Gary Cooper was born Frank James Cooper on May 7th, 1901, in Helena, Montana. His parents were Alice and Charles Cooper. Charles was a lawyer who served in Montana. Despite his respectable profession, the family struggled financially.
They moved several times during Cooper’s childhood, trying to find work and stability. Despite the challenges, Cooper had a close relationship with his parents and often spoke fondly of them in interviews.
Gary Cooper’s parents, Charles and Alice Cooper, were born in England. Charles immigrated to the United States as a child and later settled in Montana.
Alice came to the United States with her family when she was a teenager and eventually met and married Charles in Montana. In 1906, Charles purchased the Seven-Bar-Nine cattle ranch, a sprawling property located some miles north of Helena near Craig, Montana.
His younger brother, Arthur, was born in 1907. The two were close growing up, and Arthur often accompanied Gary on his adventures on their family’s cattle ranch.
Cooper spent much of his childhood on the ranch, where he developed a love for the outdoors and horses. He learned to ride at a young age and even competed in rodeos as a teenager. The ranch gave the Cooper family stability and served as Gary’s playground and classroom.
An Education in England
Alice was determined to give her sons a proper English education like hers. So in 1909, she took Gary and his younger brother Arthur back to England, where they enrolled in school.
Gary studied Latin, French, and English history until 1912, adapting well to the strict school discipline but disliking the formal clothing he was required to wear. Alice then took her sons back to the United States, where Cooper resumed his education at Johnson Grammar School in Montana.
The Hip Issue
Cooper suffered a severe hip injury when he was 15 years old. The injury caused him to develop a limp that would be noticeable in many of his film performances. Horse riding was a common remedy for various ailments in those days, and Cooper spent much of his time on horseback as he recuperated.
Despite the unconventional nature of the treatment, Cooper’s dedication to his recovery and his love for horses helped him to regain his strength and mobility.
A Turning Point
Gary left Helena High School after two years in 1918 to work as a full-time cowboy on his family’s ranch, taking a detour from formal education. However, in 1919, his father arranged for him to attend Gallatin County High School in Bozeman, Montana.
Here, Cooper was introduced to an English teacher named Ida Davis, who became pivotal in his journey. Davis encouraged him to focus on academics and participate in debate and drama, helping him realize his potential and inspiring him to pursue higher education.
The Art Prodigy
In 1920, Gary Cooper discovered his love for art while taking three courses at Montana Agricultural College. The works of artists Charles Marion Russell and Frederic Remington piqued his interest. Cooper enrolled in Grinnell College in Iowa two years later to further his art education.
He excelled in his academic courses and displayed his artwork in the dorms, and was even named the art editor for the college yearbook. Funnily enough, the drama club was where he wasn’t accepted.
Moonlighting as a Guide
At Grinnell College, Cooper needed to make extra money to support himself. So, he used his cowboying skills by working as a tour guide in Yellowstone National Park during the summers of 1922 and 1923.
He would drive tourists around in an open-top bus as a guide, showcasing the park’s breathtaking scenery. While it was just a summer job to make ends meet, little did the tourists know that their guide would later become one of Hollywood’s most iconic stars.
The Start of Stunts
After his promising start at Grinnell College, Cooper left in February 1924 and headed to Chicago to find work as an artist. After an unsuccessful month, he returned to Helena and sold editorial cartoons to a local newspaper. However, Cooper’s career was about to take a dramatic turn.
In the autumn of 1924, Gary’s parents moved to Los Angeles, and he joined them there. Soon, Cooper worked in low-budget Western films for small movie studios on Poverty Row.
Gary Cooper was introduced to the film industry by two friends from Montana who worked as extras and stunt riders. Cooper worked as a film extra for $5 a day and a stunt rider for $10.
These friends introduced Cooper to rodeo champion Jay Slim Talbot, who then took him to see a casting director. Cooper and Talbot developed a strong friendship and frequently spent time together. Talbot also went on to work as Cooper’s stuntman and stand-in for more than three decades.
