'Our Gang,' 'Superman' actor Jackie Cooper dies. A love letter to the late Rascal.


Image Credit: Everett Collection

Most audiences might know Jackie Cooper as Perry White in four Superman movies. Or for his role in 1931’s The Champ. Or for his appearance in Skippy, which made him the first child actor to ever be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. But, to me, the actor — who passed away Tuesday at the age of 88 after a brief illness — will always be known as Our Gang‘s Jackie.

Perhaps it was because I was an old soul, or both my parents enjoyed catching re-runs of the series when they were youths, but I grew up on Our Gang, otherwise known as The Little Rascals. Unlike in my childhood world, where most films and TV shows featured kids achieving great victories that involved fame and fortune, Our Gang was one of the few series in history who showed kids being, well, kids. Each short followed a mischievous gang pursuing some sort of troublesome plan — and while many are familiar with Spanky and Alfalfa’s shenanigans, I’ll always insist that Jackie Cooper’s gang was by far the best gang. It boasted the wise-beyond-his-years Stymie, the flighty-but-cute-as-a-button Dorothy, the is-it-possible-to-be-that-cuddly Wheezer, and the funny-as-Chris-Farley Chubby, but Jackie, as the series’ everyboy from 1929-1931 (he was Spanky before Spanky), stood out leagues further than the rest. He was relatable, adorable, and could convey emotion unlike any other rascal. Just look at his pout! It was no wonder he got cast in the role — how could anyone say no to Jackie’s face?

It wasn’t long until the five-year-old me developed a crush on little Jackie Cooper. Why couldn’t I be as pretty as Miss Crabtree? Be able to play alongside him like Mary Ann? Why couldn’t I have been born 60 years earlier? I would sit in front of my television on weekends and pop in my Our Gang VHS and watch Love Business three times in a row (these were shorts, after all) just to see Jackie lead his rascally troops. He was more than just a pair of chubby cheeks; he was, in my eyes, a mini-movie star, even before he actually did become one.

And strangely enough, even after aging more than a dozen years, I found I still enjoyed the Jackie years of Our Gang. Though certainly outdated — if you check out shorts like Pups Is Pups, you’ll see plenty of racial undertones typical of the early 20th century, even though the series was respected in its time for being one of the most diverse Hollywood projects — the series’ gleeful nature, in spite of the Depression’s trying times, was contagious. Even as a 20-something, I longed to play alongside Jackie, Chubby, and Farina. And it was easy to tell that Cooper was headed for stardom — his delivery and facial expressions, especially during a memorable Love Business scene in which he flirts with the much-older Miss Crabtree, were so much more mature than what we saw from any child star of his time, let alone his fellow Rascals. He simply had what many covet: it. His presence took over the small screen, overpowering Our Gang‘s shoddy, shakey, black-and-white footage. So it was no surprise to learn as a child that he had been nominated for an Academy Award. That he had starred with frequent on-screen partner Wallace Beery in a film that still has chops today, The Champ. And that as an adult, he managed to bag a franchise, Superman, before they were as in vogue as they are today.

Cooper kept his finger on the pulse of Hollywood long after his success as a child actor — not only did he land the Superman role, but he also developed a respectable career behind the camera, directing episodes of M*A*S*H and The White Shadow. (He even picked up an Emmy for his directing credits.) After he retired in the late 1980s, he continued to work, helming episodes of Superboy. But even 80 years after first lighting up the screen in Our Gang, Cooper’s legacy lives on. And it should continue to do so — if you haven’t already, head to Amazon or your nearest video store to pick up a DVD of Teacher’s Pet for your children. As a former child myself, I promise yours will thank you, and become an instant fan of young Jackie Cooper. You may be gone, Jackie, but you’ll always be part of my gang.

Follow Kate on Twitter @KateWardEW

Comments (91 total) Add your comment
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  • kahuna

    Rip, Mr. Cooper. You are a legend to me. I have many fond memories of many of your performances, my favorite being in, The Champ.

