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Happy Birthday, Gary Cooper!

The most attractive man who has ever lived, otherwise known as Gary Cooper, was born Frank James Cooper, in Helena, Montana on May 7, 1901. He was the youngest of two sons of English immigrants Alice (née Brazier), a homemaker, and Charles Henry Cooper, a prominent lawyer, rancher and eventually a Montana Supreme Court justice.
Wanting her sons to have an English education, Alice enrolled Frank and his brother Arthur in Dunstable Grammar School in Berdfordshire, their father's birthplace, where they where educated from 1910 to 1912. At Dunstable, Frank studied Latin and French, in addition to taking several courses in English history. While he readily accepted the school's «conservative political beliefs and code of dutiful self-sacrifice as well as it admirable emphasis on discipline, loyalty, patriotism, honor and pluck,» Frank never adjusted to its formal uniforms and constricted landscape.
I didn't like England, particularly, although I did admire the extraordinary heroics of English history. I didn't like the Eton and the long trousers and short jacks and high hats we were made to wear on Sundays. I didn't like the close compactness of the tiny gardens, tended for centuries, and the ultra-formal parks. It weighed down on me.
(Gary Cooper)

The Cooper brothers in the late 1910s
Back in the United States, Frank resumed his education at Johnson Grammar School in Helena. At the age of fifteen, he injured his hip in a car accident and his doctor recommended he recuperate by horseback riding. This misguided therapy was responsible for the stiff, off-balanced walk and slightly angled riding that was to become one of his trademarks.
After attending Helena High School for two years, Frank abandoned his studies to return to the family 600-acre ranch to help raise their 500 head of cattle and work full-time as a cowboy. In 1919, however, his father arranged for him to finish his high school education at Gallatin County High School in Bozeman, Montana, where his English teacher, Ida Davis, encouraged him to focus on academics, join the school's debate team and get involved in dramatics.
Gary Cooper (top row, second from left) at Grinnell College (1922)
In 1920, while still in high school, Frank took three art courses at Montana Agricultural College. His keen interest in art was inspired by the Old West paintings of Charles Marion Russell and Frederic Remington. Two years later, he decided to enroll in Grinnell College in Iowa to continue his art education. His drawings and watercolors were exhibited throughout the dormitory and he was even named art editor for the college yearbook. In February 1924, Frank suddenly dropped out of Grinnell and went to Chicago to look for work as an artist. A month later, he returned empty-handed to Helena, where the sold editorial cartoons to the Independent, a local newspaper.
In late 1924, Charles Cooper left the Montana Supreme Court and moved with his wife to Los Angeles to administer the estates of two relatives. Frank joined them there on Thanksgiving Day and, during the weeks that followed, worked a series of unpromising jobs. One day, he ran into two friends from Montana, who had found employment as film extras and stunt riders in a series of low-budget Westerns produced by the small studios on Poverty Row. They introduced Frank to rodeo champion Jay «Slim» Talbot, who soon got him work in Hollywood. With the goal of saving enough money to pay for a professional art course, Frank accepted the offer.
Gary Cooper in The Winning of Barbara Worth

While his skills as a horseman led to a number of bit parts in Westerns, Frank found the stunt work too risky, as it often injured both horses and riders. Hoping to obtain «proper» acting roles, he paid for a screen test and hired casting director Nan Collins to serve as his agent. Aware that other actors were using the name «Frank Cooper,» Collins suggested he change his first name to «Gary» after her hometown of Gary, Indiana. Luckily, he liked the name immediately.

As filmmakers began to allow Gary Cooper more screen time, his striking good looks caught the attention of independent producer Samuel Goldwyn, who signed him to a contract in June 1926. His first important film role was in Henry King's The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), starring Ronald Colman and Vilma Bánky. The film was a major success and Gary's performance as a doomed young engineer named Abe Lee received considerable praise from critics. Goldwyn rushed to offer the 25-year-old actor a long-term contract, but Cooper decided instead to sign a five-year deal with Jesse L. Lasky, co-founder of Paramount Pictures.

Clara Bow and Gary Cooper in Children of Divorce
At Paramount, established star Clara Bow took Cooper under her wing and helped him land important roles in two of her pictures, Children of Divorce (1927) and Wings (1927). The latter, directed by the legendary William A. Wellman, was universally acclaimed upon its release and went on to win the first ever Academy Award for Best Picture.
Looking to capitalize on his growing success and audience appeal, Paramount next paired Gary with other popular leading ladies, such as Evelyn Brent in Beau Sabreur (1928), Florence Vidor in Doomsday (1928) and Esther Ralston in Half a Bride (1928). Around the same time, he also appeared opposite Colleen Moore in Lilac Time (1928), made on loan-out to First National Pictures, just before the studio was acquired by Warner Bros. This was Cooper's first film with synchronized music and sound effects, and became one of the biggest moneymakers of that year.