A Change Ahead
By 1925, Cooper had conquered the world of silent movies with his exceptional horsemanship that set him apart from other actors. He soon worked in popular Westerns like The Thundering Herd, Wild Horse Mesa, and Riders of the Purple Sage.
However, Cooper’s growing discomfort with stunt work’s dangerous and often brutal nature made him yearn for more significant roles. Determined to break free from the cycle of stunt work, Cooper took matters into his own hands.
The New Name
For Gary Cooper, a chance encounter with casting director Nan Collins led to a name that would become synonymous with classic Hollywood glamor. Collins suggested he change his name from Frank to Gary, and the inspiration came from her hometown of Gary, Indiana.
Cooper was immediately drawn to the name and the powerful image it conveyed. For Cooper, the name change represented a fresh start and a new beginning, freeing him from the limitations of his previous stunt work.
The name change opened Gary’s avenue to work in different roles. The actor went on to work in various non-Western films, proving his versatility in the profession. He worked in The Eagle (1925), Ben-Hur (1925), and The Johnstown Flood (1926).
He also played the antagonist in Tricks (1925) and played a significant role in the short film Lightnin’ Wins (1926). These roles helped him build a reputation as a dependable and versatile actor.
The First Hit
As he continued to land more credited roles, Cooper began attracting major film studios’ attention. In June 1926, he signed a contract with Samuel Goldwyn Productions with a weekly salary of $50.
The same year, he also landed his first significant role in the film The Winning of Barbara Worth. Cooper’s ranch-life authenticity impressed in the movie, leading to rave reviews from critics who called him a dynamic new personality.
A Battle for Gary
Cooper’s success in The Winning of Barbara Worth made him a hot commodity in Hollywood, with studios clamoring for his attention. Samuel Goldwyn rushed to offer Cooper a long-term contract, but Cooper held out for a five-year deal worth $175 a week, which he eventually secured from Paramount Pictures.
He also played his first leading role in Arizona Bound and Nevada. He even appeared in high-profile movies such as Wings, which earned him his first Academy Award for Best Picture.
An Upward Rise
Gary Cooper’s meteoric rise in Hollywood continued, drawing increasing attention from fans and critics alike, especially women who flocked to see him on screen.
Cooper’s acting skills shone through in each film, improving with each new project. With his reputation as a leading man solidifying, Cooper was earning up to $2,750 per film and receiving an astonishing 1,000 fan letters a week! In those days, that was indeed an eye-catching number!
Paramount Pictures capitalized on his growing popularity by casting him alongside Fay Wray in films such as The Legion of the Condemned and The First Kiss, touting the pair as the studio’s glorious young lovers.
His other leading ladies included Evelyn Brent in Beau Sabreur and Florence Vidor in Doomsday, to name a few. In 1928, Cooper also starred in Lilac Time with Colleen Moore, this was his first movie with synchronized sound effects and one of the top films of that year.
The Ultimate Cowboy
Gary Cooper’s breakthrough role came in the 1929 film The Virginian. This was Cooper’s first leading role in a significant film, and it made him an overnight star. Cooper’s brave, rugged cowboy performance helped define his on-screen persona as the quintessential American hero.
The movie also established the conventions of the Western genre and helped to launch a new era of Westerns in Hollywood. Biographer Jeffrey Meyers credits Cooper with creating the image of the tall, handsome, and shy cowboy hero embodying male freedom, courage, and honor.
The Western Era
In 1929 and 1930, Gary Cooper starred in multiple Westerns for Paramount Pictures, including The Texan and The Spoilers. These films were successful at the box office and helped solidify Cooper’s star status.
He quickly became a famous leading man, known for his rugged good looks and natural acting style. Cooper’s success in these Westerns was partly due to his ability to embody the archetypal cowboy hero and his easy transition into the new sound medium.
The Ladies Man
Gary Cooper was known for his many friendships and relationships throughout his life, both with women and men. Despite his on-screen persona as the all-American hero, Gary Cooper had a reputation as a ladies’ man off-screen.
He had numerous affairs with Hollywood actresses. However, Cooper was also a private person and didn’t seek publicity for his romantic relationships, so his personal life remained largely unknown to the public during his lifetime.
