Gary Cooper, one of the most popular and successful male stars of Hollywood’s golden age, will be celebrated across Los Angeles on April 24—more than 60 years after his death, but with his legacy more visible than ever. Thanks to the longtime efforts of his daughter, Maria Cooper Janis, now 84, his archives will be housed at the University of Southern California, which will honor him with an exhibition of his most treasured memorabilia. And to pay tribute to the 70th anniversary of High Noon, Cooper’s landmark picture will be screened Sunday at the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival in Hollywood and at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at USC. Daughter Maria, the keeper of the Cooper flame, will be present for both events.
In addition, Maria has just published a memoir, Gary Cooper Off Camera, A Daughter Remembers, whose proceeds will go to a USC scholarship named for Cooper that supports Indigenous students. While all of this Cooper hoopla came together in a kind of magical confluence, decades of work went into making it happen.
First, some background for the uninitiated. Born in Montana, in 1901, Gary Cooper was still a teenager when his family moved to Los Angeles. By the time he was 25, he was making $10 a day as an extra in silent films, mostly Westerns, and was usually atop a horse. Off camera, he was seeing studio chief Sam Goldwyn’s secretary, Valeria Belletti. And while he was visiting her on the lot one day, she tried to help him by asking the screenwriter Frances Marion to size him up. Marion always had an eye for tall, good-looking men with chiseled features. (To wit: Two of the most smoldering examples of Cooper’s visage appear in the Vanity Fair photographs shown here, by Edward Steichen, from 1928, and George Hoyningen-Huene, from 1934.)
After appreciatively admiring Cooper, Marion decided she’d write a part for him in the Ronald Colman movie she was working on at the time, The Winning of Barbara Worth. About halfway through production, however, Marion realized she would have to cut back Cooper’s role—his commanding presence was stealing the picture from Colman, Goldwyn’s biggest star. Still, the studio head resisted signing Cooper to a contract. Instead, Goldwyn was willing to start him at $65 a week and go up to $750 a week after six years, but he balked at the $1,000 a week Cooper held out for.
The result was that when The Winning of Barbara Worth premiered, Cooper was unattached, and by 10 o’clock the next morning, a rival studio scout, who had been in the audience the night before, had him signed to Paramount. The actor was soon appearing onscreen with Clara Bow, who became his offscreen interest as well. Goldwyn had lost a star, and his secretary had lost a boyfriend, but Cooper didn’t look back.
He made multiple movies a year, appearing consistently in starring roles, until his death from cancer in 1961 at the age of 60. Over the decades he played opposite almost every major actor of the period, from Bow to Grace Kelly, co-starring with such luminaries as Fay Wray, Colleen Moore, Marlene Dietrich, Sylvia Sidney, Carole Lombard, Tallulah Bankhead, Helen Hayes, Joan Crawford, Miriam Hopkins, Marion Davies, Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert, Audrey Hepburn, and Ingrid Bergman. The broad range of characters he was willing to take on is exemplified in the two movies he made with Barbara Stanwyck: Meet John Doe, in which he portrays a blue-collar “everyman,” and Ball of Fire, in which he plays a comedic and endearingly nerdy professor. He also depicted real-life heroes, such as Alvin York (Sergeant York) and Lou Gehrig (Pride of the Yankees), often using his eyes more than dialogue to evoke emotion. In the process, Cooper was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning best actor for Sergeant York (1941) and High Noon (1952). He was also presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1961, a month before his death.