BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
“People wrote in by the droves, ‘Who is that young flier who got killed? We want more of him!” says his daughter, Maria, of how Cooper’s career took off after the 1927 silent aviation classic Wings, which won the first Academy Award.
Cooper, one of the biggest stars of Hollywood’s golden age, is enjoying a posthumous home-video revival: High Noon and Wings have recently been released on Blu-ray; this month Warner Archive issued on DVD one of his final films, 1959’s The Hanging Tree ($18).
“One of the things I love about The Hanging Treeis that it has ways of showing the nuances of his being an actor,” Maria Cooper Janis says. In the film, Cooper plays a Gold Rush medical doctor with a dark past.
“The story is much more interesting and a much more human kind of story,” Janis says. “It’s a nonwestern western.”
Janis, 74, describes her father’s early appeal: “There’s a combination when he was very young of extreme male beauty, extreme maleness and also a tremendous feminine vulnerability — all wrapped up in six-foot-four of a good-looking guy, plus he had a natural ability to act. He never went to school or took courses.”
Despite his lack of formal training, Cooper eventually won two Oscars for Best Actor: for Sergeant York(1941) and High Noon (1952). Other films in his canon: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, The Pride of the Yankees, For Whom the Bell Tolls and Friendly Persuasion.
Among his best friends: Ernest Hemingway. “He and Hemingway used to joke they both had a BS detector that was very far ranging,” Janis says. “They could pick it up a mile away.”
Cooper was known during the 1940s and ’50s as a political conservative. “Would he be wearing that hat today? I would say no. Categorically say no. I know the things he held for,” his daughter says.
During the Hollywood blacklist period, Cooper was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He wouldn’t name names.
“Mr. Cooper, have you ever heard anyone say something that was communist or un-American?” he was asked in 1947.
“He looked at his cufflinks, he looked at the microphone and very deliberately, like one of this best roles, he said, ‘Well, I have heard some people say we might have a more efficient government without a Congress,” Janis recalls. “He had a great sense of justice. He was quite castigated by the far right in Hollywood at the time. He was threatened he would never work in this town again.”
Five years later, Cooper made High Noon, about a town marshal who shoots it out alone with a gang of killers. Many called it an allegory for the era’s communist witch hunt.
Cooper died of lung cancer in 1961.
“He had just had his 60th birthday,” Janis says. “He smoked like a chimney. He tried to give it up so many times. The only complaint I ever heard him make about the issue of dying, he said: ‘Damn it, just when I was beginning to learn what acting is all about.’ He was proud of his profession; he was always wanting to do better.”