Gary Cooper (1901-1961)

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Gary Cooper
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Gary Cooper was one of the giants of movies' Golden Age. For many years, starting in the Silent era, he was one of the most popular leading men in Hollywood. He appeared in over 100 movies, in a variety of genres, and was renowned for a restrained, natural acting style which nevertheless allowed him to portray deep-felt emotion.

He was nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award on five occasions, winning twice, for 'Sergeant York' and 'High Noon' and he also received an Honorary Award from the Academy in 1961.

He was placed by the American Film Institute at number eleven on their list of the Greatest Male Stars of All Time.


Gary Cooper was born Frank James Cooper in Helena, Montana on May 7, 1901, the second of two sons. His parents were from England and his father had become a lawyer and later a supreme court Justice in Montana.

Early Years

When Frank was six his father bought a 600-acre ranch outside Helena, where Frank and his brother were brought up, but his mother was anxious that her two boys should have the benefit of an English school education. So when Frank was nine he was sent to join his elder brother Arthur at private school in Dunstable, Bedfordshire, England. With the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 they were brought back and Frank continued his schooling in Bozeman, Montana.

Frank was too young for the armed forces and he spent his spare time during the war years working on the family ranch becoming an expert horseman in the process. After high school he attended Grinnell College in Iowa where he tried, unsuccessfully, to join the drama club. He had a gift for drawing cartoons and caricatures and became well known for his work in the school magazine. When he left college he tried to find work in LA as a political cartoonist but ended up as a curtain salesman.

Stunt Rider

He met up with friends from Montana who had found work as stunt riding cowboy extras at a nearby movie studio. The money was good and Frank, a gifted horseman, soon joined in. During 1925 and 1926 he worked regularly as a stunt rider and he soon got to know movie casting agents, including Nan Collins who agreed to work on his behalf. She it was who suggested he change his name from Frank to Gary, after her home town of Gary, Indiana.

The Young Actor

In 1926 he was given a small part in 'Lightnin' Wins', starring Eileen Sedgwick and his good looks and easy, natural style got him noticed. It was followed in the same year by 'The Winning of Barbara Worth' with Ronald Colman and Vilma Banky, after which he was offered a long-term contract with Paramount Pictures.

After that his rise to fame was rapid. He had an affair with the uninhibited Clara Bow who helped him get a walk on part in her latest movie, 'It' in 1927, after which he had his first Western starring roles in 'Arizona Bound' and 'The Last Outlaw'. In the same year he appeared again with Clara Bow in 'Wings', one of the most famous films of the silent age, and the first movie to win an Academy Best Picture Award.

When the Talkies era began Cooper was ready. His first speaking role was in 'The Shopworn Girl' in 1928 and his voice and delivery endeared him to the fans. He then had a major success in the Talkie 'The Virginian' in 1929 which included one of the first movie catchphrases "When you call me that, smile," delivered by Cooper to Walter Huston.

Hollywood Stardom

His rise to fame was then extremely rapid. He was a tall man with handsome features, and his slow, soft-spoken way of speaking made him immensely popular, particularly as Paramount partnered him with some of the great movie beauties of the day such as Marlene Dietrich in 'Morocco' in 1930, Claudette Colbert in 'His Woman' in 1931 and Tallulah Bankhead in 'Devil and the Deep' in 1932.

Cooper's career continued to prosper. He first appeared in Hemingway's 'A Farewell to Arms' with Helen Hayes in 1932 and William Faulkner's 'Today We Live' the following year.

Over the next few years Cooper appeared in some forgettable, and some very average movies but in 1935 he had a huge hit with 'Lives of a Bengal Lancer' and the following year he starred in the Frank Capra classic social comedy 'Mr. Deeds Goes to Town' paired with the beautiful, husky-voiced Jean Arthur. The movie was a major box-office success and Cooper's position as representing the honest, all-American everyman was secured. It enabled him to secure an advantageous new contract with Sam Goldwyn by which he was to make six films in six years for $150,000 each, and which, crucially, gave him the freedom to also work for virtually any other studio he pleased. It appeared that he had scaled the heights of Hollywood fame - but the best was yet to come.


He won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Alvin York, the pacifist turned war hero in 'Sergeant York' in 1941. Such was Cooper's fame and stature at that time the real life Alvin York had refused to authorize any movie about himself unless he was portrayed by Gary Cooper.

The following year, in 'The Pride of the Yankees', Cooper sympathetically portrayed another modern hero - baseball great Lou Gehrig who had recently died - in a touching performance for which he received another Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

Cooper was now the leading actor in Hollywood, the epitome of the movie superstar, able to pick and choose his scripts and roles. He sometimes made errors of judgement. For instance he turned down the role of Rhett Butler in 'Gone With the Wind'. In 1943 when plans were being made to cast Ernest Hemingway's 'For Whom the Bell Tolls', the plum role of Robert Jordan was his for the taking and he was nominated once more for his performance. His co-star was Ingrid Bergman and there is speculation that their onscreen romance continued off screen as well. The film was panned by the critics but was a box-office smash. For a time Cooper was the highest paid individual in the United States.

