Gary Cooper (born Frank James Cooper; May 7, 1901 – May 13, 1961) was an American actor known for his natural, authentic, strong, silent, and understated acting style. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor twice and had a further three nominations, as well as receiving an Academy Honorary Award for his career achievements in 1961. He was one of the top 10 film personalities for 23 consecutive years, and one of the top money-making stars for 18 years. The American Film Institute (AFI) ranked Cooper at No. 11 on its list of the 25 greatest male stars of classic Hollywood cinema.
Cooper's career spanned 36 years, from 1925 to 1961, and included leading roles in 84 feature films. He was a major movie star from the end of the silent film era through to the end of the golden age of Classical Hollywood. His screen persona appealed strongly to both men and women, and his range of performances included roles in most major film genres. His ability to project his own personality onto the characters he played contributed to his natural and authentic appearance on screen. Throughout his career, he sustained a screen persona that represented the ideal American hero.
Cooper began his career as a film extra and stunt rider, but soon landed acting roles. After establishing himself as a Western hero in his early silent films, he appeared as the Virginian and became a movie star in 1929 with his first sound picture, The Virginian. In the early 1930s, he expanded his heroic image to include more cautious characters in adventure films and dramas such as A Farewell to Arms (1932) and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935). During the height of his career, Cooper portrayed a new type of hero—a champion of the common man—in films such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Meet John Doe (1941), Sergeant York (1941), The Pride of the Yankees (1942), and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943). He later portrayed more mature characters at odds with the world in films such as The Fountainhead (1949) and High Noon (1952). In his final films, he played non-violent characters searching for redemption in films such as Friendly Persuasion (1956) and Man of the West (1958).
Frank James Cooper was born in Helena, Montana, on May 7, 1901, the younger of two sons of English parents Alice (née Brazier; 1873–1967) and Charles Henry Cooper (1865–1946). His brother, Arthur, was six years his senior. Cooper's father was a prominent lawyer, rancher, and Montana Supreme Court justice. In 1906, his father Charles purchased the 600-acre (240 ha) Seven-Bar-Nine cattle ranch, about 50 miles (80 km) north of Helena near Craig, Montana. Cooper and his brother Arthur spent their summers at the ranch and learned to ride horses, hunt, and fish. Cooper attended Central Grade School in Helena.
Alice wanted her sons to have an English education, so she took them back to England in 1909 to enroll them in Dunstable Grammar School in Dunstable, Bedfordshire. While there, Cooper studied Latin, French, and English history at Dunstable until 1912. While he adapted to English school discipline and learned the requisite social graces, he never adjusted to the rigid class structure and formal Eton collars he was required to wear. His mother accompanied her sons back to the U.S. in August 1912, and Cooper resumed his education at Johnson Grammar School in Helena.
When Cooper was 15, he injured his hip in a car accident. On his doctor's recommendation, he returned to the Seven-Bar-Nine ranch to recuperate by horseback riding. The misguided therapy left him with his characteristic stiff, off-balanced walk and slightly angled horse-riding style. He left Helena High School after two years in 1918, and returned to the family ranch to work full-time as a cowboy. In 1919, his father arranged for him to attend Gallatin County High School in Bozeman, Montana, where English teacher Ida Davis encouraged him to focus on academics and participate in debating and dramatics. Cooper later called Davis "the woman partly responsible for him giving up cowboy-ing and going to college".
Gary Cooper was still attending high school in 1920 when he took three art courses at Montana Agricultural College in Bozeman. His interest in art was inspired years earlier by the Western paintings of Charles Marion Russell and Frederic Remington. In 1922, to continue his art education, he enrolled in Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa. Despite a promising first 18 months at Grinnell, he left college suddenly in February 1924.
After briefly working a series of unpromising jobs, he met two friends from Montana who were working as film extras and stunt riders in low-budget Western films for the small movie studios on Poverty Row. Wanting money for a professional art course, Cooper worked as a film extra for $5 a day, and as a stunt rider for $10.
In early 1925, Cooper began his film career in silent pictures such as The Thundering Herd and Wild Horse Mesa, Riders of the Purple Sage and The Lucky Horseshoe. While his skilled horsemanship led to steady work in Westerns, Cooper hoped to move beyond the risky stunt work and obtain acting roles. He paid for a screen test and hired casting director Nan Collins to work as his agent. who suggested Cooper change his first name to "Gary" after her hometown of Gary, Indiana.Cooper immediately liked the name.
