Gary Cooper was one of the true giants of the Golden Age of Hollywood. He won two Oscars, “Sgt York” in 1941 and “High Noon” in 1952. He was born in Helena in Montana in 1901. His first major role was in the silent film “Wings” in 1927. His career highlights include “The Devil and the Deep” in 1932, “A Farewell to Arms”, “Mr Deeds Goes to Town”, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, “North-West Mounted Police”, “Love in the Afternoon”, “10 North Frederick” and “The Naked Edge”. His leading ladies included Ingrid Bergman, Audrey Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Lauren Bacall, Deborah Kerr, Madeleine Carroll, Paulette Goddard, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Loretta Young and Suzy Parker. He died in 1961.
Gary Cooper’s rugged mug, soft-spoken demeanor and earnest, haunted eyes for decades made him the quintessential lonely American of motion pictures, a more stoic, human protagonist versus boisterous, bigger-than-life Hollywood supermen. Privately a debonair ladies’ man with a taste for high society, he crafted an image as just the opposite, from his prototype cowboy talkie “The Virginian” (1929) playing shy, stoic “aw-shucks” heroes. He built that image in such classics as Frank Capra’s “Mr. Deeds G s to Town” (1936) and “Meet John D ” (1941) and celebrated biopics like “Sergeant York” (1941) and “Pride of the Yankees” (1942). Though he cooperated with the U.S. government’s Hollywood witch hunts early in the Cold War, he nevertheless made a triumphant comeback in the anti-blacklisting parable “High Noon” (1952), refusing to dissociate himself from the film’s blacklisted writer, Carl Foreman, karmic punctuation to what had been, on screen anyway, a legacy of a weary everyman who nevertheless stood tall against mob mentality. He was born Frank James Cooper, second son of British immigrants Charles and Alice Cooper, in Helena, Montana on May 7, 1901. Charles Cooper worked as a lawyer and kept a 600-acre ranch outside Helena, where Frank and older brother Arthur spent their early years until their mother, hoping to acculturate her sons, sent them off to school in England. Frank returned to Montana at age 16, upon the U.S.’s entry into World War I, and eventually matriculated at Grinnell College in Grinnell, IA, where he attempted to nurture a passion for drawing – until a serious car accident ended his college days in the summer of 1920. He would recover from his severely injured hip through an odd but painful therapy, horseback riding. This would come in handy four years later as his search for a job as a political cartoonist bore no fruit and Cooper followed his parents to Los Angeles – where they’d moved after his father’s retirement form the Montana Supreme Court – and found work as a stunt horseman in motion pictures. The tall, lean Frank Cooper caught the eye of agent Nan Collins, who took him on as a client and, with somebody already working under his name in show business, redubbed him Gary Cooper, after her Indiana hometown. Another uncredited horseman role in “The Winning of Barbara Worth” (1926) expanded portentously when silent star Vilma Banky’s onscreen suitor fell out and Cooper found himself promoted to third-billing. Variety called the then-unknown Cooper “a youth who will be heard of on the screen,” Paramount made him a contract player at $150 a week and notoriously randy A-list actress Clara Bow set her sights on him, giving him a small role in her next picture “It” (1927) – originating the notion of the “It-girl,” the buzz around their romance making Cooper the original “It-boy.” That led to his first top-billing as a stereotype hero-cowboy in “Arizona Bound” (1927), then another turn supporting Bow in “Wings” (1927), the first film to win the Academy Award as Best Picture. He crossed over to partial-sound pics, most notably in “Wolf Song” (1929), which co-starred his latest love, Mexican actress Lupe Velez. His first full-fledged talkie, Victor Fleming’s “The Virginian” (1929), would take him to a new stratum of stardom, hitting big with audiences and creating an archetype for American westerns, Cooper playing the white-hat hero rigidly following his moral compass versus the black-hats of the chaotic west, along the way wooing the transplanted Eastern schoolmarm. Much in demand, he went on to crank out 11 more movies in the next two years, four of them westerns, but most notably “Morocco” (1930), a French Foreign Legion adventure that would make Marlene Dietrich his love interest both on and off camera. By the time he filmed “His Woman” (1931), his first pairing with screwball comedy ingénue Claudette Colbert, his schedule had worn down his health, as had a tempestuous, sometimes violent cohabitation with Velez and the meddling of his disapproving mother, all bringing Cooper to the brink of nervous exhaustion. Even as he embarked on a sabbatical, Velez notoriously pulled a pistol and fired several rounds at his train car as it departed for Chicago He traveled to Europe, in Italy finding another watershed relationship, with Countess Dorothy di Frasso-nee-Taylor, a socialite ten years his senior who had married into Euro-aristocracy out of Watertown, NY. They began a country-hopping