The Story of Jackie Coogan, the Actor and Millionaire Kid Who Was Ripped Off by His Own Parents
Jackie Coogan was born into a family of theater actors in Los Angeles in 1914. He started his acting career at a young age and his outstanding talent made him a millionaire. But according to the law, a kid couldn’t manage this money and he had to entrust his finances to his parents. Jackie lived on $6 per day with the thought he was going to get all of his earnings at 21. But unlike the movies, a happy ending in real life is a rare thing.
Bright Side was astonished by the story of this boy. It received such a public outcry, that it even changed US law. So let’s start from the beginning!
His parents, actors John and Lillian, taught Jackie the things that they knew well — acting, dancing, and singing. He first performed on stage at the age of 4 with a dance called the shimmy. In those days, this dance was thought to be too explicit and many opposed it. However, Jackie’s debut melted people’s hearts and it gave him a chance to continue his acting career together with his parents.
In 1919 a key event in his life took place — he was noticed by Charlie Chaplin. “Whatever this boy was doing looked charming,” — Charlie wrote about little Coogan. Chaplin’s movie Skinner’s Baby became Jackie’s first significant work in cinematography. Later he got a contract with First National Studio and by the age of 9, this “baby” had become one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood.
First millions and first problems
Jackie with his younger brother and parents
His parents decided to establish the company, Jackie Coogan Productions, that produced 33 movies. With this money started to flow abundantly — Jackie earned about $4 million in total through this company (that’s approximately $50 million today) but no laws ever dictated that a 12-year-old kid could possess this amount money, that’s why it was his father who was controlling his finances and contracts. Jackie was promised that he would get his money when he became an adult.
This often happens to kids actors — the older they get, the less sought-after they become. A collaboration with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had an unsuccessful ending for the boy’s future career — his father was demanding that he be paid too high an amount and the head of the movie studio decided to get rid of Jackie and also forbade partnering companies from working with him.
The interest in the boy’s acting was almost non-existent, and he was expelled from the university he was attending due to poor behavior. So he decided to simply wait until he turned 21 to get his money and start a new life. However, a turning point took place in 1935 — Jackie, his father, and 3 members of the company got into an accident where only Jackie survived. Soon after this, his mother married Arthur Bernstein who was managing her son’s company going forward. That’s when the talks that they were not going to return the money to the boy first appeared.
His career in the cinema was over and there was no money left for living. Jackie’s mother and stepfather even stopped giving Jackie the $6 per day for pocket expenses. As it turned out, they had lived a life of luxury and spent the entire $4 million, thinking Jackie would earn more. In 1938, 24-year-old Jackie took his parents to court and sued them for not keeping their promise, for not being able to save his money, and for spending all of his finances.
His mother insisted that she didn’t make any promises to Jackie. However, she quickly took back those words when Coogan’s lawyers informed her that, in this case, they shouldn’t have had the right to manage his money. Then Lillian decided to insist on the fact that one cannot trust money to such an irresponsible person and that he actually earned much less — about $1.3 million.
The investigation lasted a year and a half, but the facts obtained indicated Jackie’s victory. The company was established for saving Jackie’s money, but only $250,000 was left at that moment. His father turned out to be the main spender who had a debt of $85,000 still left in his name. The boy’s parents were trying to establish a business — they were buying property and investing in stocks, but since they didn’t have any outstanding talent in managing this type of business, the money was wasted.
By court order, Jackie received $126,000, an old house in Los Angeles, and the rights to some of his films, which could no longer bring income. The money was quickly spent on lawyers and debts. The rest of it he invested in a car-repair business, but this money was lost too.
After the fact, his talents didn’t bring him any further income, but the lawsuit drew public attention to the imperfection of US law and its obvious gaps regarding the protection of a child’s capital. There have been rumors that were started afterward saying that young cinema stars end up getting nothing and it made the authorities adopt a law protecting the savings of famous kids.
Coogan Law appeared in 1939. According to it, the employer could sign a contract to attract a child to work only with a predetermined percentage of the fee that would be transferred to the kid’s savings account (known as a Coogan Trust Account). The kid would be allowed to use the funds earned once they became an adult. This is one of the most important laws in the USA today. Since 2000, the money set aside in the account cannot be less than 15% of the initial payment.
Returning to the cinema and his final years
In 1941, Coogan joined the army to earn a living. He has served there for 5 years but his thoughts about the cinema never left him, though returning to that business didn’t seem real. Jackie described the situation as, “I knew everyone in Hollywood and everyone knew me. Of course, I could approach producers but they would tell me, “What are we gonna do with you?”
He had been trying himself in many different jobs for a long time when, in 1947, he finally took a part in a movie. Since that moment, Coogan started to constantly appear in episodic and minor roles until the moment The Addams Family started to be filmed in 1964. That’s when he became recognizable again, and this time it was not because of his childhood movies, but thanks to his role as Uncle Fester in the black comedy.
Jackie Coogan died on March 1, 1984, at the age of 69, from heart failure. The actor’s career was far from being as successful as other celebrities’, but it’s thanks to him that talented kids today can feel that their savings are secure.
Bonus: Interesting facts about Jackie Coogan
Jackie with his wife Betty Grable
- At the age of 10, Jackie went on a charity trip to collect clothes and food for the needy. He spent about $1 million on the trip itself, and the campaign was so successful it resulted in him collecting the equivalent of about $35 million worth of stuff to give out to those in need.
- 15 minutes before the car accident where Jackie’s father died, the boy changed places with one of the passengers to make his communication with others more comfortable. It saved his life. After the accident, Coogan started to be on the receiving end of lawsuits from relatives of the deceased, demanding $300,000 as compensation. The court didn’t satisfy these.
- Coogan is one of the first kids from whom the epoch of merch ( official products with the symbols of artists, bands, etc.) started. His photo was on the packs of many goods, it was also used for creating small figurines and dolls.
- He was married 4 times and had 4 kids.
- At the age of 2, he was speaking Pig Latin fluently.
- You can see the shimmy dance performed by Jackie in this episode of My Boy.
Have you ever seen movies with this actor? Are you going to watch a recently released cartoon based on The Addams Family sitcom? We would be glad to hear from you in the comments!
Preview photo credit The Kid / First National