The real story of Jackie Coogan - the creepy but charming Uncle Fester from The Addams Family (12 photos)

Category: Nostalgia, PEGI 0+
16 April 2024

The actor, who became one of the first child stars in Hollywood, played his first role in the dramatic comedy “Baby.”

Promising child actors do not often achieve success in this field in adulthood. But Coogan was an exception and found fame and a new generation of fans in middle age, playing the role of the madcap Uncle Fester in the 1960s television series The Addams Family.

But let the path to fame not be called simple. Between these iconic roles, his real life was full of its own dramas. In particular, the young actor lost a fortune - $4 million due to the greed of his guardians.

Starting a career in show business

John Leslie "Jackie" Coogan was born into an acting family on October 26, 1914 in Los Angeles. He appeared on the stage even before he could walk and talk. Silent film superstar Charlie Chaplin discovered young Jackie while performing in vaudeville and cast the boy in a small role in the film when he was just four years old.

Young Jackie's breakthrough role was as Charlie Chaplin's adopted son and sidekick in The Kid, Chaplin's first feature film as a director.

The mansion where Jackie spent his childhood

The film was a huge success and made the big-eyed boy a star. By the age of 21, Jackie Coogan had starred in more than 20 films, starring in Oliver Twist, Tom Sawyer and many other classics. His fortune during these lucrative early years was estimated at $4 million, a colossal sum at the time. He spent his youth in a huge house with one of the first private swimming pools in Southern California; his swimming instructor was an Olympic gold medalist.

Difficult times

Betty Grable and Jackie Coogan

In early May 1935, Jackie's life changed. Along with his father, best friend and actor Junior Durkin, actor and writer Robert J. Horner, and the estate manager, Jackie went hunting across the border into Mexico. On the way home, they drove off a mountain highway and fell down an embankment. As a result, everyone died except Jackie.

Six months later, Jackie turned 21, and he expected to gain the right to manage his considerable fees, for which his father was responsible all this time.

But instead of receiving the expected $4 million, Jackie discovered that the money had disappeared. His mother and her new husband, Hollywood lawyer Arthur Bernstein, spent everything. They spent their fortune on furs, diamonds and expensive cars. Moreover, they had no intention of giving Jackie his money.

Adult wrestling

Actors of "The Addams Family"

Jackie Coogan by that time was already in a rather painful state of transition from child star to adult with rather vague prospects. In 1935, he became engaged to Betty Grable. Two years later they got married, and two years later they divorced. Coogan also had problems finding work.

Jackie filed a lawsuit against his mother and stepfather. By the time the case was settled and Coogan's legal fees were paid, he had received only a tiny fraction of his former earnings—just $35,000. However, his personal misfortune had positive consequences for future young stars.

In 1939, California passed a child actors bill that required 15 percent of their salaries to be put into a trust fund. The hours of study and work of young actors were also discussed. This law became known as Coogan's Law.

Service and return to Hollywood

As Fester

Coogan served during World War II as a pilot. Returning to normal life after the war, he tried to resume his acting career. It worked, but with much more modest success.

He played episodic roles in TV series. Until his retirement in the mid-1970s, he starred in many popular TV series, including The Brady Bunch, Here's Lucy, Hawaii Five-0 and MacMillan and Wife.

In 1964, Coogan finally regained his fame and fortune. At least among a new generation of fans, when he landed the iconic role of the hilarious, bald, hunchbacked and awkward Uncle Fester in the quirky television series The Addams Family.


His legacy lives on in this new version of The Addams Family.

"Wednesday" with Fred Armisen

Although the series only ran for two years, it is still aired on television and has a large following. It has been adapted into numerous films, reunions, sequels, animated series and Broadway shows. The latest of these was the Wednesday series, which premiered in 2022. In this version, Uncle Fester was played by Fred Armisen.

Jackie Coogan in his last years

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