As a featured player, he began to attract the attention of major film studios. On June 1, 1926, Cooper signed a contract with Samuel Goldwyn Productions for fifty dollars a week.
Cooper's first important film role was a supporting part in The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926). Cooper's experience living among the Montana cowboys gave his performance an "instinctive authenticity", according to biographer Jeffrey Meyers. The film was a major success. Critics singled out Cooper as a "dynamic new personality" and future star. Goldwyn rushed to offer Cooper a long-term contract, but he held out for a better deal—finally signing a five-year contract with Jesse L. Lasky at Paramount Pictures for $175 a week. In 1927, with help from Clara Bow, with whom he had romantic relations at the time, Cooper landed high-profile roles in Children of Divorce and Wings (both 1927), the latter being the first film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. That year, Cooper also appeared in his first starring roles in Arizona Bound and Nevada—both films directed by John Waters.
With each new film, Cooper's acting skills improved and his popularity continued to grow, especially among female movie-goers. During this time, he was earning as much as $2,750 per film and receiving a thousand fan letters a week. Looking to exploit Cooper's growing audience appeal, the studio placed him opposite popular leading ladies such as Evelyn Brent in Beau Sabreur, Florence Vidor in Doomsday, and Esther Ralston in Half a Bride (also both 1928). Around the same time, Cooper made Lilac Time (1928) with Colleen Moore which became one of the most commercially successful films of 1928.
In 1928, he had a relationship with another experienced actress, Evelyn Brent, whom he met while filming Beau Sabreur.
Gary Cooper became a major movie star in 1929 with the release of his first talking picture, The Virginian (1929), which was directed by Victor Fleming. According to biographer Jeffrey Meyers, the romantic image of the tall, handsome, and shy cowboy hero who embodied male freedom, courage, and honor was created in large part by Cooper in the film. Looking to capitalize on Cooper's growing popularity, Paramount cast him in several Westerns and wartime dramas, including Only the Brave, The Texan, Seven Days' Leave, A Man from Wyoming, and The Spoilers (all released in 1930).
One of the more important performances in Cooper's early career was his portrayal of a sullen legionnaire in Josef von Sternberg's film Morocco (also 1930) with Marlene Dietrich in her introduction to American audiences.
In 1929, while filming The Wolf Song, Cooper began an intense affair with Lupe Vélez, which was the most important romance of his early life. During their two years together, Cooper also had brief affairs with Marlene Dietrich while filming Morocco in 1930 and with Carole Lombard while making I Take This Woman in 1931.
The demands and pressures of making ten films in two years left Cooper exhausted and in poor health, suffering from anemia and jaundice. He had lost thirty pounds (fourteen kilograms) during that period, and felt lonely, isolated, and depressed by his sudden fame and wealth. In May 1931, Cooper left Hollywood and sailed to Algiers and then Italy, where he lived for the next year.
During his time abroad, Cooper was romantically linked to Countess Dorothy di Frasso and stayed with her at her Villa Madama in Rome, where she taught him about good food and vintage wines, how to read Italian and French menus, and how to socialize among Europe's nobility and upper classes. After guiding him through the great art museums and galleries of Italy, she accompanied him on a ten-week big-game hunting safari on the slopes of Mount Kenya in East Africa. His safari experience in Africa had a profound influence on Cooper and intensified his love of the wilderness. After returning to Europe, he and the countess set off on a Mediterranean cruise of the Italian and French Rivieras. Rested and rejuvenated by his year-long exile, a healthy Cooper returned to Hollywood in April 1932 and negotiated a new contract with Paramount for two films per year, a salary of $4,000 a week, and director and script approval.
In 1932, after completing Devil and the Deep with Tallulah Bankhead to fulfill his old contract, Cooper appeared in A Farewell to Arms, the first film adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway novel. Co-starring Helen Hayes, a leading New York theatre star and Academy Award winner, the film presented Cooper with one of his most ambitious and challenging dramatic roles, playing an American ambulance driver wounded in Italy who falls in love with an English nurse during World War I. The film became one of the year's most commercially successful pictures. In 1933, Cooper appeared in the Ernst Lubitsch comedy film Design for Living, based on the successful Noël Coward play. Co-starring Miriam Hopkins and Fredric March, the film was a box office success. Cooper's performance was singled out for its versatility and revealed his genuine ability to do light comedy. Cooper changed his name legally to "Gary Cooper" in August 1933.