A Break From Work
After making 10 films in two years, Gary Cooper started feeling the pressure of fame. In May of 1931, he left Hollywood and traveled to Algiers and Italy, where he stayed for a year.
He even went on a 10-week East Africa safari and an extended Mediterranean cruise! The trip profoundly influenced Cooper, and he returned to Hollywood rejuvenated. He negotiated a new contract with Paramount and resumed his career with a salary of $4,000 per week and director and script approval.
The Second Inning
Between 1931 and 1936, Cooper’s career and personal life were pivotal. He established himself as a top leading man and navigated the ups and downs of fame and relationships.
He starred in a series of successful films, including A Farewell to Arms (1932), Design for Living (1933), and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), which earned him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Cooper’s personal life during this period was also eventful, as he also tied the knot during these years.
Veronica ‘Rocky’ Balfe, Gary Cooper’s wife, was a New York socialite from a wealthy family. They were introduced at a party in 1933 and married later that year. Cooper’s friends credited the marriage with positively impacting his life.
Rocky Balfe was known for her elegance and poise and often accompanied Cooper to Hollywood events. She was devoted to her husband and supported him throughout his career. The pair owned homes in Los Angeles and Aspen.
The pair had one child together, a daughter named Maria Cooper Janis, born in 1937. Maria grew up with a close relationship with her father and often accompanied him to film sets and events.
Maria Cooper Janis followed in her father’s footsteps and pursued a career in the entertainment industry as an actress and author. She also became an accomplished painter and photographer. She describes Cooper as a loving and devoted father who always made time for his family.
In 1936, Paramount Studios offered Gary Cooper a new contract that would’ve raised his salary to $8,000 per week. However, he signed with Samuel Goldwyn for six films over the next six years, with a guaranteed $150,000 per picture.
Paramount sued Cooper and Goldwyn, but the court ruled that Cooper’s contract with Goldwyn allowed him sufficient time to honor both contracts. By 1939, he was the highest-paid actor in the United States, earning $482,819 per year, which is equivalent to $9 million today.
It’s often said that every actor has one movie they regret passing up on. For Cooper, it was probably Gone With the Wind. He was reportedly offered the lead role of Rhett Butler in the classic but turned it down due to his reluctance to play a character who was considered a bad boy.
However, the role went on to be played by Clark Gable, who gave an iconic performance that has become synonymous with the character.
An Actor’s Evolution
Gary Cooper had a long career playing the hero in many films. He’s been known for playing relatively virtuous and heroic characters and didn’t want to risk tarnishing that image by branching out.
However, as he aged, he started to rethink his approach to roles. He wanted to branch out and play more complex characters with flaws and vulnerabilities. Cooper’s evolution as an actor was evident in his later films, where he played a more comprehensive range of characters beyond the typical hero.
His First Oscar
1941 saw Cooper bag his first Oscar and cemented his name in history. He starred in Sergeant York, which Howard Hawks directed. Sergeant York was noteworthy and earned the actor his first Academy Award for Best Actor.
Aside from his acting career, Cooper also became involved in philanthropy. He also had a brief stint as a furniture designer and enjoyed outdoor activities such as fishing.
Cooper and Hemingway
Gary Cooper had a close friendship with writer Ernest Hemingway, and the two shared a love for the outdoors. They first met in Sun Valley, Idaho, in the late 1930s and became fast friends.
Hemingway admired Cooper’s understated acting style and wrote the lead role in his play The Fifth Column specifically for him. Cooper also starred in the film adaptation of Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1943.
The Pride of the Yankees
Gary Cooper’s portrayal of baseball legend Lou Gehrig in the 1942 biopic The Pride of the Yankees earned him critical acclaim and an Academy Award nomination. Cooper initially had reservations about the role as he wasn’t a baseball fan.
However, after meeting Gehrig’s wife, Eleanor, Cooper was moved by her dedication to her late husband and agreed to take on the part. His performance as the beloved and courageous Gehrig touched the hearts of audiences and cemented Cooper’s legacy as a versatile and gifted actor.
