In over 100 movies, actor and Helena native, Gary Cooper portrayed a wide array of characters – soldiers, cowboys, and ordinary Joes – all with charm and a succinct stateliness. However, Gary Cooper was best known as the tall, Western American hero of 20th century film. During his 36-year movie career, Gary Cooper became one of Hollywood's leading men. When moving pictures were silent, his first jobs were as an extra in Westerns. Cooper quickly made the transition from silent film to talkies, and from stunt man to leading man.
Gary Cooper’s big break came in 1926 with a part in "The Winning of Barbara Worth." He then appeared in "Wings," the first movie to receive a Best Picture Oscar. "The Virginian," the screen adaptation of Owen Wister's classic 1901 Western novel released in 1929, was Cooper’s first "talkie" and helped launch his career. Cooper's on-film presence – tall, handsome and shy – had an immediate appeal to the movie-going public.
|Gary Cooper publicity photo for "The Westerner;" 1940;|
Photo credit: Culver Pictures, Inc.
MHS Photo Archives Gary Cooper Research Collection Box 2, Folder 2
In the 1930s, Cooper was Hollywood's #1 male box-office star – earning him both unbelievable wealth and fame during the dark years of the Great Depression. In movies like "A Farewell To Arms," the first film adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway novel; Frank Capra's screwball comedy, "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town;" and "The Plainsman," Cooper's roles depicted the common man who persevered through adversity–and as always–was the hero. Some of Gary Cooper's most famous movies came in the 1940s and 1950s. The leading roles in "Sergeant York" (1941) and "High Noon" (1952) earned Cooper two Best Actor Academy Awards. Many of his films remind us of his own heritage, bringing to a culmination his image as a true Western American hero.
Gary Cooper started out life as Frank James Cooper, the second son of Charles H. and Alice Brazier Cooper, both British-born. Charles immigrated to Montana in 1885, and studied law in Helena. Alice Brazier came to Helena in 1893, and she and Charles married in 1895. Their first child, Arthur, was born soon after. By the time Frank was born on May 7, 1901, Charles had earned his law degree and was busy expanding his political circle - even introducing Theodore Roosevelt when the candidate visited Helena during the 1904 Presidential campaign.
Family finances were good, and in 1906, Charles purchased a 600-acre ranch, the Seven Bar Nine near Craig. It was a place to 'turn the boys loose.' The ranch, also known as Sunnyside, was along the Missouri River, but was 60 miles from Helena. "We had fast, convenient transportation from Helena to Dad's ranch," Cooper later remembered, "but that was only when we went by train. If we decided to hitch up the horse to the wagon, it was a trip that took a long day—and put the nag out of commission for a week."1
|Frank Cooper (far left), Arthur, and visiting relatives|
at the Cooper Ranch along the Missouri River, ca. 1906
Photo credit: Brown Brothers, NY
MHS Photo Archives Gary Cooper Research Collection, B 1/F 1
In 1909, the Coopers moved their Helena residence from 730 11th Avenue to 123 Breckenridge and Frank and his brother continued attending Helena public schools. However, insisting that the boys needed some British discipline, Alice took her sons to England and enrolled them in The Dunstable School (Bedfordshire) in 1910. Because of their frontier manners, schoolmates at Dunstable teased them, but they soon adapted to life in England.
Alice and the boys returned to Helena from England in 1915 and lived at 115 North Beattie. The opposite of their English school experience occurred when the Cooper boys' British formal dress resulted in ridicule of their "fancy English duds." It only took one day for Frank to change his attire from a tailored suit to overalls. Despite her attempts, Mrs. Cooper could not impose her form of culture on her boys in Montana. Frank's experience of living in two worlds would bode well for him later when he hit Hollywood.
In Helena, Frank often practiced boxing with close family friend Wellington Rankin - colleague of Charles Cooper and brother of suffragist Jeannette Rankin. Frank also frequently marveled at the art in Montana's new Capitol when visiting his father there. He especially related to the magnificent mural of Lewis & Clark by Charles Russell; it inspired him to be an artist himself one day.
