Gary Cooper's portrayal of Lou Gehrig in the 1942 film "Pride of the Yankees'' was the epitome of central casting, with Cooper bearing a striking resemblance to the late Yankees star. But Cooper, who would become a two-time Academy Award winner, did not initially embrace the role.
"He felt the honor to play Lou Gehrig, it was something that meant so much to him, but he felt very inadequate to do it," said Maria Cooper Janis, the late actor's only child. She is an artist who lives in Manhattan and is married to renowned classical pianist Byron Janis.
"I think it was the persuasiveness of the Gehrig family who said they wanted him to be the person," she continued. "He had an uncanny ability to portray great masculine strength and great vulnerability at the same time, and I think that role caused him to play the characterization of a man who had very strongly those two elements in his life. To portray the best in courage and the best in human behavior, what more moving story than Lou Gehrig?''
Cooper Janis said her father rehearsed for the role in Sun Valley, Idaho. "Bill Dickey came out to coach him,'' she said of the Yankees Hall of Fame catcher. "They practiced catching a ball with snowballs.''
Dickey, Babe Ruth and other Yankees appeared as themselves in the film, which premiered one year after Gehrig's death in 1941.
Cooper was a big baseball fan, his daughter said. "My father loved baseball. He had been a good friend of Dan Topping [Yankees president and part owner]. I remember going with my parents to a little ballfield between Beverly Hills and downtown Los Angeles. Topping was out there with the Yankees. I remember him saying to my mother and father, 'See that young kid out there? That kid is going to be one of the biggest stars baseball's ever had. I just signed him.' It was Mickey Mantle. So I can say I saw Mickey Mantle.''
Payne Johnson, 84, one of the last surviving cast members from "Pride of the Yankees,'' played a young spectator on a set he said was constructed on a back lot at RKO studios. Johnson was there as Cooper delivered the moving "luckiest man'' speech (the movie version deviated somewhat from Gehrig's actual speech).
"They asked us to show our emotion,'' he said. "It wasn't hard for people to get into the mood. You were surrounded by people who were holding on to each other. I feel a relationship [with Gehrig] because of that movie. I've heard his speech and read his speech many times. It was an important movie and it recorded a very important moment in sports and in the United States.''
"Pride of the Yankees'' became perhaps Cooper's most famous role and brought him an Academy Award nomination for best actor, though he lost the Oscar to James Cagney (a Yankees fan) for his role as George M. Cohan in "Yankee Doodle Dandy.''
Cooper Janis said her father -- who died in 1961 and is buried in Sacred Hearts Cemetery in Southampton -- remained strongly identified with Gehrig.
"I remember him talking about it. He went to the South Pacific to entertain the troops along with Bob Hope and Betty Grable. He said, 'I don't sing, I don't dance, I don't tell jokes.' The general there said, 'Coop, they want to hear you give the Lou Gehrig speech.' I have a picture of him standing and talking to a thousand guys, many of them about to go off and be killed. Every place he went, that's what they wanted to hear.''