A Lull in His Career
From 1944 to 1950, Gary Cooper’s career experienced a mix of highs and lows. He made several movies during that time, including the successful Western The Fountainhead in 1949. However, he also faced many box office disappointments, such as Cloak and Dagger in 1946 and Good Sam in 1948.
This was when Hollywood adjusted to a new America, and new themes and styles emerged in cinema. Cooper also adapted to this new era, and many of his later films reflected a more complex portrayal of masculinity and personal struggles.
The Camera Loves Coop
Despite many actors and directors feeling unimpressed with Gary Cooper’s acting on set or in the studio, his performances on the silver screen mesmerized audiences and critics alike. Director Sam Wood remarked that Cooper was perfect on-screen, despite thinking his off-screen acting was the worst he’d ever seen.
Cooper’s ability to underplay his characters was a strength during an era of melodrama, adding depth to his performances. Although those working with him didn’t always appreciate Cooper, the camera loved him.
Gary Cooper’s most successful Western movie was undoubtedly High Noon, which was released in 1952. The film, directed by Fred Zinnemann, tells the story of a retired lawman forced to face a group of vengeful outlaws coming to town to seek revenge.
Cooper’s performance as William Kane was stoic and measured, capturing the character’s sense of duty and honor as he faced insurmountable odds. The film won four Academy Awards, including Cooper’s second Oscar for Best Actor.
The Last Movies
Gary Cooper’s last films were made when his health was deteriorating rapidly. His penultimate film, Love in the Afternoon (1957), was also tricky, as he suffered back pain during production.
The Western film, The Hanging Tree (1959), was his last successful movie, and despite the pain and illness he was experiencing, he delivered a memorable performance. Despite the physical challenges for the actor, he continued to impress with his dedication to the craft.
By the beginning of 1961, Gary Cooper’s health had deteriorated, so he decided to spend time with his family and close friends. He attended a dinner in his honor hosted by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, where he gave a speech thanking his friends in the film industry.
Cooper later took a vacation in Sun Valley with his family and a final hike with his friend Ernest Hemingway. He watched the Academy Awards ceremony on TV, where his friend James Stewart accepted an honorary award on his behalf.
Goodbye, Gary Cooper
On May 12th, 1961, Gary Cooper passed away at the age of 60. Cooper spent his last days surrounded by his family and loved ones. He passed away peacefully on May 12th. Many of his close friends and colleagues from the film industry came to pay their respects.
Some of Hollywood’s biggest Western stars and actors were present, including James Stewart, Henry Hathaway, Fred Zinnemann, David O. Selznick, and Jack Warner. His final movie, The Naked Edge (1961), was released posthumously.
A Star for a Star
Cooper’s passing was felt by his family, friends, and the entire nation. His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which he received in 1960, is a testament to his enduring legacy. He was posthumously inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame in 1972.
Cooper’s impact on Hollywood and the film industry can’t be overstated. He left an indelible mark on the world of cinema, and his performances continue to be celebrated and admired to this day.
Gary Cooper’s natural and understated acting style pioneered him in developing realism in cinema. His ability to convey emotions through subtle gestures and expressions, without resorting to theatricality, set the stage for a new generation of actors.
Cooper’s performances were marked by a quiet strength and sincerity that resonated with audiences and inspired countless actors who came after him.
Pop Culture Mentions
Gary Cooper’s impact on pop culture is significant. Even today, there are various references to his iconic roles and persona throughout TV, music, and literature. In the TV series Justified, the protagonist aspires to be like Cooper’s characters. In The Sopranos, Tony Soprano laments the loss of the firm, silent type that Cooper represents.
Cooper is also referenced in the classic song “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and J. D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye. In addition, his iconic role in High Noon has been parodied in various TV shows and films.
A Hollywood Legend
Gary Cooper was an icon of the golden age of Hollywood, known for his understated yet powerful performances and his status as the quintessential American hero. He left an indelible mark on the film industry with his career spanning over three decades and 84 feature films.
Cooper’s legacy is still evident today, from his Hollywood Walk of Fame star to his influence on modern-day actors. His impact on cinema can’t be overstated, and his work continues to be celebrated by film enthusiasts worldwide.