John Leslie “Jackie” Coogan, Jr. was an American actor who began his movie career as a child actor in silent films. Many years later, he became known as Uncle Fester on 1960s sitcom The Addams Family. In the interim, he sued his mother and stepfather over his squandered film earnings and provoked California to enact the first known legal protection for the earnings of child performers.
Jackie Coogan was born in Los Angeles, California, to John Henry Coogan, Jr., the son of John Henry Coogan, Sr., and Lilian Rita Dolliver Coogan. He began his acting career as an infant in both vaudeville and film, with an uncredited role in the 1917 film Skinner’s Baby. Charlie Chaplin discovered him in the Orpheum Theatre, Los Angeles, a vaudeville house, doing the shimmy, a popular dance at the time, on the stage. His father, Jack Coogan, Sr. was also an actor. The boy was a natural mimic, and delighted Chaplin with his abilities in this area. As a child actor, he is best remembered for his role as Charlie Chaplin’s irascible sidekick in the film classic The Kid and for the title role in Oliver Twist, directed by Frank Lloyd, the following year. He was also one of the first stars to be heavily merchandised, with peanut butter, stationery, whistles, dolls, records, and figurines just a sample of Coogan merchandise on offer. He also traveled internationally, to be received by huge crowds. Many of his early films are lost or unavailable, but Turner Classic Movies recently presented The Rag Man with a new score. Coogan was famous for his pageboy haircut and his The Kid outfit of oversize overalls and cap, which was widely imitated, including by the young Scotty Beckett in the Our Gang films.
He was tutored until the age of ten, after which he attended Urban Military Academy and other prep schools, and then several colleges, including the University of Southern California. In 1932 he left Santa Clara University because of poor grades.
On May 4, 1935, Coogan was the sole survivor of a car crash in San Diego County that claimed the life of his father, and his best friend Junior Durkin, a child actor best known as Huckleberry Finn in two films of the early 1930s. The accident took place just short of Coogan’s twenty-first birthday.