At the family's Craig ranch, though, there was a substantial herd of cattle to tend, so Frank quit school and spent two years working there until the end of World War I. Frank learned about ranching, the outdoors, Western history, hunting, and getting along with characters as diverse as local ranchers, itinerant cowboys and the American Indians who lived nearby. One of the cowboys who worked on the ranch, Slim Talbot, would later become Cooper's Hollywood stand-in.
Back in Helena, Frank broke his hip in a car accident on his way to school. The doctor's advice was to get exercise, so Frank returned to the ranch and rode horses for therapy. Though painful to ride, Frank learned how to gingerly move with the horse in an effort to minimize the pain. Many years later Cooper attributed this episode as the reason for his expert horsemanship.
Alice thought Frank's "rowdy" crowd was too much of a distraction, so he was sent to Bozeman's Gallatin County High School. His teacher—Ida Davis, an influential force in his life—put Frank on the debate team and encouraged his participation in school plays. During the summer, Frank worked as a gear jammer, or tour bus driver, in Yellowstone National Park for a few years beginning in 1921.
Frank yearned to go to art school with the goal of becoming an illustrator. As a compromise with his parents, he headed off to Iowa's Grinnell College for 3 years. He returned to Helena in 1924 though his parents had moved to California after Charles retired. Frank sought a job as a political cartoonist, and four of his drawings were published in the Helena newspaper, The Independent Record. When this line of work did not pan out, he headed to California to look for similar work. Frank's lack of success in this field led him to other employment; however, art continued to be a lifelong passion.
|Political cartoon by Frank Cooper, Helena Independent Record, Nov. 2, 1924.|
Frank changed his first name to Gary during this time as there were already two actors named Frank Cooper. He forever after became known as Gary Cooper. Frank also took advice from his old friend, Wellington Rankin, "…Look at how this fellow [Valentino] puts over an idea. He thinks it so strongly that it becomes obvious to the audience."3 Years later in a letter to Rankin, Cooper said, "I hold you partially responsible for my good fortune in Hollywood because you were the first to put the bee in my head about becoming an actor."4
|Lobby Card, "A Farewell to Arms," 1932;|
MHS Museum Collection, L88.12.05
Cooper's health began deteriorating in the 1950s. He contracted cancer in 1959 and never recovered. Cooper was too ill in April 1961 to attend the Academy Awards, during which his friend Jimmy Stewart accepted Gary Cooper's lifetime achievement Oscar. Gary Cooper died in 1961, prior to the release of his last movie, The Naked Edge, which premiered at the historic Marlow Theater in Helena. Family friend Wellington Rankin wrote a telegram to Cooper's mother, "All who knew him and of him are glad that he lived and are sorry that he seems to be gone. His memory will always live."5
From stunt man to leading man—Cooper portrayed the quintessential American hero. His image as an honest, courageous man survives in his films. Most of all, Cooper was personally grounded in reality and his own history. Charles M. Russell once remarked, "No man should be condemned for what he can't do nor should get too much credit for what he can do because he can't help it." Gary Cooper could not help it.
1. Carpozi, p.13.
2. Hedda Hopper column, “Not ‘Diversified’ Wails Cooper,” Toledo Blade, July 17, 1949, p.4.
3. Salt Lake Tribune, May 22, 1961.
4. Letter, Gary Cooper to Wellington Rankin, October 9, 1946; MHS Research Center, MC 288, Box 1, Folder 12.
5. Telegram, Wellington Rankin to Mrs. Charles Cooper, May 1961; MHS Research Center, MC 288, Box 1, Folder 12.
- Hector Arce, Gary Cooper: An Intimate Biography (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1979).
- George Carpozi, Jr., The Gary Cooper Story (New York: Arlington House, 1970).
- Gary Cooper Filmography
- Maria Cooper Janis, Gary Cooper Off Camera, A Daughter Remembers (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999).