  • Dr. No

    Great article Kate. I was also lucky enough to watch the Our Gang reruns on TV and I recently got the DVD boxed set. Sad to see Jackie pass, but he is always a Little Rascal to me. Does anyone know the real story why they don’t get shown on TV anymore ?

    • kahuna

      TCM has started showing them. A couple of months ago, they showed several episodes including from the early 1920s, silent “Our Gang” comedies.

      Years ago, Bill Cosby acquired the rights to the films and decided to not allow them to be shown because of the way they depicted some of the boy Actors (specifically Buckwheat and Farina) in pickinniy garb. That was so ridiculous, IMO because those children were treated equally as the white kids. I don’t know if Cosby still owns the rights, but TCM is showing them now.

      • Dr. No

        Much appreciated Kahuna. Thanks for the info.

      • Melvin Stokes

        You would think that the treated the children the same, but they were not. The child that played Buckwheat and the other black children were seperated on the road and in hotels. They have been equal on film, but in reality they were viewed as third class.

      • KBC

        That’s an old urban legend – Bill Cosby never owned any part of the rights to the Our Gang/Little Rascals comedies (there’s an entry on Snopes that discusses this). RHI Entertainment owns the 1922-38 shorts, and Turner Entertainment owns the MGM-produced 1938-44 shorts. CBS owns the syndication rights to the RHI package.

        Why aren’t they shown on TV anymore? Ask your local TV station: CBS still offers them for syndication. I’d imagine 70-80 year old black and white shorts wouldn’t be the biggest ratings draw these days; thankfully, there’s DVD.

      • @Melvin Stokes

        I obviously meant treated as equals on screen, not in real life. It WAS the 20s and 30s afterall. Sheesh. Chill.

      • Li

        The rumor that entertainer Bill Cosby bought up the rights to Our Gang to keep the racial stereotypes off of television is false. Cosby has never owned any rights to the series at any time. Quit spreading lies.

      • John

        There’s no equality even on the screen. Have any of you ever seen the Our Gang episodes? The white kids, like Jacky and Spanky, always hatch the plans and do the thinking, while the black kids are portrayed as uneducated clowns. Those comedies were super racist (they were still hilarious nonetheless)

      • Tina

        OMG, the kids were all treated equally? To hear Buckweat get all happy over Watermelon and Chicken and dress in torn clothes and talk horrible english, that was getting treated equally? I remember watching that as a kid and being shocked. I never heard pikanny or any of those racist terms before. As a 5 year old that was a horrible culture shock. I will always remember him as Perry White. Loved him as Perry.

      • Rob

        Actually the kids were all treated equally behind the scenes. Except where they couldn’t such as hotels as they did not control that.

        Matthew Beard, who played Stymie was payed equal to the other kids and even made more money than his dad.

        Most of the kids wore torn clothes because they were all poor kids

        How many shows in the 30’s showed black and white kids playing together?

    • Allan Fisch

      Kids today have no attention span nor the ability to appreciate anything that is subtle or requires mental or emotional processing….I almost brought the Crabtree trilogy to show my high school students today, but I was afraid that i woulnd’t even be able to get them to glance up at the screen long enough to figure out what was going on….

      • Allan Fisch

        @ John, I have to differ with you here. Matthew Beard(stymie) was one of the most gifted comedians in the series and two steps above most of the other kids…Racial stereotypes, typical of the time, yes, racist, no…no more racist than Gone With the Wind and nothing when compared to that film held on a pedestal of film history” The Birth of a Nation”…These films are products of their time….I don’t see any malice here…Hal Roach not only hired Stymie, he gave his mother a job as well…

      • John

        @ Allan; Maybe the black actors were talented, but all the black characters are portrayed as fools. There might be an argument to be made that Our Gang was a product of its era in Hollywood history. However, that does not change the fact that these shorts always and without exception use very crude, Jim Crow & Medicine show s’types, simply for humor’s sake. (Instead of, for example, pointing out how inaccurate and stupid these s’types are) That, many will agree, makes it racist. And the fact that all of Hollywood was racist at the time actually supports the point.