affair, while she undertook his “Pygmallion”-esque refinement. Paramount c rced him back to Hollywood with threats of replacing him on its A-list with a young Cary Grant, then immediately shoved both into naval adventure compromised by a love triangle over stage great Tallulah Bankhead in “The Devil and the Deep” (1932). Cooper proved susceptible to her charms, as most her co-stars did, Bankhead soon ending her unhappy flirtation with the movies and returning to the theater, notoriously averring, “The only reason I went to Hollywood was to f–k that divine Gary Cooper.” His ladies’-man days would end not long after – at least officially – when he met a savvy 20-year-old New York debutante, Veronica “Rocky” Balfe, at a party in early 1933 and married her the next December. In the meantime he stretched his by-now-signature solemn-yet-upright character, sometimes in sober North American expatriate roles such as Hemmingway’s melodrama “A Farewell to Arms” (1932), “Today We Live” (1933) and the hit actioner “Lives of a Bengal Lancer” (1934), more spiritedly in comedies such as “Design for Living” (1933), “One Sunday Afternoon” (1933), “Desire” (1936) and “Mr. Deeds G s to Town” (1936). The latter two would prove pivotal for Cooper in developing his charming rube character, “Desire” reteaming him with Dietrich as a bright-eyed American abroad caught in her criminal web, “Deeds” codifying the character, by way of director Frank Capra, as an archetype of integrity and innocence in the face of sophisticated charlatanry. Longfellow Deeds, a tuba-playing small-town Vermonter inheriting a fortune, plus the big city swells and grifters that follow, “had to symbolize incorruptibility, and in my mind Gary Cooper already was that symbol,” Capra later wrote. His intuition paid off with a hit, earning Cooper his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor, not to mention a separate six-year contract with independent producer Samuel Goldwyn for a movie a year at $150,000 apiece. That move challenged the studios’ perceived exclusivity with their stars. Paramount sued and lost, the court ruling he could still fulfill his obligation to the studio. Cooper continued his share of adventure yarns, playing a mercenary in revolutionary China in “The General Died at Dawn” (1936), Wild Bill Hickok in Cecille B. DeMille’s “The Plainsman,” more conspicuously as the world-spanning explorer in “The Adventures of Marco Polo” (1938) and again as a Legionnaire in the blockbuster “Beau Geste” (1939). Bolstering his manly bona fides, he met Hemingway on vacation in Idaho in 1940, getting a sneak-peak at his forthcoming book, The Sun Also Rises. He kept his hand in comedy, reuniting with Colbert in “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife” (1938), and with Capra in another rube-against-the-odds picture, “Meet John D ” (1941). A subtle indictment of the fascist machinations inflaming Europe, “D ” had Cooper as a vagabond hired by an unscrupulous newspaper to play the role of a made-up pundit, claiming to be the voice of America’s unheard everymen, unknowingly becoming the key to a plan by the paper’s industrialist owner to garner populist groundswell for his “iron-fist” presidential candidacy. The oft-corny film nevertheless signaled Cooper’s capacity, as a Time cover story posited, to render “a personality that de-schmaltzes sentiment and de-rants rhetoric.” The looming war would color an even more momentous project of 1941, director Howard Hawks in the World War I tale of Sgt. Alvin York, the hayseed pacifist drafted into the U.S. army, overcoming his personal objections and capturing an entire German company single-handed. “Sergeant York” scored 11 Oscar nominations, including Best Actor, which Cooper walked away with the next February. On a roll, he reteamed successfully with Stanwyck in “Ball of Fire” (1942), playing a nerdy English professor who hooks up with a mob-connected showgirl to learn new slang, and then went somber again, earning another Oscar nomination for director Sam Wood’s “Pride of the Yankees,” playing the baseball great Lou Gehrig, whose career was cut short by the disease that bears his name. The inspirational Gehrig farewell speech would become part of his routine when he entertained troops during the war. Wood directed him again in “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1943), during which Cooper reverted to old ways, beginning an affair with co-star Ingrid Bergman. A meandering tale, it nevertheless proved box-office gold in Hollywood’s volume of wartime anti-fascist messages – curious given Cooper and Wood’s helping to found the right-wing Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals the next year. “The Alliance,” whose members also included Walt Disney, Robert Taylor and Clark Gable (not to mention its influential but unofficial godfather John Wayne), dedicated itself to winnowing “Red” influence out of motion pictures. The studio reteamed Cooper and Bergman in the period romance “The Saratoga Trunk,” shot in 1943 but released in ’45, but by then he had become he became increasingly dissatisfied with his work for Paramount. The contract lapsing that year, he would produce his own first post-studio picture, “Along Came Jones” (1945), as an early revisionist western, parodying his once-rote western roles. 