Call it crazy. Call it silly, even. But for whatever
reason, he is the best. Though he's been gone for thirty-eight years, Gary
Cooper is my favorite actor. He is romantic, charming, funny, persuasive,
moving, and passionate.
Picture a young Cooper, perhaps 28 years old, reciting lines of Romeo and Juliet to his costar as a boot-wearing cowboy and his girl as a prim New England school teacher. She appears to be out of place in a western town yet drawn to this handsome wrangler who seems to melt her heart with the words of Shakespeare. How can one be so refined and wild at the same time? Coop can. This film I described was 1929's The Virginian in black and white and one of Cooper's first talkies.
Imagine a soldier in World War I watching painfully as his sweet lover dies in his arms after a strainful childbirth. He softly demands that she not be afraid. "You're not afraid, are you, Cat?"... "We've never really been apart, have we?"... "Say you believe that, Cat. Say it." She shows a crazed look of relief as he breathes those words on her pale cheeks. "I believe it..." she insists. The theme flares with music in the background, "And I'm not afraid!" She takes a deep breath then remains lifeless in his arms. Church bells chime as he sobs with conviction. A Farewell to Arms from 1932 with Helen Hayes. Cooper had never gone that intensely dramatic before. It paid off, considering such a moving performance.
My most memorable scenes are of him and the lovely Ingrid Bergman in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The setting is in the Spanish Mountains during the Spanish Civil War. She stops him and says, " If I knew how, I would kiss you." He embraces her and she asks softly, "Where do the noses go?" He kisses her lightly. "They're not in the way are they? I always thought they would be in the way," she kisses him back, "I know how now." He draws her away. "What? Did I do it wrong?" she replies meekly. "No." He kisses her deeply. The scene fades from glorious Technicolor to black. That was made in 1943.
The ultimate scene that seems to be chiseled into my mind is the long, black and white, pulled back shot of Marshall Will Kane alone in a deserted town on that lonely, dusty main street as he looks desperately about with his silver star pinned to his vest and sparkling in the heavy sunlight of almost high noon. Or the ticking of the clock scene, where he sits at his office desk scribbling out his will and testament with nervous sweat upon him. The ticking gets louder and louder and so he becomes more afraid because his time is almost up. A western film had never been so realistic before. For once the hero was afraid to die. He was up against four outlaws alone without any help from the rest of the town. The men were coming to have a revengeful shootout at high noon. He knows all odds are against him. And knowing this, he puts his head down on the desk and just cries into his hands. When would you ever see the Marshall of a Western crying because he's afraid of being killed by the bad guys? He won his second Oscar(r) for High Noon in 1952.
Gary Cooper is not only romantic and dramatic, but he's uniquely funny as well. With unbelievable character and boyish charm, the shoes of the average American man are filled in Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. As the eccentric Longfellow Deeds, a greeting card poet and avid tuba player from a quaint New England town called Mandrake Falls, Gary Cooper excels at pouring the heart and soul into a man who sees the goodness of the world and wants no part of the arrogant vultures who try to prey upon him. Mr. Deeds inherits a gift of 20 million dollars from a lost relative and is taken to New York City where everyone wants a piece of his good fortune. He acts very much like a boy for he knows no wrong. At six feet, three inches and dressed in a suit and overcoat, he puts his hat on his head and slides down a winding banister made of marble in his new mansion. His face lights up when he hears the roaring sounds of fire engines flying down the street. He is arrested when, after getting drunk, he strips down to his underwear and walks about the streets of New York shouting, "Back to nature! Why wear clothes?" And a conniving newspaperwoman played by Jean Arthur dubs him "The Cinderella Man" in her newspaper. Deeds decides to give his money away to struggling farmers and is called insane by those around him. But Cooper's Mr. Deeds prevails because he's honest and good. He is the average man standing up for what is right, and he is then proclaimed the sanest man there in a court of law where he had to prove his sanity. Cooper received an Oscar(r) nomination for that 1936 performance.
He was the Pride of the Yankees as the great Lou Gehrig and during
World War II, Gary Cooper flew over seas to deliver the famous Lou Gehrig speech to the thousands of men waiting to go into battle, and the speech ended with: "I'm the luckiest man...on the face of the Earth."
