On this day in 1901, Gary Cooper, who will become famous for his performances in such movies as High Noon and The Pride of the Yankees, is born in Helena, Montana.
Cooper grew up on the ranch owned by his wealthy father, a Montana Supreme Court Justice. He was educated largely in England through high school, and the diverse experiences of his upbringing later informed his screen persona, at once rugged frontier hero and blue-blooded gentleman. In 1924, after dropping out of college, Cooper headed to Hollywood, where he got his start in movies as a cowboy extra in a Western film. He landed his first starring role two years later, in the silent film The Winning of Barbara Worth. His first successful “talkie,” The Virginian (1929), elevated Cooper to A-list status, and he went on to appear in a number of films in the 1930s, including Morocco (1930), A Farewell to Arms (1932), Design for Living (1933), The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), Desire (1936), The Plainsman (1937), Beau Geste (1939) and The Westerner (1940).
Cooper and his notably understated, laconic acting style won special notice as the unlikely everyman hero in two films directed by Frank Capra: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), for which he received an Academy Award nomination, and Meet John Doe (1941). Also in 1941, Cooper won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of the real-life World War I hero Alvin York in Sergeant York. He turned in another acclaimed performance as the baseball legend Lou Gehrig in Pride of the Yankees (1942). Cooper’s other notable 1940s films included Ball of Fire (1941), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) and The Fountainhead (1949).
In 1947, Cooper appeared as a “friendly” witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee, testifying as to the existence of a Communist influence in Hollywood. According to Cooper, he had “turned down quite a few scripts because I thought they were tinged with communistic ideas.” Despite his indirect participation in the hated blacklisting practice that followed, Cooper retained his status as one of Hollywood’s most revered leading men. He won his second Best Actor Oscar as an aging lawman in the classic High Noon (1952). Among his last films were Friendly Persuasion (1956) and Love in the Afternoon (1957).
In all, Cooper made more than 100 films over the course of his career. Married to the socialite Veronica Balfe (who had a short-lived acting career as Sandra Shaw) since 1933, Cooper was also known for his many romances with co-stars, including Clara Bow, Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly and Patricia Neal. Late in his life, Cooper suffered from recurring illnesses, including lung cancer. Though he kept the information secret, the public got a hint in April 1961, when Jimmy Stewart made an emotional speech while accepting a lifetime achievement Academy Award for his ailing friend. Cooper died a month later, days after his 60th birthday.