Gary Cooper was formally introduced to his future wife, 20-year-old New York debutante Veronica Balfe, on Easter Sunday 1933 at a party given by her uncle, art director Cedric Gibbons. Called "Rocky" by her family and friends, she grew up on Park Avenue and attended finishing schools. Her stepfather was Wall Street tycoon Paul Shields. Cooper and Rocky were quietly married at her parents' Park Avenue residence on December 15, 1933.
According to his friends, the marriage had a positive impact on Cooper, who turned away from past indiscretions and took control of his life. Athletic and a lover of the outdoors, Rocky shared many of Cooper's interests, including riding, skiing, and skeet-shooting. She organized their social life, and her wealth and social connections provided Cooper access to New York high society. Cooper and his wife owned homes in the Los Angeles area in Encino (1933–36), Brentwood (1936–53), and Holmby Hills (1954–61), and owned a vacation home in Aspen, Colorado (1949–53).
In 1935, Cooper's adventure film The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, one of his seven films directed by Henry Hathaway, was nominated for seven Academy Awards and became one of Cooper's most popular and successful adventure films. Hathaway had the highest respect for Cooper's acting ability, calling him "the best actor of all of them".
Cooper's career took an important turn in 1936. He made Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town with Jean Arthur for Columbia Pictures. In the film, Cooper plays the character of Longfellow Deeds, a quiet, innocent writer of greeting cards who inherits a fortune, leaves behind his idyllic life in Vermont, and travels to New York where he faces a world of corruption and deceit. Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin were able to use Cooper's well-established screen persona as the "quintessential American hero" to create a new type of "folk hero" for the common man.
Mr. Deeds opened in April 1936 to critical praise and were major box-office successes. For his performance in Mr. Deeds, Cooper received his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
That year, Cooper appeared for the first time on the Motion Picture Herald exhibitor's poll of top ten film personalities, where he would remain for the next twenty-three years.
In late 1936, Paramount was preparing a new contract for Cooper that would raise his salary to $8,000 a week when Cooper signed a contract with Samuel Goldwyn for six films over six years with a minimum guarantee of $150,000 per picture. Paramount brought suit against Goldwyn and Cooper, and the court ruled that Cooper's new Goldwyn contract afforded the actor sufficient time to also honor his Paramount agreement. Cooper continued to make films with both studios, and by 1939 the United States Treasury reported that Cooper was the country's highest wage earner, at $482,819 (equivalent to $8.98 million in 2020).
Gary and Veronica Cooper's daughter, Maria Veronica Cooper, was born on September 15, 1937. By all accounts, he was a patient and affectionate father, teaching Maria to ride a bicycle, play tennis, ski, and ride horses. Sharing many of her parents' interests, she accompanied them on their travels and was often photographed with them. Like her father, she developed a love for art and drawing. As a family they vacationed together in Sun Valley, Idaho, spent time at Rocky's parents' country house in Southampton, New York, and took frequent trips to Europe.
During this period, Cooper turned down several important roles, including the role of Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, although he was producer David O. Selznick's first choice for the part. Cooper later admitted, "It was one of the best roles ever offered in Hollywood ... But I said no. I didn't see myself as quite that dashing, and later, when I saw Clark Gable play the role to perfection, I knew I was right."
The early 1940s were Cooper's prime years as an actor.
In the biographical film Sergeant York, Cooper portrays war hero Alvin C. York, one of the most decorated American soldiers in World War I. Sergeant York became the top-grossing film of the year and was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, with Gary Cooper winning his first Academy Award for Best Actor.
In 1939, Ernest Hemingway drew upon Gary Cooper's image when he created the character of Robert Jordan for the novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. In October 1940,
Gary Cooper became friends with the writer at Sun Valley, and the two shared a passion for the outdoors, and for years they hunted duck and pheasant, and skied together in Sun Valley. Both men admired the work of Rudyard Kipling—Cooper kept a copy of the poem "If—" in his dressing room—and retained as adults Kipling's sense of boyish adventure.
