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Jackie Cooper: Obit

Actor Jackie Cooper admires photos from his 1931

Actor Jackie Cooper admires photos from his 1931 film "Skippy" prior to a screening of the film at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, Calif. Cooper died May 3, 2011, from an undisclosed illness at a Los Angeles hospital, said his agent Ronnie Leif. He was 88. (June 14, 2004) Photo Credit: AP

Here's my obit for tomorrow's paper on Jackie Cooper, a real Hollywood and TV legend, gone today at the age of 88.

Jackie Cooper, the legendary child actor and a major force on TV for over half a century, has died. He was 88, and TMZ -- which first reported his death -- said he died at a hospital in Beverly Hills following a sudden illness.

Cooper had an indelible impact on movies, first as a prominent child actor in the long-running "Little Rascals" series, then on TV, primarily as an esteemed director of "M*A*S*H" and as one of the most powerful people in Hollywood during the '6os when he ran Columbia's TV production arm, Screen Gems.

He was a superstar in early Hollywood, almost on a par with Shirley Temple, and earned a best actor Oscar nomination at age 9 for the 1931 film "Skippy," the youngest nominee ever.

He also served in the Navy in the South Pacific during the Second World War -- following a wild ride as a kid actor when he was romantically linked to Joan Crawford at age 17 and seemingly washed up by his 20s -- but as movie website IMDB noted, Cooper left the service "and without publicity or fanfare, compiled one of the most distinguished peacetime military careers of anyone in his profession."

Like so many other screen actors and directors, Cooper stumbled into the new medium of television, appearing in dozens of series before landing a starring role in "The People's Choice," a late '50s NBC comedy about an ex-Marine and his talking basset hound, Cleo.

His next series was CBS' "Hennesey," about a Navy doctor that drew on his wartime experiences. Though both were well-regarded, they were also lightly viewed, and Cooper moved behind the screen as Screen Gems studio boss, later becoming a prolific director of dozens of series, including "The Rockford Files," "The White Shadow" and "Cagney & Lacey."

One of his last big screen roles was Perry White, editor of the Daily Planet on the "Superman" series. But it was -- of course -- the childhood years that so completely established Cooper in the popular imagination. Skippy, for example, was the kid who saved his beloved dog from a dogcatcher, but cried so bitterly in one scene that he later had to explain that the director (and his uncle) Norman Taurog had told him his own dog would be killed if he didn't. He played opposite Wallace Beery in 1931's "The Champ," as Dink Purcell, son of ex-champ Andy Purcell.

But as Cooper explained in an essay he wrote for the 2007 book, "80: Our Most Famous Eighty-Year Olds Explain Why they Never Felt So Young," "Beery was mean to me [and] if I was on his lap the minute the director said cut, he'd push me right off, even if it made me fall on the floor [then said], 'get the hell off of me."

Cooper's best-known credit for most viewers is (of course) "Our Gang," the Hal Roach Depression-era shorts about comically irrepressible kids that was syndicated as "The Little Rascals" from the mid'50s on. In fact, Cooper was featured for only a few years in the early '30s for the series that ran from 1922 to 1944.

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