Film world remembers Gary Cooper on centenary of his birth

Wednesday, May 2nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ In 1961, Hollywood was surprised when the Motion Picture Academy's board gave Gary Cooper an honorary award for his long career.

Not that he didn't deserve it. But he had already won two Oscars as best actor, and honorary awards had traditionally been presented to those who had never received one.

The explanation came at the awards ceremonies that April 17. Jimmy Stewart accepted the Oscar and spoke directly to Cooper, who was watching the show at home.

``We're very, very proud of you, Coop,'' Stewart said, unable to hold back tears. ``All of us are tremendously proud.'' He ended with a mournful ``Aw, Coop.''

The black-tie audience was stunned. It was known that Cooper was ill, but few realized how dire his condition was. Two days later, his family announced that he had cancer. President Kennedy called. So did Cooper's hunting pal, Ernest Hemingway. On May 13 he was dead, six days after his 60th birthday.

Today, Gary Cooper is a faded name, except to those addicted to vintage movie channels. To their parents and grandparents, he was the great American hero, representing the United States to the world in the glory years of Hollywood movies.

The Academy is celebrating the May 7 centennial of Cooper's birth with a symposium Thursday night that includes Cooper's daughter, Maria Cooper Janis, and his colleagues Joan Leslie, Karl Malden and Frances Dee. The tribute will be repeated at New York's Museum of Modern Art on May 31. The Academy has assembled memorabilia that includes Cooper's saddle and chaps and one of his Oscars.

Among other observances: a film series at UCLA; a tribute at the film festival in Sun Valley, Idaho, where Cooper skied and palled with Hemingway; and a program at the American Museum of the Moving Image in New York.

Among silent screen stars, Cooper was the first to bring a new kind of film acting to talkies: underplaying. Silent film actors necessarily overacted because their work was in effect pantomime. But Cooper's style was taciturn, low-key, quick to action when needed. He paved the way for a parade of strong and silent types, including Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne and Gregory Peck.

What was Gary Cooper really like?

Not much different from his screen persona, said Joan Leslie, who played Gracie, the child bride of Alvin York in 1941's ``Sergeant York.''

``He was definitely a very shy person,'' Leslie commented. ``I think he was happiest when he went off into the hills with (director) Howard Hawks to shoot skeet.''

She added: ``I was 16 years old, and very new at Warner Bros. How would I talk to him, this very monument of a man? I had seen 'The Plainsman' 10 or 11 times. When I met him, he treated me as a little sister; he was kind and very informal.

``I didn't know what to call him. `Mr. Cooper' was much too formal. 'Gary' out of the question. When I met him on the set, he said, 'Well, howdy-do, Miss Gracie' with that exquisite smile that was so sincere, so delicious, just devastating. I responded: 'Well, Ah'm fine, Mistuh Alvin.' And we were Miss Gracie and Mistuh Alvin from then on.''

Janis, author of ``Gary Cooper Off Camera: A Daughter Remembers,'' agrees that her father was shy.

``He didn't need to be declamatory for his own sake, to prove that 'Hey, world, here I am!' That wasn't his nature,'' she observes. ``He was very, very comfortable and content in his own skin. That permits one to step back and observe and listen.''

Richard Schickel, a Time magazine film critic and historian who made a TV documentary about Cooper, analyzes the star's career:

``Like all actors of his style, he was unappreciated at the time. It became a cliche: 'He played himself' ... He did just naturally what other actors had to work like dogs to do, which is to appear completely realistic.''

Frank James Cooper was born in Helena, Mont., but he was no prairie cowpoke. His father served as a justice of the state supreme court, and Frank attended grammar school in England and two years at Iowa's Grinnell College. He took part in the campus drama club, yet yearned to be a political cartoonist.

In 1924, he moved to Los Angeles, hoping for work at a newspaper. Finding none, he took odd jobs until friends made connections with movie casting directors. Cooper worked as an extra in Westerns, played heavies in two-reelers, and finally drew notice as the second lead in 1926's ``The Winning of Barbara Worth.'' Since there were other Frank Coopers in films at the time, his agent renamed him Gary, after her hometown in Indiana.

A brief, poignant role in 1927 as a doomed flier in ``Wings,'' the first movie and only silent to win the Academy Award, established him as a star in such demand that he made seven pictures the next year.

With his tall, slim figure, handsome looks and low-keyed, Western-tinged voice, Cooper excelled not only in Westerns and adventure films, but also in romantic comedies. Noted for romancing his leading ladies, he was married in 1933 to Veronica Balfe, a socialite who acted briefly under the name Sandra Shaw. In 1949, Cooper had a widely publicized affair with Patricia Neal, his co-star in ``The Fountainhead.'' Neal finally ended it when Cooper refused to leave his wife.

``Mr. Deeds Goes to Town'' (1936) brought Cooper's first Academy nomination, and he won the award in 1941 as the World War I hero in ``Sergeant York.'' He was nominated the following year for his portrayal of baseball great Lou Gehrig in ``The Pride of the Yankees.'' His reputation reached its height in 1952 with his second Oscar, for ``High Noon.''