“Every woman who knew him fell in love with Gary Cooper.” – Ingrid Bergman, Cooper’s co-star in Desire
RAISED on a sprawling ranch in Montana, Gary Cooper received a highfalutin’ education in England, where he developed a worldly polish that only served to accentuate his frontiersman roots and incredibly charismatic presence. During his college education at Wesleyan, Cooper hoped to develop his artistic skills enough to make a living as a political cartoonist, but when his initial attempts to make a living at the avocation failed, he followed friends’ suggestions that he ply his masterful horsemanship as a stuntman and extra in the cowboy movies of the era.
Though falling off horses certainly had an undeniable appeal, “Coop” soon hired an agent to help him land some meatier, less bruising roles. He owed his name change from Frank to the more star-worthy moniker of Gary to the savvy agent (apparently, she hailed from the lovely burgh of Gary, Indiana), as well as credit for helping him land his first starring and career-making role in The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926).
A lucrative contract with Paramount followed for the handsome, rangy actor, not to mention monolithic popularity, which he cemented with a series of program Westerns, the most memorable of which was the 1929 talkie The Virginian. Quite simply put, Gary Cooper came to embody the ideal male sex symbol for legions of women, and the quintessential strong, silent American hero to men. Paired with the ever-sultry Marlene Dietrich in 1930’s Morocco, Cooper proved himself as adept at romance, Legionnaire-style, as he was at riding tall in the saddle, and thereafter, he often shouldered the sweet burdens of the romantic leading man. In 1936, he popped over to Columbia to star in one of his signature roles, that of Longfellow Deeds, in the Frank Capra comedy classic, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.
Coop’s career making roles
The early forties marked the pinnacle of Cooper’s career, as he stepped into a series of unforgettable roles: he played a stewbum who makes good in Capra’s sentimental Meet John Doe (1941); he won his first Oscar for Sergeant York (1941), in the title role of real-life pacifist-turned-W.W.I. hero Alvin York (incidentally, York personally chose Cooper to play him); his exceptional portrayal of Lou Gehrig in 1942’s The Pride of the Yankees invited an Oscar nomination; and he received yet another Academy nod for his lead work in For Whom the Bell Tolls the following year.
Cooper’s absorbing performance in the 1949 adaptation of the Ayn Rand novel, The Fountainhead, was made all the more compelling because of his off-screen romantic involvement with his fetching young co-star, Patricia Neal. In 1952, Cooper’s tour de force turn as the calmly resolute marshal Will Kane in High Noon (the first so-called “adult Western”), marked perhaps the most commanding performance of his career, and he garnered the Best Actor Oscar for it.
Sadly, Kane’s palpable weariness in the film was in truth the product of Cooper’s real-life listlessness and ill health–suffering terribly from a bleeding ulcer and an injured hip, he commented after production on the film wrapped, “I’m all acted out.” That wasn’t quite true: for the rest of the decade, Cooper managed sterling performances in a number of quality films, including William Wyler’s comedy-drama Friendly Persuasion, Billy Wilder’s romantic comedy Love in the Afternoon (1957), and Anthony Mann’s final Western Man of the West (1958).
Despite his reputation for engaging in extramarital shenanigans and his unsavory participation in the Communist witch hunts of the fifties, Cooper’s status as one of the greatest stars of Hollywood’s luminous history persists to this day. With an impressive career tally of ninety-five films to his credit, he racked up five Oscar nominations for Best Actor, two of which he carried home. In 1961, his dear friend James Stewart accepted on his behalf an honorary career-achievement Oscar “for his many memorable screen performances,” as he was by then far too riddled with cancer to attend the ceremony. Cooper succumbed to the disease one month later.