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 Though certainly outdated — if you check out shorts like Pups Is Pups, you’ll see plenty of racial undertones typical of the early 20th century, even though the series was respected in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