Gary Cooper and Mary Brian in a publicity still for The Virginian
When so many of his friends and colleagues struggled to adapt to the medium of sound pictures, Gary transitioned very naturally, with his «deep and clear» and «pleasantly drawling» voice, which was perfectly suited to the type of characters he portrayed on screen. His first talkie was Victor Fleming's highly successful The Virginian (1929), co-starring Mary Brian, Walter Huston and Richard Arlen, who had also been featured in Wings. Although the film's laconic style would forever fix him in the public's mind as a monosyllabic actor, Cooper's performance as a shy and honorable cowboy established him as one of the most important Western stars of the Classic Hollywood era. Reportedly, Cooper later said that The Virginian was his favorite film.
The 1930s were undoubtedly Cooper's most prolific decade, as Paramount allowed him to showcase his flexibility as an actor in a wide variety of genres. After reuniting with Brian in the Western Only the Brave (1930), he was cast as Marlene Dietrich's charismatic leading man in Josef von Sternberg's Morocco (1930), a romantic drama set during the Rif War. The following year, he appeared in such films as the noir City Streets (1931), with Sylvia Sidney and Paul Lukas, and the romance I Take This Woman (1931), co-starring Carole Lombard.
Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich in a publicity still for Morocco

The demands of making ten films in two years left Gary exhausted and in poor health, suffering from anemia and jaundice. In May 1931, feeling depressed by his sudden fame and wealth, he decided to leave Hollywood and sail to Europe, where he lived for the next year. 
During his time abroad, Gary stayed with the American-born Countess Dorothy di Frasso at the majestic Villa Madama in Rome. While there, she taught him about good food and vintage wines, how to read Italian and French menus, and how to socialize with the royality and nobility of Greece, Italy and England. In addition, the Countess accompanied Cooper on a ten-week big-game hunting safari to Kenya, where he was credited with over sixty kills. Following a Mediterranean cruise, a rested and rejuvenated Cooper returned to Hollywood and immediately negotiated a new contract with Paramount for two films per year, which would also give him director and script approval.
Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes in A Farewell to Arms
After completing Devil and the Deep (1932) to fulfill his old contract, Gary was chosen by director Frank Borzage to appear in his war drama A Farewell to Arms (1932), based on Ernest Hemingway's eponymous 1929 novel. Co-starring Oscar winner Helen Hayes and Adolphe Menjou, Cooper played an American ambulance driver wounded in Italy who falls in love with an English nurse during World War I. The film received generally positive reviews upon its premiere, with critics hightlighting Gary's heartfelt performance, and it eventually became one of the biggest box-office hits of that year, receiving a nomination for Best Picture at the 6th Academy Awards. A Farewell to Arms is still regarded today as the best adaptation of any of Hemingway's works.

The following year, Cooper appeared in his first comedy, Ernst Lubitsch's Design for Living (1933), based on Noël Coward's 1932 risqué play of the same name. In the film, Gary played an American artist living in Paris, who is engaged in a complicated three-way relationship with his playwright best friend (Fredric March) and a beautiful commercial artist (Miriam Hopkins). Although Design for Living opened to a lukewarm critical reception, Cooper was praised for his versatility and the film ultimately ranked as one of the top ten highest grossing films of the year. In August 1933, he legally changed his name to «Gary Cooper.»

Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

Gary followed Design for Living with a series of hits, including Now and Forever (1934), with Carole Lombard and Shirley Temple; the Best Picture nominee Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935); and Desire (1936), his second pairing with Marlene Dietrich.
A major turning point in his career occurred when he returned to Poverty Row to make Frank Capra's screwball comedy Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) for Columbia Pictures. Co-starring Jean Arthur, the film was tremendous success among audiences and critics alike, earning him his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town was also responsible for establishing the screen persona Cooper would embody for the remainder of his career: the quintessential American hero — a symbol of honesty, integrity and courage.
Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert in Bluebeard's Eighth Wife
In late 1936, as Paramount was preparing a new contract for Cooper that would substantially increase his salary, he signed a deal with Samuel Goldwyn for six films over six years. The studio took the matter to court, but it was ruled that Cooper's new Goldwyn contract allowed the actor enough time to honor his Paramount agreement.
At the same time, his career took a sudden downturn when he starred in four box-office flops in a row, including Henry Hathaway's Souls at Sea (1937) and Ernst Lubitsch's Bluebeard's Eight Wife (1938), which reunited him with Claudette Colbert, with whom he had starred in His Woman (1931). During this period, Gary rejected many important roles, such as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind (1939), but he did finish the decade on a high note with Beau Geste (1939) and The Real Glory (1939), the latter made for Goldwyn.
Gary Cooper in Sergeant York
The early 1940s were undoubtely Cooper's prime years as an actor. Within a period of three years, he starred in five critically and commercially acclaimed films that produced some of his finest performances. The first of these, Capra's Meet John Doe (1941), with Barbara Stanwyck, was received as a «national event» and Cooper was even featured on the front page of TIME magazine. 
At the same time, he appeared opposite Joan Leslie and Walter Brennan in Sergeant York (1941), a biographical film directed by his good friend Howard Hawks, in which he portrayed World War I hero Alvin C. York. The film became the highest grossing film of the year and garnered overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics, with Cooper's performance being singled out for praise. At the 14th Academy Awards, Cooper was presented with the Oscar for Best Actor.
Gary Cooper accompanied by James Stewart after receiving his first Oscar