  • tn8chusrdhd

    I have loved Mr. Cooper since I was old enough to watch T.V. I will miss him greatly. What a loss!

  • Buffy Freak

    The child stars of today should be lucky enough to have 1/4 of the success and career stability he had. I just LOVED Our Gang and he was really terrific in The Champ and Skippy…

  • Dr. No

    Thanks Kahuna. I heard Bill Cosby had something to do with it. Hal Roach gave these kids a chance, he wasn’t seeing color. And they are hilarious even to this day. All kids were equals in Our Gang. I will have to check out TCM, I know I’ve caught Laurel and Hardy, but not Our Gang yet. Thanks for all the info !

    • @Melvin Stokes

      The good news may be that TCM will probably do a tribute that may include the Rascals shorts.

    • sleepytime

      Bill Cosby had nothing to do with it. As KBC mentioned that’s simply an urban legend that has been debunked by snopes.

  • Lady J

    Remember watching The Little Rascals as a kid. Always had a crush on Jackie. What a cutie. RIP

  • JG

    Nicely written piece. Thanks for writing it and sharing your story. Jackie Cooper would be warmed by it, I’m sure. “Our Gang” is SO funny. Today’s kids are missing out on great fun. As, an interesting sidenote, did ya know that Jackie was a last minute replacement for the role of Perry White in “Superman”? Actor Keenan Wynn was already cast, became ill, so Jackie received a call from director Richard Donner. He was in front of the camera 48 hours later!

  • Zeba

    Thank you for the decades of entertainment and especially the smiles. RIP Jackie Cooper

  • Zeke

    Now that was old-school comedy the way it was meant to be shown. RIP Mr. Cooper…you were a legend and thank goodness for DVD and VHS to still watch him at work anytime we want to.

  • Sue B.

    Jackie loves Mary Ann and asks Officer Kennedy how he can get himself a wife and then duels with the other kid Mary Ann likes. SO CUTE the way he asks Kennedy how he can get him a wife. I grew up watching Little Rascals and my father told me he knew Jackie Cooper when he was a kid in the 30’s. We watched these shows every weekend and my kids have grown up with all of these treasures too. And they love them. do your kid a favor and get these videos. SO GREAT!!!!!

    • Robin

      My favorite as well soooo cute.I am very sorry to hear Mr. Cooper has past R.I.P. little Rascal. As far as all of this racial crap this is not about that, it is about the death of a man. Oh if my spelling sucks so what…

  • JennieO

    I loved watching the Our Gang shorts on TV as a kid. I hadn’t seen them for years and years until some of them were on TCM recently. I watched them again with my kids, who also loved them and thought them hysterically funny. Thank you, Kate, for a great piece on a fine actor, and for reminding me of how much I once wished I could be one of “Our Gang.”

  • Kevin Cameron

    I’ll always remember the Little Rascals from my childhood going back to the late fifties including Jackie Cooper. The next time I saw him was in a movie back in the seventies which brought back alot of fond memories of my childhood. He will truly be mist. Rest in Peace Jackie.

  • brittany

    Our Gang!!! That was my sat mornings
    Me and mommy would stay in bed all day and watch wezzer ,jackie,farina, chubsy wusby lol ,mary and dorthy
    Btw I’m 22

  • Mycie Emil

    Oh no, not that old “Bill Cosby-bought-the-rights-so-they-couldn’t-be-shown-on-TV-anymore” thing again. Not true.

    • Sue1

      You’re correct, Cosby never owned any of the rights to the series.

  • Sue1

    What a lovely tribute. I loved Cooper as a Rascal, but my childhood crush was on that heartbroken little boy in The Champ. An amazing actor as a child, a talented director as an adult, it always brought a smile to my face when he’d pop up on my TV. RIP.

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