1947 would prove momentous for Cooper, though not for his work. The Alliance invited the Red Scare’s primary catalyst, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), to investigate subversive influences in film, an exercise in paranoia that would ruin careers and have Cooper as a “friendly witness.” Apologists say Cooper addressed the committee ambivalently and never named names of suspected Reds as did other Hollywood denizens who would later find themselves ostracized for their political convenience. Signing with Warner Bros., Cooper would link himself to right-wing canon in King Vidor’s attempt to film Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, a job made difficult by the controlling author. The film’s climactic scene had Cooper, as her heroic architect-turned-terrorist, giving the longest speech in movie history theretofore, but with Rand’s overwrought writing translating miserably to spoken dialogue, Cooper didn’t understand it, appealed to Vidor for it to be simplified, and Rand nearly shut down production until the studio guaranteed her a pristine reading. When released in 1949, the work intended as a testimonial to Rand’s exceptionalism proved a garish bomb. Rumors bubbling about troubles in his marriage also gained traction when he and his “Fountainhead” love interest, 22-year-old Patricia Neal, began an affair, which would become a long-term relationship and particularly problematic as Rocky, a devout Catholic, refused to consider divorce (though they separated in 1951). Cooper as a 50-year-old leading man, meanwhile, was hardly setting the box office afire with by-the-numbers period adventure/romantic fare such as “Dallas” (1950) and “Distant Drums” (1951) as he once did – at least until independent producers Stanley Kramer and Carl Foreman came calling with a Western that would rock the genre. “High Noon,” written by Foreman, told the tale of an aging marshal seeking the aid of townspeople to help fend off a gang whose leader he had put in prison, but finding no allies and only advice to flee with his young Quaker wife before the villains arrive. Cooper turned in a somber performance as the conflicted marshal, even as he reputedly began another amorous dalliance with his young co-star Grace Kelly. The film became a lightning rod, not only for its reversal of the sunny myths of square-jawed western superher s and intrepid pioneer-folk, but also for Foreman’s use of the story as allegory for HUAC witch hunts, with which he himself had refused to cooperate. An overwhelming success financially and critically, it nevertheless became a target of the Alliance and its allies, who lobbied furiously against the film winning any of the seven Oscars for which it had been nominated, Alliance president John Wayne, and Cooper friend, calling it “the most un-American thing I have ever seen in my whole life.” “High Noon” nevertheless won four Oscars, Cooper taking his second Best Actor statue and remaining friends with Foreman, who, now blacklisted, lost production credit on the film and moved to London. Cooper, shooting a new movie during the Academy Awards ceremony, asked Wayne to accept the award for him. With marriage impossible, his relationship with Neal had ended by 1953, and he reunited with Rocky the next year. That year, he did another gun-slinging adventure in “Vera Cruz,” this time as mercenaries with Burt Lancaster amid Mexico’s 1866 revolution, a tale of conscience versus the shifting morals intrinsic to power politics. It gave Cooper a monster hit with another revisionist Western, “Vera Cruz” greatly influencing the coming spaghetti Western movement. Ensuing years would see him work with some of the cinema’s top directors, Otto Preminger for “The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell” (1955), with Cooper as the brash prophet of military air power; William Wyler for “Friendly Persuasion” (1956), a poignant film that had Cooper the head of a Quaker family whose pacifism is tested by the American Civil War; Billy Wilder for “Love in the Afternoon” (1957), with Cooper as the unlikely suitor of Audrey Hepburn; and Anthony Mann for “Man of the West” (1958). Largely considered the best of his final films, “The Hanging Tree” (1959) had Cooper as a frontier doctor attempting to be the moral anchor of a bawdy, troubled mining town and live down a dark past. His last two films, nautical mystery “The Wreck of the Mary Dearer” (1959) and psychological thriller “The Naked Edge” (1961), both showed a diminished, ill-looking Cooper, the result of cancer diagnosed in 1960, but kept from the public. One of his good friends, Jimmy Stewart, knew of Cooper’s medical state when he emotionally accepted a special lifetime Oscar in spring 1961, Cooper spending his final days in his and Ricky’s home in L.A.’s Holm by Hills neighborhood, until his death on May 14, 1961. He and Sidney Poitier share the distinction of being the only actors to have five films in the American Film Institute’s 100 Most Inspiring Movies” list, with “Pride of the Yankees” at No. 22, “High Noon” at 27, “D ” at 49, “York” at 57 and “Deeds” at 83.