A reunion with Hawks and Stanwyck in the smash hit Ball of Fire (1941) was followed by Sam Wood's The Pride of Yankees (1942), in which Cooper played New York Yankees All-Star and baseball legend Lou Gehrig, whose career and life was cut short in June 1941 by the terrible disease that now bears his name. Co-starring Teresa Wright as Gehrig's supporting wife Eleanor, the film was one of the year's top ten moneymakers and went on to receive eleven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor, Gary's third.

Next, Gary made For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), based on Ernest Hemingway's novel of the same name. He played Robert Jordan, an American explosives expert who fights alongside the Republican loyalists during the Spanish Civil War and falls in love with a young refugee named Maria (Ingrid Bergman). A critical and commercial success upon its release, For Whom the Bell Tolls garnered ten Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Cooper's fourth for Best Actor. 
Gary Cooper during his USO tour of the South Pacific (1943)

Due to his age and health problems, Gary did not serve in World War II; he did, however, follow the example of many of his friends and colleagues who could not enlist and got involved in the war effort by entertaining the American troops. He visited military hospitals in San Diego and frequently appeared at the Hollywood Canteen, where he served food to the servicemen.
In October 1943, the Army Service Forces requested he take a five-week tour of the South Pacific along with actresses Una Merkel and Phyllis Brooks, as well as accordionist Andy Arcari. Travelling in a B-24A Liberator bomber, the group toured the Cook Islands, Fiji, New Caledonia, Queensland, Brisbane, Darwin, New Guinea, Jayapura and the Solomon Islands. 
Gary Cooper and Loretta Young in Along Came Jones
Upon his return from the Pacific tour, Cooper appeared in Cecil B. DeMille's The Story of Dr. Wassell (1944), inspired by the wartime experiences of U.S. Navy doctor Corydon M. Wassell. Despite the poor critical reviews, the film was one of the top-grossing pictures of the year.
As his Paramount and Goldwyn contracts came to a conclusion, Cooper decided to remain an independent player and form his own production company, International Pictures, with Leo Spitz, William Goetz and Nunnally Johnson. Their first feature was Casanova Brown (1944), an unsuccessful romantic comedy that re-teamed Cooper with Teresa Wright. The following year, he produced and starred in Along Came Jones (1945), a lighthearted Western parody with Loretta Young as his leading lady. The film was a commercial success and ended up being International's biggest moneymaker before Cooper sold the company to Universal Pictures in 1946.
Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal in a publicity still for The Fountainhead

During the post-war years, Gary's career drifted in new directions as American society began to change. While he still played conventional hero-type characters, his films now seemed less on his heroic screen persona and more on novel stories and exotic settings. The results were mixed — for instance, the 19th-century costume drama Saratoga Trunk (1945) was a critical failure, but a financial hit; the World War II romantic thriller Cloak and Dagger (1946) was a decisive flop on all fronts; the epic adventure Unconquered (1947) was an unqualified box-office success, but received only lukewarm reviews; and the drama The Fountainhead (1949), his first film under a long-term contract with Warner Bros., was a critical and commercial failure.
During the making of The Fountainhead, Gary began a love affair with his young leading lady, Patricia Neal, that would have great impact on both stars' lives. Since Cooper was married (to socialite Veronica «Rocky» Balfe), they had to keep their romance a secret, although after a while it became apparent that the two were involved. After Patricia became pregnant and they decided to have an abortion, their relationship effectively ended.

Gary Cooper in High Noon
Although Cooper finished the 1940s with a hit, the military drama Task Force (1949), he began the 1950s with four poorly received pictures: Michael Curtiz's costume drama Bright Leaf (1950), his second pairing with Patricia Neal; Stuart Heisler's Western melodrama Dallas (1950), with Ruth Roman and Steve Cochran; Henry Hathway's comedy wartime You're in the Navy Now (1950), co-starring Jane Greer and Eddie Albert; and Raoul Walsh's «Florida Western» Distant Drums (1951), featuring Richard Webb and Mari Aldon.

