During the 1930s Golden Age of Hollywood, Jackie Cooper was nicknamed America's Boy. He was one-half Italian. The father he never met was Jewish and his loving and gentle mother was Italian. When she wasn't selling piano sheet music she was ailing, and his hefty and intimidating nonna, Marie Babbino, who he had no fond memories of, was in charge. She dragged him, every day, to the gates of the movie studio, shopping herself and her grandson as extras. When lucky, nonna Babbino and Jackie Cooper earned $2 and a free meal for a walk-on-scene.
Cooper started in comedy shorts on the same studio sets as Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Elizabeth Taylor and Deanna Durbin. Cooper's most famous picture "The Champ" won Wallace Beery, whom he disliked, an Oscar. However, the movie proved to be such a success it paved the way for more movies with the man he despised, including "Treasure Island."
Cooper's "break" in his film career came in an audition in which he sang a song he had rehearsed at home with his mother. A cameo role led to "Our Gang" and an Oscar nomination at 9-years-old for "Skippy." He was now earning $50 a week. He followed with hits in "The Champ" and "The Bowery."
Cooper was renowned for his crying scenes. When he refused to cry or crying didn't come easy, film directors devised tricks to get Cooper to cry on cue. He loved dogs and always brought his pet to the studio. Each day, the film director threatened to shoot the animal if Cooper didn't cry. When he didn't comply, the dog was led off set and the sound of a shot was heard in the distance. He would sob and, naturally, the cameras were rolling. Later Cooper was reunited with his dog.
Cooper served four years in the Navy, in the South Pacific near the end of World War II, and continued a peacetime military career. After his service, he returned to Hollywood to find a fading career and roles in low budget pictures. On advice of other actors, Jackie went to a New York theater to hone up on his acting skills. He returned to Hollywood and starred in two weekly TV sitcoms, "The People's Choice" and "Hennessey." In "Hennessey," he produced, directed and appeared as a Navy doctor and this helped in his recruiting efforts. He accepted a commission as a line officer in the Naval Reserve and performed in training films and co-piloted jet planes. By 1976, he attained the rank of Navy captain.
He went on to direct more than 250 series episodes, two movies and several pilots and commercials. He also appeared as Daily Planet editor, Perry White, in four "Superman" films with Christopher Reeve.
Cooper was 88 when he died in a nursing home in Santa Monica, California in 2011.