Gary Cooper: A Few Things You Didn't Know!
Another May birthday, another of my favorite stars! Today is Gary Cooper’s birthday.
Coop, as his fans still affectionately call him, was truly one of a kind. The more I find out about this incredibly talented man, the more I admire him and want to learn more.
"Mr. Average Joe American"
Despite his super stardom, incredible good looks, immense acting talent, and unique screen persona, Coop referred to himself as “Mr. Average Joe American” to the day he died. In the words of his daughter, Maria Cooper Janis,
“This was not an affectation. He felt this to his very core, along with deep feelings of responsibility and gratitude for all his good fortune.”
In celebration of Coop’s birthday, I wanted to share a few lesser-known things about him that I find particularly interesting.
The Montana Cowboy and Artist
Copper was born and raised in Montana, the son of a Supreme Court judge. He was raised on a ranch, which surely influenced his lifelong love of nature. As a boy, Coop dreamed of being an artist when he grew up. And he was quite talented! Even during his Hollywood career, Cooper continued to sketch scenes from nature, or would ask his wife, Veronica, known as “Rocky,” to sit for portraits to “keep his hand in practice.”
He Broke his Hip, so he Became an Actor
Well, kind of. Let me explain. During his Montana days, Cooper was in a serious car accident that resulted in a broken hip. At the time, he didn’t know it was broken, so naturally he continued helping his mom on the ranch with such tasks as herding 500 head of cattle. On horseback. WITH A BROKEN HIP!
The pain got so bad that eventually he had to take it easy, which gave him lots of time to think about his future. And he decided his future lay on the East Coast, studying art. Which he did, for a time. But one thing led to another, and Cooper found himself in California, where he learned that working as a cowboy stuntman in Hollywood films was a great way to make money to pay for art classes. But as we all know, that stuntman ended up not becoming a career artist, but a major Hollywood star! So technically we can trace this career path back to his broken hip, right? (:
He was a Man of Few Words
Maria Cooper Janis shared that on frequent family nature excursions to the mountains or the sea, her father would encourage her to
“Sit still and watch, look, be aware, and you will learn many things.”
And he practiced what he preached! Coop lived by this adage even when hanging out with friends. Sometimes, it took a good friend like Jimmy Stewart to appreciate and accept that Cooper wasn’t going to talk just for the sake of talking. In Hank and Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart [aff. link], Scott Eyman shares a fabulous anecdote from Jimmy Stewart about Coop’s legendary laconic-ness. In Stewart’s own words,
“Coop didn’t waste many words. I remember once we went for a long walk. Aaaah, big bird flew overhead. Cooper pantomimed a gun and said BANG!…high point of the afternoon’s conversation.”
He was a Practical Joker. And Don’t Mess with His Caviar.
Coop loved a good practical joke. In her heartwarming and page-turning memoir, Gary Cooper Off Camera: A Daughter Remembers [aff. link], Coop’s daughter Maria relates one such joke that involved a tin of caviar, which all three of the Coopers loved.
The family was on a jet-setting vacation, and were staying at the Lancaster Hotel in Paris after a trip to Iran, where said caviar was acquired. The Coopers would feast on the caviar in the evenings, straight from the tin with a knife, and ask the hotel to refrigerate the remainder for them until the next evening, when they would repeat the feast.
Well, it became obvious one night, when they opened the caviar tin and found much more missing than they had eaten the previous evening, that someone working at the hotel was sneaking huge bites of their Iranian caviar!
But Coop had an ingenious plan: he, Rocky, and Maria finished off the whole tin of caviar that night, then filled it with moistened dirt from the geranium planter on the terrace to make it appear that the tin was still full of that delicious Iranian caviar. In Maria’s words, Coop then called up the hotel waiter:
“‘Please, would you send this back down to the kitchen refrigerator as usual? We’ll call for it tomorrow.’ Poppa turned to my mother and me and laughed, and said, ‘I just want to see the look on the SOB’s face when he goes for our caviar!’”
Happy Birthday, Coop!
Well, hopefully reading this brought a smile to your face as we remember Gary Cooper today. (: Happy Birthday, Coop!
And don’t forget to tune in to TCM today to enjoy the many Gary Cooper films they are showcasing in tribute. For showtimes, take a look at the TCM film schedule.