John Leslie "Jackie" Coogan, the son of John and Lillian Dolliver Coogan, was born on October 26, 1914 in Los Angeles, California. Coogan's parents were both seasoned vaudevillians: his father was a dancer and actor, and his mother was a stage performer and former child star. At the age of four, Coogan made his first appearance on stage at a New York theater, where he earned accolades for his charisma and stage presence. By the age of five, he began touring with his parents and became a regular in their vaudeville circuit.
Coogan's rise to fame came in 1919, when silent film star, Charlie Chaplin first noticed Coogan performing on stage at a downtown Los Angeles theater. Chaplin gave the young actor a small part in A Day's Pleasure (1919), and later assigned him a leading role in The Kid (1921). Coogan's popularity surged soon thereafter, and by the mid-1920s he was one of Hollywood's highest-paid silent film stars. Among the best known of his films are Peck's Bad Boy (1921), Oliver Twist (1922), Daddy (1923), Long Live The King (1923),The Rag Man (1925), Tom Sawyer (1930), and Huckleberry Finn (1931).
In the mid-1920s, a cattle ranch was purchased on Coogan's behalf near Campo, California, approximately fifty miles east of San Diego, for $159,000. While Coogan's production company financed the ranch and received its profits, its day-to-day operations were overseen by J.C. Fuquay and his wife Genevieve, who served as the resident managers. The ranch functioned both as a source of extra revenue for Jackie Coogan Productions and also as a retreat for Coogan, his family, his collegues, and his friends.
Tragedy struck in May, 1935 when Coogan, his father, and three friends were returning to the ranch from a hunting expedition in Mexico. The vehicle that was transporting the men careened into a ditch after Coogan's father, who was the driver, attempted to avoid an oncoming car and lost control. The accident killed every passenger except for Coogan, who escaped with only minor injuries. Traumatized by the death of his father and several of his closest friends, Coogan subsequently relinquished his business ties with the Fuquays and sold his ranch for $40,000 - a small fraction of the initial purchase price.
Wishing to cash in on the money he had made as a child star in the 1920s, he asked his mother and stepfather to turn over his earnings, only to discover that almost all the money had been squandered away. In response, Coogan filed suit in 1938 against his mother and stepfather for the four million dollars that he had made. However, at the time, there was no law on the books that regulated the earnings of child actors, and ultimately Coogan was awarded only $126,000 of his initial claim. The public outcry that accompanied the verdict culminated in the passage of the California Child Actor's Bill, more commonly known as the Coogan Act, which safeguards the wages of child actors into adulthood.
Coogan enlisted in the United States Army in 1941 and was transferred to the United States Air Force after the United States entered World War II. He returned to acting after the war had ended, but was able to attain only minor roles in low-budget films and guest appearances on television shows. Between 1964 and 1966, he had his most famous television role in The Addams Family as Uncle Fester. He retired from acting altogether in the mid-1970s.
Coogan died of a heart attack on March 1, 1984 in Santa Monica, California, at the age of 69.