Fortunately, Gary was brought back to the pinnacle of success when director Fred Zinnemann offered him the lead role in his Western drama High Noon (1952). In the film, Cooper played Will Kane, an aging, conflicted marshall seeking the help of townspeople to help fend off a gang whose leader (Ian MacDonald) he had put in prison. Unable to find allies and abandoned by his young Quaker wife, Amy (Grace Kelly), Kane is forced to face the outlaws alone. High Noon was an overwhelming critical and commercial success and not only revived Cooper's career, but also gave him his second Academy Award for Best Actor.
Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn in Love in the Afternoon
After High Noon, Cooper appeared in an assortment of genres, though few films managed to turn in a profit and garner positive reviews. There was, for instance, Robert Aldrich's Western Vera Cruz (1954), a critical failure, but a massive box-office hit; William Wyler's Civil War drama Friendly Persuasion (1956), which received six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture; Billy Wilder's romantic comedy Love in the Afternoon (1957), a critical and commercial success; Anthony Mann's Western drama Man of the West (1958), largely ignored by critics at the time, but now highly-regarded by film scholars; and Robert Rossen's historical adventure They Came to Cordura (1959), a minor hit.

In the early 1950s, Cooper struggled with several health problems. As well as his ongoing treatments for ulcers and hernias, he suffered severed bruises and contusions in his right shoulder during the making of Blowing Wild (1953) — the first of three films he shot in Mexico — when he was hit by fragments from a dynamited oil well. The explosion was also responsible for further impaired his hearing, which had been affected by a gun blast in Africa in 1931. While working on Vera Cruz, also filmed in Mexico, he reinjured his hip falling from a horse and was hurt when co-star Burt Lancaster accidentally fired a rifle right next to him. The wadding from the blank shell pierced Cooper's shirt and burned his skin.
Gary Cooper on location in Mexico during production on Vera Cruz

In April 1960, Cooper underwent surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital for prostate cancer. He remained hospitalized for ten days and believed he was cured. Five weeks later, however, his bowel became obstructed and he had a malignant tumor removed from his large intestine. The surgeons again thought they had excised the malignancy, but the cancer began to spread through his body. Trying to protect his privacy, Cooper denied to the press the true extent of his condition; instead, he told reporters he had been «living with uremic poison for two years.»

After recuperating over the summer, Cooper travelled to England in the fall of 1960 to make what would become his last film, The Naked Edge (1961), a thriller directed by Michael Anderson and co-starring Deborah Kerr. While he passed the psyhical examination required by the insurance company, he found the work exhausting and his health remained precarious.
Gary Cooper with his wife, Rocky, and his daughter, Maria, in New York, just before he travelled to London to make The Naked Edge (fall of 1960)
Upon his return to the United States, Gary's wife, Rocky, learned that his carcinoma had metastasized to his lungs and bones. The disease was inevitably fatal, but Rocky chose not to tell him anything about it until the end of February 1961. Although he was in great pain, he remained active and the last months of his life were surprisingly full. He worked on the NBC television documentary The Real West (1961) in December 1960; took a hunting trip to Sun Valley, Idaho in January; and went to Palm Beach, Florida for skin diving in early March 1961.

In late 1960, news of Cooper's illness began to circulate in Hollywood and many friends and admirers rallied to honor him. In January 1961, he attended a dinner at the Friars Club hosted by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. The event concluded with a brief speech delivered by a deeply moved Cooper, who said: «The only achievement I'm proud of is the friends I've made in this community. Just looking around this room makes me feel that my life has not been wasted. And if anybody asks me am I the luckiest guy in the world, my answer is — Yup!»
The Friars Club dinner in honor of Gary Cooper (January 8, 1961)
At the 33rd Academy Awards in April 1961, Gary was selected as the year's recipient of the honorary Oscar «for his many memorable screen performances and the international recognition he, as an individual, has gained for the motion picture industry.» As he was too ill to attend the ceremony, his close friend James Stewart accepted the award on his behalf. As he made his emotional speech, Stewart broke down and wept, indicating that something was seriously wrong. The next day, newspapers carried the front-page headline: «Gary Cooper Has Cancer.» On May 13, 1961, less than a week after his 60th birthday, he passed away quietly in his home.

At the Friars Club dinner to celebrate his career, Audrey Hepburn, Cooper's co-star in Love in the Afternoon, read a greeting card poem she wrote herself titled «What is a Gary Cooper?»: 
A male over six feet in lenght, lanky and bright-eyed [...]
The tallest, thinnest, kindest man. [...]
A Gary Cooper is rare, and there is only one
And there will never be another under the sun.

Gary Cooper: American Hero by Jeffrey Meyers (Cooper Square Press, 2001)
The Encyclopedia of Hollywood, Second Edition by Scott Siegel and Barbara Siegel (Facts on File, 2004)
Gary Cooper biography at TCMDb


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