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Gary Cooper - 8/26
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Gary Cooper - 8/26

Strong and silent with steely gray eyes, Gary Cooper walked out of the wide open West to become one of Hollywood's most rugged symbols of masculinity. From the 1920s through the '50s, Coop played extraordinary heroes and ordinary Americans.

In real life, Cooper was a true Westerner, not merely an onscreen cowboy. He was born on a Montana ranch and, after learning how to ride and rope cattle, he was sent off to attend a prestigious school in England. Soon the taciturn boy came to embody the age-old struggle between mannered culture and the untamed frontier.

As a young man, Cooper aspired to become a political cartoonist, but after having trouble securing work, he found quick cash as a cowboy extra in silent movies. His refined ruggedness attracted the attention of the lusty 'It' girl, Clara Bow. Bow kept her handsome hunk close at hand, and Coop made brief appearances in It (1927) and Wings (1927). By the coming of sound, Bow's career was on the decline as Cooper was becoming a favorite of audiences after his first talking picture, The Virginian (1929). With his laid-back western twang, Cooper was ideally cast as an American hero, an Everyman that everyone could identify with and look up to.

During the '30s, Cooper solidified his screen reputation as a hardy adventurer in such films as Operator 13 (1934) opposite Marion Davies, and as a common man in Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936). Coop had the chance to bring together these two qualities in Sergeant York (1941). Based on the life of one of World War I's most decorated American officers, York was a common man who rose to heroic deeds. Directed by Howard Hawks, Cooper showed a poise and authenticity that brought home his first Academy Award for Best Actor.

The next year, Cooper was back as another favorite American hero - only this time, one with a tragic ending. In The Pride of the Yankees (1942), Coop played baseball great Lou Gehrig, whose triumphs on the field were halted by a debilitating illness. With For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) the actor garnered an Oscar® nomination for the third year in a row.

Cooper wasn't just an actor; he was the authentic article. Seeking to escape the Hollywood scene, he took refuge in his ski house in Sun Valley, Idaho. Ernest Hemingway was a neighbor and friend, and the two American icons of strength and virility often challenged each other, shooting rifles in target practice. Years later when Cooper met the artist Pablo Picasso, he gave him a six-shooter and taught him how to use it.

After WWII, the type of American icon that Cooper represented no longer spoke to audiences. The frontier was no longer open, life was no longer simple and heroes were no longer accepted unconditionally. Coop's idealism found isolation in post-war America. In High Noon (1952), he introduced a new type of protagonist to audiences in Marshall Will Kane. Kane is a pariah; none of the townspeople will stand behind him when they hear that the outlaw Frank Miller is returning on the noon train to seek revenge on Kane. In High Noon Cooper's aging Marshall finds himself utterly alone - as the town's clocks tick towards noon.

High Noon teamed the now-craggy Cooper with the fresh-faced talent of Grace Kelly, in her second film. While Cooper had always been, like Hemingway, a man's man; in his later years Cooper's unequivocal masculinity made him a sex symbol. In The Fountainhead (1949), Coop swept Patricia Neal off her feet, both on screen and off. The object of his affection in Love in the Afternoon (1957) was Audrey Hepburn. Coop exuded a sexual presence from the beginning, in his films with Clara Bow and Marlene Dietrich, but in these later films, his sexual potency became more pronounced.

As the '50s drew to a close, the heroes of the Golden Age of Hollywood faded away. Role models and matinee idols were being replaced by method-acting bad boys and rebels like Marlon Brando and James Dean.

Even the frontier where Cooper was born no longer existed. Coop's simple morality and common decency belonged to a different era. The down-home humor of Biff Grimes in One Sunday Afternoon (1933) and the optimistic ideals of Meet John Doe (1941) seemed outdated. Still, the films of Gary Cooper can conjure up a past time when heroes could still save the day and walk off into the sunset.

Sometime between The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959) and The Naked Edge (1961), Cooper was diagnosed with cancer but kept his sickness a secret. In 1960, too feeble to attend the Academy Awards where he was being celebrated with an Honorary Oscar®, Coop asked his pal Jimmy Stewart to accept the award. Overcome with emotion, Stewart accidentally told the audience of his friend's condition. Two months later, Cooper died. Hollywood had lost a screen hero; America had lost an icon.

by Jeremy Geltzer

* Films in bold type air on TCM
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