As the World War I hero Sergeant York, Cooper won his first Oscar(r) in 1941. It was presented to him by his good friend James Stewart, who won the year before as Best Actor. Gary's face creased with the widest smile as he approached the podium and held the little gold man within his hands. Nervously he said, "I always dreamed I might get one of these. Funny, in my dream I always made a good speech," and with that he almost left the Oscar(r) there.
That was Coop all right. I've nearly memorized his quotes from biographies I've watched and read. I wish I had known him. But in a way, through his film work and his biographies, I got a chance to see the man behind the pretty face that was compared to that of Garbo's and those soul-revealing blue eyes.
Frank James Cooper was born in Helena, Montana, on May 7, 1901, to British parents who had settled West. Coop was brought up with the real cowboys and Native Americans of the time. His mother thought that her two boys, Frank and his older brother Arthur, were becoming too wild in Montana so she sent them to a preppy boarding school in England. There Frank became a refined young man and after years of schooling, he returned home. His father was a judge and was later elected to the Montana State Court. When Frank came home, World War I was approaching, and he and his mother practically ran their Montana ranch on their own, for Arthur went off to war and Judge Cooper had to stay with his court room. Frank later roamed from college to college, not really athletic or academic, but he could do one thing he liked, and that was draw. He drew beautiful scenes of Indians and wildlife and saw himself as a budding commercial artist. But when that failed, Frank joined his parents in Hollywood where the Judge was doing business. There he met old friends and they convinced him to be in the movies as an extra because he was an excellent horseman. And so he began as a great actor, being an extra and a stuntman in silent Westerns.
At first he doubted his acting talent, admitting, "I never wanted to be an actor...I just got lucky." As his fame spread in the late 1920s and into the 1930s, he became involved with his leading ladies who demanded that he be their costar. All the actresses of the day wanted him, at six feet, three inches, fair, devastatingly handsome, rugged, with long, black lashes to go with his striking blue eyes. A few of his women included Clara Bow, Lupe Velez, Marlene Dietrich, and Carole Lombard. But the man inside the newly christened Gary Cooper, by his agent after her hometown of Gary, Indiana, was falling apart. He couldn't handle the escapades of Clara Bow and Lupe Velez, and he suffered a nervous breakdown in the early 1930s. To calm his emotional state, Gary went for a complete change of scenery. He went on a cruise that led him to Europe and the friendship of the wealthy Countess di Frasso. She gave him the impeccable taste for expensive things and luxury that would later define part of his legendary image.
Gary Cooper only married once though continued to have affairs with his leading ladies and other women from then on. In 1933, Cooper married the New York socialite Veronica Balfe, nicknamed Rocky. They had their first and only daughter in1937, Maria. Cooper was devoted to his Maria, yet not so with Rocky when pertaining to his numerous affairs. Later women included Ingrid Bergman, Patricia Neal, and Grace Kelly. Patricia Neal was the only other woman who made a great impact on Cooper's personal life.
The two fell completely in love during intense filming of The Fountainhead in late 1948. The affair soon could not be hidden from Rocky or the press. In the early 1950s, Gary separated from Rocky. Patricia had had enough and called it quits not too long after in the mid 1950s and so Gary took a vacation around the world. With his failing health, he willingly returned home to his wife and daughter. He converted to Catholicism and had some surgeries for his Prostate and the removal of face lesions. His back continued to bother him and in early 1961 he found out that he was dying of cancer. A choked up James Stewart accepted an honorary Oscar(r) for Cooper in 1961, saying, "We're all very proud of you, Coop. All of us are tremendously proud." With excruciating pain all over his body, Cooper began to die in his home in Hollywood. Friends like Audrey Hepburn and others went to see him as he amazingly gardened in his garden wearing his slippers.
Gary Cooper, the legend, the man, died on May 13, 1961, at 60 years old and 6 days after his birthday. And with him went everything his fans held dear to old Hollywood, a glorious leading man, the hero of the West, the arc of human triumph as the average man, and the American icon that would never be replaced by another living soul.
I have collected some quotes said about Cooper from one of his web sites on-line. Here are a few of my favorites.