As well as admiring Cooper's hunting skills and knowledge of the outdoors, Hemingway believed his character matched his screen persona, once telling a friend, "If you made up a character like Coop, nobody would believe it. He's just too good to be true." They saw each other often, and their friendship remained strong through the next twenty years.
Soon after the publication of Ernest Hemingway's novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, Paramount paid $150,000 for the film rights with the express intent of casting Gary Cooper in the lead role of Robert Jordan, an American explosives expert who fights alongside the Republican loyalists during the Spanish Civil War. After the start of principal photography in the Sierra Nevada in late 1942, Ingrid Bergman was brought in to replace ballerina Vera Zorina as the female lead—a change supported by Cooper and Hemingway.
After he was married in December 1933, Cooper remained faithful to his wife until the summer of 1942, until he began an affair with Ingrid Bergman during the production of For Whom the Bell Tolls. Their relationship lasted through the completion of filming Saratoga Trunk in June 1943.
For Whom the Bell Tolls was a critical and commercial success and received ten Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor.
Due to his age and health, Cooper did not serve in the military during World War II, but like many of his colleagues, he got involved in the war effort by entertaining the troops.
In June 1943, he visited military hospitals in San Diego, and often appeared at the Hollywood Canteen serving food to the servicemen. In late 1943, Cooper undertook a 23,000-mile (37,000 km) tour of the South West Pacific with actresses Una Merkel and Phyllis Brooks, and accordionist Andy Arcari.
When he returned to the United States, he visited military hospitals throughout the country. Cooper later called his time with the troops the "greatest emotional experience" of his life.
With his Goldwyn and Paramount contracts concluded, Cooper decided to remain independent and formed his own production company, International Pictures, with Leo Spitz, William Goetz, and Nunnally Johnson.
Cooper's career during the post-war years drifted in new directions as American society was changing. While he still played conventional heroic roles, his films now relied less on his heroic screen persona and more on novel stories and exotic settings.
In 1948, Cooper sold his company to Universal Studios and signed a long-term contract with Warner Bros. that gave him script and director approval and a guaranteed $295,000 (equal to $3,177,583 today) per picture.
His first film under the new contract was King Vidor's drama The Fountainhead (1949) with Patricia Neal and Raymond Massey. In the film, Cooper plays an idealistic and uncompromising architect who struggles to maintain his integrity and individualism in the face of societal pressures to conform to popular standards. Based on the novel by Ayn Rand who also wrote the screenplay, the film reflects her philosophy and attacks the concepts of collectivism while promoting the virtues of individualism.
After finishing work on The Fountainhead, Cooper began an affair with actress Patricia Neal, his co-star. At first they kept their affair discreet, but eventually it became an open secret in Hollywood, and Cooper's wife confronted him with the rumors, which he admitted were true. He also confessed that he was in love with Neal, and continued to see her.
Patricia Neal later claimed that Cooper hit her after she went on a date with Kirk Douglas, and that he arranged for her to have an abortion when she became pregnant with Cooper's child. Neal ended their relationship in late December 1951.
Cooper's most important film during the post-war years was Fred Zinnemann's Western drama High Noon (1952) with Grace Kelly and Katy Jurado for United Artists. In the film, Cooper plays retiring sheriff Will Kane who is preparing to leave town on his honeymoon when he learns that an outlaw he helped put away and his three henchmen are returning to seek their revenge. Unable to gain the support of the frightened townspeople, and abandoned by his young bride, Kane nevertheless stays to face the outlaws alone. During the filming, Cooper was in poor health and in considerable pain from stomach ulcers.The film earned $3.75 million in the United States and $18 million worldwide. Following the example of his friend James Stewart, Cooper accepted a lower salary in exchange for a percent of the profits, and ended up making $600,000. Cooper's understated performance earned him Academy Award for Best Actor.
Cooper and Rocky were legally separated on May 16, 1951, when Cooper moved out of their home. For over two years, they maintained a fragile and uneasy family life with their daughter. Cooper moved back into their home in November 1953, and their formal reconciliation occurred in February 1954.
During his three-year separation from his wife, Cooper was rumored to have had affairs with Grace Kelly, Lorraine Chanel, and Gisèle Pascal.
