John Cooper, Jr. (September 15, 1922 – May 3, 2011), known as Jackie Cooper, was an American actor, television director, producer and executive. He was a child actor who managed to make the transition to an adult career. Cooper was the first child actor to receive an Academy Award nomination. At age nine, he was also the youngest performer to have been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, an honor that he received for the film Skippy (1931). For nearly 50 years, Cooper remained the youngest Oscar nominee in any category, until he was surpassed by Justin Henry's nomination, at age eight, in the Supporting Actor category for Kramer vs. Kramer (1979).
Cooper was born John Cooper, Jr. in Los Angeles, California. Cooper's father, John Cooper, left the family when Jackie was only two years old. His mother, Mabel Leonard Bigelow (née Polito), was a stage pianist. Cooper's maternal uncle, Jack Leonard, was a screenwriter, and his maternal aunt, Julie Leonard, was an actress married to director Norman Taurog. His stepfather was C.J. Bigelow, a studio production manager. His mother was Italian American (her family's surname was changed from "Polito" to "Leonard"); Cooper was told by his family that his father was Jewish (the two never reunited after he left the family). Cooper first appeared in films as an extra with his grandmother, who would bring him along in hopes of aiding her own attempts to get extra work. At age three, Jackie appeared in Lloyd Hamilton comedies under the name of "Leonard". He graduated to bit parts in feature films such as Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 and Sunny Side Up. His director in these two films, David Butler, recommended the boy to director Leo McCarey, who arranged an audition for the Our Gang comedy series produced by Hal Roach. Cooper joined the series in the short Boxing Gloves in 1929, signing to a three-year contract. He initially was only a supporting character in the series, but by early 1930 he had done so well with the transition to sound films that he had become one of the Gang's major characters. He was the main character in the episodes The First Seven Years, When the Wind Blows, and others. His most notable Our Gang shorts explore his crush on Miss Crabtree, the schoolteacher played by June Marlowe, which included the trilogy of shorts Teacher's Pet, School's Out, and Love Business. According to his autobiography, Cooper, under contract to Hal Roach Studios, was loaned in the spring of 1931 to Paramount to star in Skippy (directed by his uncle, Norman Taurog), for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor—the youngest actor ever (at the age of nine) to be nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor. Although Paramount paid Roach $25,000 for Cooper's services, Cooper received only his standard Roach salary of $50 per week. The movie catapulted young Cooper to superstardom. Our Gang producer Hal Roach sold Jackie's contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in mid-1931, as he felt the youngster would have a better future in features. Cooper began a long onscreen relationship with actor Wallace Beery in such films as The Champ (1931), The Bowery (1933), The Choices of Andy Purcell (1933), Treasure Island (1934), and O'Shaughnessy's Boy (1935). A legion of film critics and fans have lauded the relationship between the two as an example of classic movie magic. However, in his autobiography Cooper wrote that Beery was "a big disappointment", and accused him of upstaging and other attempts to undermine the boy's performances out of what Cooper presumed was jealousy. Cooper played the title role in the first two Henry Aldrich movies, What a Life (1939) and Life with Henry (1941).