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Deep Into The Festering

Mind Of Jackie Coogan

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Jackie Coogan, The Wackadoodle Star Of The Iconic 1960s Wackadoodle Television Series, Was Also One Of The First Real Child Stars After His Breakout Role With Charlie Chaplin But Will Always Be Remembered As Uncle Fester

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By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel To Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

Dec. 8, 2014 — In a show business career that spanned more than 60 years – from silent films to television – Jackie Coogan is best remembered for one role: Uncle Fester on TV’s wackadoodle The Addams Family which celebrates its 50th year since the comedy first aired in 1964.

It didn’t seem to matter that Coogan worked in just about every entertainment medium including vaudeville, movies, radio and the stage. For millions of Baby Boomers who have seen The Addams Family in re-run syndication, Coogan will always be the bald, fat man in a dark coat with fur collar who likes to ride his motorcycle through the house, sleeps on a bed of nails, puts his cranium in a metal vice to cure headaches, plays with dynamite caps, and has the knack of illuminating light bulbs in his mouth.

We met Coogan in 1980 (he died in 1984) at the Trancas Restaurant in Malibu Canyon. And no, we didn’t eat “eye of newt,” eels or fillet of lizard. Coogan ordered a ham, cheese and mushroom omelet with potatoes and an ice-tea. After the waitress had taken our order, Coogan leered after her: “I’d like to rent her butt as a neon sign.”

No doubt about it, Fester had an acid wit – pass the Prevacid!

Although we were steps from the ocean, it was hot that morning. Coogan was dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, had a few localized strands of long hair falling haphazardly from his mostly bald head and enunciated in a high-pitched squawk through a zeppelin-sized red nose that looked as if it had recently seen service as a Doberman’s chew-toy.

It was while Coogan was performing with his father, Jack Sr., at the Los Angeles Orpheum Theater that Charlie Chaplin got a glimpse of the little kid who would co-star with him in the eponymous The Kid, one of the great tearjerkers of the silent era. The movie became a milestone for Chaplin. It was his first film that was not total slapstick, and he proved that pathos could sell. Jerry Lewis, Red Skelton and Jackie Gleason would all go on to interject pathos (to varying degrees) into their films and TV shows.

After The Kid, Coogan went on to make 29 silent films including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Oliver Twist and Peck’s Bad Boy. Careerwise, things went well for Coogan until 1938 when he was involved in a bitter lawsuit with his mother over money he had amassed as a child performer (as his guardian, his mother had spent all his earnings). The law that resulted was dubbed and is still known today as the “Coogan Law” and has since protected the earnings of minors.

The publicity from the trial had a negative effect on Coogan’s career and for a quarter century, he struggled until his casting in The Addams Family made him a household oddity if not exactly a name.

“I had read Charles Addams’ cartoons and really enjoyed them,” he said. “So when I read they were going to do a show, I told my agent I wanted to try out. He didn’t want me to because when you do something weird like that it tends to typecast you for life. But I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I shaved my head and made the test using the high voice. The show lasted three years on ABC. All they had to do was go in color with that impressive set and the show would have stayed on TV much longer.”

The only thing Coogan didn’t like about the show was that he felt the character of Gomez as played by John Astin was a copy of Groucho Marx. To us, Coogan’s comment seemed like a case of the pot calling the kettle black since his character of Uncle Fester was a direct rip-off (maybe an ode) of Curly Howard of Three Stooges fame.

Regardless, we were utterly relieved when Coogan told us that he still had his Fester fur-lined coat. Next stop Smithsonian …

The conversation then took a fatal header when Coogan (apparently tired of talking about his status as an icon of the bizarre) launched into a self-serving panegyric about his World War II experiences in Burma. It was an endless tale of midnight parachute drops and all-out heroics that made Audie Murphy, by comparison, seem like a rear-echelon loafer. It was almost as if Coogan was trying to put some Svengali-like spin on how we handled his story by trying to minimize our embedded perception of him as a pot-bellied guy in a long black coat who had dark circles under his eyes and who never left the Addams house. Fat chance, but we listened to his ramble anyway.

Two hours and six ice-teas later, Coogan was almost done pontificating.

“You know the good thing now is that I’m in a financial position where I never had to work again if I don’t want to,” he told us. One that note, he handed us the luncheon tab and traipsed out of the joint. “Coogan’s Law” or not, he wasn’t taking any chances.

We were left with a creepy, kooky, altogether ooky feeling, but we didn’t have the heart to accost Coogan out in the parking lot where he was having trouble backing out from a tight space. That said, for a brief moment, we felt like calling in some paratroopers of our own for retribution, but we let the moment pass. Where’s Lurch when you need him!

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at www.reeltoreal.com
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