During this period, Cooper struggled with health problems. As well as his ongoing treatment for ulcers, he suffered a severe shoulder injury during the filming of Blowing Wild when he was hit by metal fragments from a dynamited oil well. During the filming of Vera Cruz, he reinjured his hip falling from a horse, and was burned.
In 1956, Cooper traveled to France to make Billy Wilder's romantic comedy Love in the Afternoon with Audrey Hepburn and Maurice Chevalier. In the film, Cooper plays a middle-aged American playboy in Paris who pursues and eventually falls in love with a much younger woman. The film was a box-office success.
Despite his ongoing health problems and several operations for ulcers and hernias, Cooper continued to work in action films.
In 1958, he appeared in Anthony Mann's Western drama Man of the West (1958) Mostly ignored by critics at the time, the film is now well-regarded by film scholars and is considered Cooper's last great film.
After his Warner Bros. contract ended, Cooper formed his own production company, Baroda Productions, and made three unusual films in 1959 about redemption.
Gary Cooper's social life generally centered on sports, outdoor activities, and dinner parties with his family and friends from the film industry, including directors Henry Hathaway, Howard Hawks, William Wellman, and Fred Zinnemann, and actors Joel McCrea, James Stewart, Barbara Stanwyck, and Robert Taylor. As well as hunting, Cooper enjoyed riding, fishing, skiing, and later in life, scuba diving. He never abandoned his early love for art and drawing, and over the years, he and his wife acquired a private collection of modern paintings, including works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Gauguin, and Georgia O'Keeffe. Cooper owned several works by Pablo Picasso, whom he met in 1956. Cooper also had a lifelong passion for automobiles, with a collection that included a 1930 Duesenberg.
Cooper was naturally reserved and introspective, and loved the solitude of outdoor activities. According to his friends, Cooper could also be an articulate, well-informed conversationalist on topics ranging from horses, guns, and Western history to film production, sports cars, and modern art. He was modest and unpretentious, frequently downplaying his acting abilities and career accomplishments. His friends and colleagues described him as charming, well-mannered, and thoughtful, with a lively boyish sense of humor. Cooper maintained a sense of propriety throughout his career and never misused his movie star status—never sought special treatment or refused to work with a director or leading lady.
On April 14, 1960, Cooper underwent surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston for an aggressive form of prostate cancer that had metastasized to his colon. He fell ill again on May 31 and underwent further surgery at Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles in early June to remove a malignant tumor from his large intestine. After recuperating over the summer, he travelled to the UK in the fall to star in The Naked Edge. In December 1960, he worked on the NBC television documentary The Real West.
On December 27, his wife learned from their family doctor that Cooper's cancer had spread to his lungs and bones and was inoperable. His family decided not to tell him immediately.
In mid-January 1961, Cooper took his family to Sun Valley for their last vacation together. Cooper and Hemingway hiked through the snow together for the last time. On February 27, after returning to Los Angeles, Cooper learned that he was dying. On April 17, Cooper watched the Academy Awards ceremony on television and saw his good friend James Stewart, who had presented Cooper with his first Oscar years earlier, accept on Cooper's behalf an honorary award for lifetime achievement—his third Oscar.
In his last public statement on May 4, Cooper said, "I know that what is happening is God's will. I am not afraid of the future." He received the last rites on May 12. Cooper died quietly the following day, Saturday, May 13, 1961, at 12:47 P.M.
A requiem mass was held on May 18 at the Church of the Good Shepherd, attended by many of Cooper's friends, including James Stewart, Jack Benny, Henry Hathaway, Joel McCrea, Audrey Hepburn, Jack L. Warner, John Ford, John Wayne, Edward G. Robinson, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Fred Astaire, Randolph Scott, Walter Pidgeon, Bob Hope and Marlene Dietrich. Cooper was buried in the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.
At the time of his death, it was estimated that Cooper's films grossed well over $200 million (equivalent to $1.73 billion in 2020).
In later life, Gary Cooper became involved in a relationship with the costume designer Irene, and was, according to Irene, "the only man she ever loved". A year after his death in 1961, Irene committed suicide by jumping from the 11th floor of the Knickerbocker Hotel, after telling Doris Day of her grief over Cooper's death.
In May 1974, after his family relocated to New York, Cooper's remains were exhumed and reburied in Sacred Hearts Cemetery in Southampton. His grave is marked by a three-ton boulder from a Montauk quarry.