After a five-week morale-boosting tour of army, navy, and marine bases in New Guinea where part of his repertoire for the troops was to give a moving rendition of the Lou Gehrig farewell speech from 'Pride of the Yankees', Cooper got caught up in the witch-hunting House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) which was investigating "dangerous Communists" who were thought to be corrupting society by infiltrating Hollywood. Many careers were ruined by this body but Cooper testified as a "friendly witness" and retained his good reputation within the industry.

He made several movies in the late 1940's which kept his name in the public eye but he was not happy with the direction his career was taking. In 1952 his career received just the boost it needed when he took what many people regard as his finest role, that of Marshall Will Kane in 'High Noon'. Aged 51 but looking older, Cooper won his second Academy Award for Best Actor and great critical acclaim for his controlled, understated portrayal of the embattled marshall facing his enemies, and his destiny, alone. Ill with an ulcer, he wasn't able to receive his award in person and he asked John Wayne to accept it on his behalf.

Later Career

Cooper continued to make movies throughout the 1950's including the box-office hit 'Friendly Persuasion' in 1956 but poor health was slowing him down. Probably the best of his final films was 'The Hanging Tree' in 1959 when he plays a frontier doctor reluctantly drawn into the life of one of his patients. One of his final projects was narrating a TV documentary 'The Real West', in which he helped clear up myths and misconceptions about the old West.

In April 1961 a terminally ill Cooper was awarded a special, career-achievement Award by the Academy, which was accepted by his friend James Stewart, who was close to tears at times.


A month later, on May 31, 1961 Gary Cooper died of lung and prostrate cancer in Los Angeles, California. He was 60.


Cooper originally made his name as a tall, handsome all-American boy, and as a young bachelor about town, he enjoyed high-profile affairs with some well known actresses such as Clara Bow, Evelyn Brent and Lupe VĂ©lez. In 1933 he met his future wife, Veronica Balfe, known as "Rocky". Twelve years his junior she was an ex-actress, the daughter of a wealthy New Yorker. They married in December, 1933 and Cooper almost overnight changed his image from party-going bachelor to sensible married man.

However, during his marriage Cooper had affairs with some of his leading ladies such as Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly, and Patricia Neal. It is believed that Neal had an abortion in 1950, since fathering an illegitimate child in those days could destroy an actor's career. Because of his high-profile affair with Neal, Cooper and his wife separated between 1951 and 1954 but then reconciled, and remained close until his death.

Gary Cooper Academy Awards

Two Wins:
Best Actor ... Sergeant York (1941)
Best Actor ... High Noon (1952)
Three Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Actor ... Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)
Best Actor ... The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
Best Actor ... For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)
Honorary Award:
Honorary Award "For his many memorable screen performances and the international recognition he, as an individual, has gained for the motion picture industry." (1961)


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Gary Cooper Filmography

Dick Turpin (uncredited)
The Trail Rider (uncredited)
The Thundering Herd (uncredited)
Riders of the Purple Sage (uncredited)
The Drug Store Cowboy (uncredited)
Wild Horse Mesa (uncredited)
The Lucky Horseshoe (uncredited)
The Vanishing American (uncredited)
The Eagle (uncredited)
Tricks (uncredited)
Warrior Gap (uncredited)
North Star (uncredited)
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (uncredited)
Three Pals (uncredited)
The Enchanted Hill (uncredited)
The Johnstown Flood (uncredited)
A Six Shootin' Romance (uncredited)
Watch Your Wife (uncredited)
Thundering Speed (uncredited)
Lightnin' Wins
The Winning of Barbara Worth
Lightnin' Flashes (unconfirmed)
Sons of the Sea (uncredited)
Bad Man's Bluff (uncredited)
It (uncredited)
Arizona Bound
Children of Divorce
The Last Outlaw
Half a Bride
Beau Sabreur
The Legion of the Condemned
Red Hair
Lilac Time
The First Kiss
The Shopworn Angel
The Wolf Song
The Virginian
Seven Days' Leave
Only the Brave
Paramount on Parade
The Texan
A Man from Wyoming
Galas de la Paramount
The Spoilers
Fighting Caravans
The Slippery Pearls
City Streets
I Take This Woman
His Woman
Devil and the Deep
If I Had a Million
A Farewell to Arms
Today We Live
One Sunday Afternoon
Alice in Wonderland
Design for Living
Operator 13
Now and Forever
The Lives of a Bengal Lancer
The Wedding Night
Paramount Headliner: Broadway Highlights No. 1
Peter Ibbetson
Mr.Deeds Goes to Town
Hollywood Boulevard (uncredited)
The General Died at Dawn
The Plainsman
Lest We Forget
Souls at Sea
Bluebeard's Eighth Wife
The Adventures of Marco Polo
The Cowboy and the Lady
Beau Geste
The Real Glory
The Westerner
North West Mounted Police
John Doe, Dynamite
Sergeant York
Ball of Fire
The Story of Dr. Wassell
Casanova Brown