in. Nobody in Hollywood is normal. Absolutely nobody. And they have such a vicious attitude toward one another … They say much worse things about each other than outsiders say about them, and nobody has any real friends.”
His Oscar in tow provided another decade’s charge to his clout. He would remain busy thereafter, even as his age continued to show, through noteworthy projects including Return to Paradise (1953), an exotic drama featuring Cooper as a likeable adventurer on a Polynesian island. In the exciting 1954 frontier saga Vera Cruz, Coop stars with Burt Lancaster as rival gunfighters involved in a plot to overthrow the Emperor of Mexico; and along with Richard Widmark, he accepts a lucrative, but dangerous offer from Susan Hayward, to rescue her husband from a caved-in mine shaft in Garden of Evil (1954).
The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955) found Cooper in top form as the popular American general who raised the ire of the military brass by publicly condemning the lack of U.S. preparedness for aerial invasion prior to World War II; Cooper excelled in Friendly Persuasion (1956), William Wyler’s sensitive drama about an Indiana Quaker family staunchly opposed to violence, but who find their faith and love put to the test when eldest son Anthony Perkins feels he must join the army and fight in the Civil War in order to prove his manhood. And in 1957, in Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon, Gary’s a charming playboy who falls in love with gorgeous Audrey Hepburn, many years younger than he. In Ten North Frederick, based on John O’Hara’s scorching novel, he moved into playing his age when, as an older man, he has an affair with his daughter’s roommate. Cooper accepted the role only after good friend Spencer Tracy dropped out to poor health.
As a man who was working on a movie every year since he started in the business, he said, “People hang on after they should quit, because the urge to act stays with you. Sometimes in the middle of a scene I find myself saying a piece of dialog from 15 years ago. I’ve thought of retiring lots of times, but then I think I would just go nuts, and probably spend all my time searching for a really great Western script.” He found just that in the compelling Anthony Mann-directed sagebrusher Man of the West (1958), as a former outlaw forced by circumstances to reunite with his old gang. In 1959’s They Came to Cordura, Coop starred with screen veteransRita Hayworthand Van Heflin in a tough frontier drama that looks at the nature of heroism.
By then, he was waging a losing battle with stomach cancer; knowing the end was near, he said, “Please make sure everyone knows how much their messages mean to me. They have added greatly to my peace of mind. I only wish some of the writers would take a more positive approach to the menace of cancer. I’ve got it, sure; but I’m not afraid to use the word. Some of them act like it’s a dirty word. That’s the wrong attitude. We should all bring it out in the open, recognize that it exists – and fight it! Cancer is everybody’s enemy. We can’t ‘think’ an enemy out of existence by ignoring it.”
He’d give his last screen performance in the 1961 British-made suspenser The Naked Edge. Cooper passed away later that year, just weeks after Jimmy Stewart accepted, on his behalf, an honorary Oscar recognizing Coop’s career achievements.
Now, get a taste of Gary Cooper’s Oscar-winning performance in the 1952 trailer for High Noon: