Gary Cooper (1901-1961)

Gary Cooper (1901-1961)

"Known as Coop to friends and fans alike, he was an actor equally adept in action movies as he was in light comedies. The tall, rangy, and handsome Gary Cooper spent 35 years as an actor (almost all of them as a star) and appeared in more than 90 films, surprisingly few of which were losers at the box office. Despite an undeserved reputation as an actor with a dramatic range from "Yep" to "Nope," his performances have been rich and varied - and almost always on target.

Born Frank J. Cooper in Montana to English parents, young Cooper was sent to Britain for his education. He planned to become a cartoonist, but there were no jobs for him when he returned to Los Angeles, then his parents’ home. Having been reared in the West, Cooper knew how to ride horses and was able to get a job as an extra in a frontier film, The Thundering Herd (1925). In fact, most of his early work in films was as an extra in westerns. in 1926 Cooper accepted a long-term contract with Paramount Pictures. 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."

Gary Cooper postcard, 1920s

He was learning his craft as an actor in the late 1920s but also making a modest name for himself. He had a small role in the Clara Bow movie It (1927), and after two leading roles in minor films had an important supporting part in one of the biggest hits of 1927, the Academy Award-winning Wings. He had leading roles in 11 more silent films during 1928 and 1929. In the late 1920s, talkies took Hollywood by storm. So fast was the transformation that during the production of Richard Wallace's The Shopworn Angel (in 1928), costars Gary Cooper and Nancy Carroll were suddenly informed that the producers planned to convert the silent film into a talkie. "I studied my script containing this new thing called dialogue," Cooper recalled many years later, "until I was letter perfect." The dialogue came after fifty-nine minutes and forty-five seconds of silence, in the hour-long film's final wedding scene:

Cooper: "I do."
Carroll: "I do."

"Based on those four words," Cooper later recalled, "the picture was released as a talkie!"

Cooper became a major star with his first performance in a 'real' talkie, the classic western The Virginian (1929). Because of the film’s laconic style, Cooper was forever fixed in the minds of many as a monosyllabic actor, but the film managed to establish him singlehandedly as the quintessential western star. Cooper would often return to the genre throughout his career, especially during the 1950s when his career needed a boost.

In the 1930s, however, Cooper’s career was on a steady upward curve. He was a strong, charismatic leading man for Marlene Dietrich in Morocco (1930), and he played a simple carnival worker drawn into the underworld in Rouben Mamoulian’s cleverly directed City Streets (1931), one of the biggest box-office hits of the year. In 1932, he starred in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms with Helen Hayes, a movie that many consider the best film adaptation of any of Hemingway’s works. In fact, when Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) was filmed, the author specifically requested that Cooper star in the movie.

Paramount ad in Photoplay magazine, 1928

Cooper did not try his hand at comedy until he appeared in Noel Coward’s Design for Living (1933). It was an awkward attempt and not altogether successful, but he learned from the experience and later became one of Hollywood’s most endearing light comedians, using his awkwardness to advantage in the Frank Capra social comedies Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Meet John Doe (1941). Cooper once said that the reason he remained popular was because he always played "Mr. Average Joe American." That was certainly true in the Capra films and in most of his comedies, and whether average or not, his comic heroes were always charmingly innocent. For instance, he played a modest rancher in The Cowboy and the Lady (1938), an innocuous professor in Ball of Fire (1941), and a sweet-natured good samaritan in Good Sam (1948), to name just a few.

But even as his comic gift became apparent, he continued to please as an action hero, dominating the screen in one impressive picture after another, with hits such as Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), The General Died at Dawn (1936), The Plainsman (1936), and Beau Geste (1939).

With Mae West and W.C. Fields

In 1940, Cooper starred in The Westerner, a movie about the life of Judge Roy Bean. Walter Brennan played the crafty old judge and stole the movie, winning a Best Supporting Oscar. It must have seemed to Cooper that playing historical figures made good sense, and he soon followed with a string of biopics beginning with Sergeant York (1941), for which he won his first Best Actor Oscar.

He followed that with The Pride of the Yankees (1942), playing baseball great Lou Gehrig, and The Story of Dr. Wassell (1944), a movie loosely based on the true story of a hero in the Pacific campaign during World War II. It seemed as if Cooper was off to a fresh start in the postwar years when he produced and starred in his own western, the agreeable Along Came Jones (1945). But, finally, after 20 years, Cooper’s popularity began to falter. His performances in the latter 1940s were flaccid; even in his more interesting films, such as The Fountainhead (1949) based on Ayn Rand’s novel, Cooper was oddly miscast (or, more accurately, too old for the part). In the early 1950s, his career went from bad to worse as he suffered through several terrible flops.

1958 - Gary Cooper presenting Oscar at ceremony

It was time for the actor to return to his old faithful genre, the western. The "horse opera" had become quite popular in the 1950s, and no one looked better in buckskin than Cooper - not even John Wayne. Cooper’s first two westerns in 1952 did reasonably decent business and kept him afloat as a viable star. But the third film of that year brought him back to the pinnacle of success. The movie was High Noon. Aged 51 but looking older, Cooper won his second Academy Award for Best Actor and great critical acclaim for his controlled, understated portrayal of the embattled marshall facing his enemies, and his destiny, alone.

Throughout the rest of the decade, he made a mix of films, though the most commercially successful ones were, once again, his westerns: Vera Cruz (1954), Man of the West (1958), and The Hanging Tree (1959). He made some other fine films in the latter 1950s, though few of them turned a profit. The most satisfying was the story of a May/December romance, Love in the Afternoon (1957), in which Cooper falls in love with Audrey Hepburn. His last film was The Naked Edge (1961), in which Deborah Kerr, as his wife, believes his character to be a murderer." [1]

Personal life

Headshot of Veronica Balfe (Rocky) during her brief acting career in 1933

Cooper had high-profile relationships with actresses Clara Bow, Lupe Vélez, and the American-born socialite-spy Countess Carla Dentice di Frasso (née Dorothy Caldwell Taylor, formerly wife of British pioneer aviator Claude Grahame-White). He is also believed to have had an affair with actor Anderson Lawler, with whom he lived, and who introduced him to Hollywood society.

With Lupe Velez, 1929

On December 15, 1933, Cooper wed Veronica Balfe, (May 27 1913 - February 16 2000), known as "Rocky". Balfe was a New York Roman Catholic socialite who had briefly acted under the name of Sandra Shaw. She appeared in the film No Other Woman, but her most widely seen role was in King Kong, as the woman dropped by Kong. Her third and final film was Blood Money. Her father was governor of the New York Stock Exchange, and her uncle was Cedric Gibbons. During the 1930s she also became the California state women's skeet shooting champion. They had one child, Maria, now Maria Cooper Janis, married to classical pianist Byron Janis. Eventually, Cooper's wife persuaded Cooper to convert to Catholicism in 1958. After he was married, but prior to his conversion, Cooper had affairs with several famous co-stars, including Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly, and Patricia Neal. He pressured Neal to have an abortion in 1950, since fathering a child out of wedlock could have destroyed his career. Cooper's daughter Maria, when she was a little girl, famously spat at Neal, but many years later, the two became friends. Cooper separated from his wife between 1951 and 1954.

Gary Cooper being interviewed at the HUAC investigation

In 1944, Cooper joined the anti-communist Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. While filming Good Sam, he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on October 23 1947, characterized as a "friendly" witness. Asked if he had observed "communistic influence in Hollywood", Cooper named no one in particular but said he had "turned down quite a few scripts because I thought they were tinged with communistic ideas"; he also said he had heard statements such as "don't you think the Constitution of the United States is about a 150 years out of date?" and "perhaps this would be a more efficient government without a Congress" — statements he characterized as "very un-American." He also told the committee the following:

Several years ago, when communism was more of a social chit-chatter in parties for offices, and so on when communism didn't have the implications that it has now, discussion of communism was more open and I remember hearing statements from some folks to the effect that the communistic system had a great many features that were desirable. It offered the actors and artists — in other words, the creative people — a special place in government where we would be somewhat immune from the ordinary leveling of income. And as I remember, some actor's name was mentioned to me who had a house in Moscow which was very large — he had three cars, and stuff, with his house being quite a bit larger than my house in Beverly Hills at the time — and it looked to me like a pretty phony come-on to us in the picture business. From that time on, I could never take any of this pinko mouthing very seriously, because I didn't feel it was on the level.

Cooper's testimony occurred a month before the Hollywood blacklist was established.

In April 1960, Cooper underwent surgery for prostate cancer after it had spread to his colon. It spread to his lungs and bones shortly thereafter. He died one month later at the relatively youthful age of 60, and his reputation as an actor has not diminished since. To fans still reeling from the death of Clark Gable six months earlier, it seemed that Hollywood's Golden Era had suddenly died, as well. He made an extraordinary number of fine films, and it is no wonder that he was among the top 10 draws during 19 of the 22 years between 1936 and 1957. Knowing that he was ill, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences properly honored him with a special Oscar in April 1960 which was accepted on his behalf by his friend James Stewart, who was close to tears at times.


  • The Naked Edge (1961)
  • The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959)
  • They Came to Cordura (1959)
  • Alias Jesse James (1959)
  • The Hanging Tree (1959)
  • Man of the West (1958)
  • Ten North Frederick (1958)
  • Love in the Afternoon (1957)
  • Friendly Persuasion (1956)
  • The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955)
  • Vera Cruz (1954)
  • Garden of Evil (1954)
  • Blowing Wild (1953)
  • Return to Paradise (1953)
  • Springfield Rifle (1952)
  • High Noon (1952)
  • Distant Drums (1951)
  • It's a Big Country (1951)
  • You're in the Navy Now (1951)
  • Dallas (1950)
  • Bright Leaf (1950)
  • Task Force (1949)
  • The Fountainhead (1949)
  • Snow Carnival (1949) (voice)
  • Good Sam (1948)
  • Unconquered (1947)
  • Cloak and Dagger (1946)
  • Saratoga Trunk (1945)
  • Along Came Jones (1945)
  • Casanova Brown (1944)
  • The Story of Dr. Wassell (1944)
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)
  • The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
  • Ball of Fire (1941)
  • Sergeant York (1941)
  • Meet John Doe (1941)
  • North West Mounted Police (1940)
  • The Westerner (1940)
  • The Real Glory (1939)
  • Beau Geste (1939)
  • The Cowboy and the Lady (1938)
  • The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938)
  • Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938)
  • Souls at Sea (1937)
  • Lest We Forget (1937)
  • The Plainsman (1936)
  • The General Died at Dawn (1936)
  • Hollywood Boulevard (1936) (uncredited)
  • Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)
  • Desire (1936)
  • Peter Ibbetson (1935)
  • The Wedding Night (1935)
  • The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)
  • Now and Forever (1934)
  • Operator 13 (1934)
  • Design for Living (1933)
  • Alice in Wonderland (1933)
  • One Sunday Afternoon (1933)
  • Today We Live (1933)
  • A Farewell to Arms (1932)
  • If I Had a Million (1932)
  • Devil and the Deep (1932)
  • His Woman (1931)
  • I Take This Woman (1931)
  • City Streets (1931)
  • The Slippery Pearls (1931)
  • Fighting Caravans (1931)
  • Morocco (1930)
  • The Spoilers (1930)
  • A Man from Wyoming (1930)
  • The Texan (1930)
  • Paramount on Parade (1930)
  • Only the Brave (1930)
  • Seven Days' Leave (1930)
  • The Virginian (1929)
  • Betrayal (1929)
  • The Wolf Song (1929)
  • The Shopworn Angel (1928)
  • The First Kiss (1928)
  • Lilac Time (1928)
  • Red Hair (1928)
  • The Legion of the Condemned (1928)
  • Doomsday (1928)
  • Beau Sabreur (1928)
  • Half a Bride (1928)
  • Nevada (1927)
  • Wings (1927)
  • The Last Outlaw (1927)
  • Children of Divorce (1927)
  • Arizona Bound (1927)
  • It (1927) (uncredited)
  • Bad Man's Bluff (1926)
  • Old Ironsides (1926) (uncredited)
  • Lightnin' Flashes (1926) (unconfirmed)
  • The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926)
  • Lightnin' Wins (1926)
  • Thundering Speed (1926) (uncredited)
  • Watch Your Wife (1926) (uncredited)
  • A Six Shootin' Romance (1926) (uncredited)
  • The Johnstown Flood (1926) (uncredited)
  • The Enchanted Hill (1926) (uncredited)
  • Three Pals (1926) (uncredited)
  • Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)
  • North Star (1925) (uncredited)
  • Warrior Gap (1925) (uncredited)
  • Tricks (1925) (uncredited)
  • The Eagle (1925) (uncredited)
  • The Vanishing American (1925)
  • The Lucky Horseshoe (1925) (uncredited)
  • Wild Horse Mesa (1925) (uncredited)
  • Riders of the Purple Sage (1925) (uncredited)
  • The Thundering Herd (1925) (uncredited)
  • The Trail Rider (1925) (uncredited)
  • Dick Turpin (1925) (uncredited)
  • The Last Hour (1923) (uncredited)