"Some people are just nice guys and nothing, not even Hollywood, can change it."
---Actor Richard Arlen
"He is one of the most beloved illiterates this country has ever known."
---Poet Carl Sandburg
"He had the soul of a boy-a pure, simple, nice, warm boy's soul... He was the incarnation of the honorable American."
---Stockholm, Sweden newspaper Svenska Dagbladet
"The qualities that made Cooper a great star had little to do with acting."
---Writer Brendan Gill
"He was a poet of the real. He knew all about cows, bulls, cars, and the ocean tides. He had the enthusiasm of a boy. He could always tell you his first vivid impression of a thing. He had an old-fashioned politeness, but he said nothing casually."
---Poet Clifford Odetts
"His death left a void no other actor can fill."
---Gary Cooper biographer Homer Dickens
"He was the symbol of trust, confidence and protection. He is dead now. What a miracle that he existed."
---Hamburg newspaper Die Welt
"I looked at it this way. To get folks to like you, as a screen player I mean, I figured you had to sort of be their ideal. I don't mean a handsome knight riding a white horse, but a fella who answered the description of a right guy."
"The only achievement I am really proud of is the friends I have made in this community."
"There ain't never a horse that couldn't be rode...there ain't never a rider that couldn't be throwed."
---Gary Cooper and his life philosophy as quoted by Maria Cooper Janis in an interview from last year for an A&E Biography.
Patricia Neal said of her love affair with Cooper, "I thought he was the beauty of the world to me. Oh, but from that moment on, I just loved him. I really did."
While Cooper was filming Wings in 1927, he told the director, "I was picking my nose in that scene." "The scene was fine," the director assured him, "Maybe you should keep on picking your nose."
To me Gary Cooper remains a constant presence as far as it goes for films and the old Hollywood era. His words were simple, really, though they meant so much.
In the Virginian he had the privilege to utter one line that every small boy repeated during the late 1920s: "If you want to call me that, smile," he demanded of Walter Huston in the bar room.
Cooper painted the way for future Western stars like Joel McCrea and even John Wayne. It was said that Cooper turned down the role in Stagecoach that had made Wayne a star. Cooper turned downed the part of Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind as well. Instead he played the selfless hero who died in the name of patriotism and in the face of the beaten enemy as Beau Geste and The Plainsman. He was the celebrated Corydon Wassel in The Story of Dr. Wassel. He was the revengeful colonel who became infuriated by the sassy Ingrid Bergman in Saratoga Trunk. The eccentric English professor in Ball of Fire with Barbara Stanwyck as the sultry stripper. The soldier of fortune in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The "mother" of his baby girl in the screwball comedy Casanova Brown. The good Samaritan store manager in Good Sam. The rebel outlaw Blayde "Reb" Hollister in Dallas. The older playboy who makes love to Audrey Hepburn in Love in the Afternoon.
He was everyone the filmmakers envisioned for him. And he was the average man people saw him as. He never turned down a kid who asked for his autograph. He was humble and shy. Men liked his charm for he was like them. Women fell in love with him. He enjoyed hunting and guns. He shared a lifelong friendship with writer Ernest Hemingway. Gary even taught Pablo Picasso how to shoot. (Those were much different times he lived in.)
No one will ever see his sort of brilliance first hand again. We don't have men or actors like him in our society anymore. He can never be replaced. His films are priceless, warm, and endearing. I treasure all he stands for and the man he was. He represents a great American icon. He is proof that the American dream comes true. He called it luck. But if you really want something, go for it. Be whom you want, and be that person for all you're worth. He was as human as any of us and made many mistakes. If we could only follow our dreams and look upon the mistakes of others that seemed to teach us, our world would be what it was to him. Worthwhile and full of the future and tomorrow. So many people could enjoy our irreplaceable actors of the past, but they don't. They are missing out, after all, look what I received once I learned of Gary Cooper. Memories of his own, interesting details of history, and films that were one of a kind. They sure don't make movies like that anymore. And what movies! As an American figure and patriot, Gary Cooper is my special "mentor" and he will never be forgotten.
Jessica Anne DeStefano May 28, 1999