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By Cynthia Potts

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Everybody knows the song.  Once Fred Astaire starts singing “Putting on the Ritz, people will chime in, claiming that they too want to ‘look like Gary Cooper’.  Implicit in that statement is an almost universal desire to possess Cooper’s quiet style and elegance.

Back when Cooper’s career began, though, in the mid 1920’s, this quiet, understated style was almost his undoing.  Directors, used to more flamboyant acting of silent film stars, were not comfortable with the seemingly bland performances they were seeing on the set.  But when the film hit the big screen, it was easy to see the magic.

1945 Gary Cooper Screen Art Cowboys and Cowgirls

1920's Kashin Fan Photo of Gary Cooper

Director Sam Wood: “You’re positive he’s going to ruin your picture.  I thought there was something wrong with him and I saw a million-dollar production go glimmering...  Then I was amazed at the results on the screen.  What I thought was underplaying turned out to be just the right approach.  On the screen, he’s perfect, yet on the set, you’d swear it’s the worst job of acting in the history of motion pictures!”

This contrast was to stay with Cooper through the early days of his career – where he’d play generic cowboy or Indian roles, whatever he could get – to the point where Gary was powerful enough to turn down the role of Rhett Butler in “Gone with the Wind”.

Declining that role didn’t detract from his considerable filmography.  Cooper’s works span five decades and contain more than one hundred pictures. Among these are his famous roles in The Virginian (1929), Beau Geste (1939), and High Noon (1952).  Not as well know, but certainly important, are the dozens of westerns Cooper made.  It was in these films that he learned how to truly inhabit his characters, perfecting his art to the point where it didn’t seem like he was acting at all.  Not only did moviegoers enjoy his work, but Gary’s contemporaries were watching closely.  Watching, and approving.

Cooper’s performance in High Noon won him the Best Actor Academy Award. This was the second time he’d won, previously capturing the prize for Sergeant York (1941). Performances in three other films earned him nominations, all in the Best Actor category.

As time went on, and audiences became more sophisticated, other actors began to emulate Cooper’s style.  It simply worked better for talking pictures.  Previously acceptable silent film performances now seemed histrionic and overdone.

Somehow, though, it wasn’t as easy as it looked.  As Charles Laughton once moaned, “We act, he is.”  It seemed as if Gary was playing himself on screen – which he did on a few occasions!  Even Cooper himself couldn’t explain it, saying only, “Looking like I’m acting and acting are two different acts.”

It was more than Cooper’s acting style that set him apart from the rest of Hollywood.  He was, according to all accounts, one of the nicest people in the business.  “You could talk to him for ten minutes, and you felt like he’d been your friend your entire life,” a 1929 Gary Cooper Movie-Land Keeno Game Cardcontemporary said.  Loyal to a 1935 Gary Cooper 8x10 Theatre Premiumfault, Cooper couldn’t tolerate phony people and would quickly distance himself from those that he felt to be insincere.  Gary enjoyed his friends, but he also liked his time alone – time he used to hunt.

Cooper was such an avid outdoorsman. Once he had developed a little clout, he insisted that a  “hunting time” clause be built into his contracts.  If it were possible, he wouldn’t work at all during hunting season, preferring to spend the time in the woods.

At a time when most Hollywood stars kept their friendships carefully within a closely guarded circle of movie professionals, Cooper talked with everybody.  His well-publicized friendships include Picasso, Irwin Shaw, John O’Hara, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and perhaps most famously, the writer, Ernest Hemingway.

This friendship was undoubtedly strengthened by Cooper’s performances in films influenced by Hemingway’s works.  These include A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Love in the Afternoon.  Not many people could get close to the eccentric author, but Cooper was one of the select.

In fact, the twenty-year friendship between these two powerful men was so legendary that it is the subject of an upcoming documentary, “Cooper and Hemingway, the True Gen”.  Written and directed by John Mulholland, the film is scheduled for release in February of 2003.  To coordinate with the film’s release, the Ritz Hotel in Paris will be dedicating a ‘Love in the Afternoon’ room on February 6th.

Gary Cooper changed American film in a fundamental way.  By introducing the art of restrained performance to dozens of directors, he influenced the tone of their subsequent films.  Actors seeking to emulate his style developed subtlety and skills that brought a new level of emotional depth to their work.  And this all began with a man who played ‘a cowboy before lunch and an Injun in the afternoon’!
Cynthia Potts is a freelance writer living in Upstate NY.  Her interest in collectibles started with Depression Glass, although she quickly moved onto less breakable treasures.  You can reach her at

Other Gary Cooper Pages:

A Tribute To Gary Cooper The former silent movie extra and Western star was once the highest-paid person in America. So popular was he that when the studio wanted a new name for a fellow named Archie Leach, they just reversed Gary Cooper's initials and came up with "Cary Grant."
See Gary Cooper on the IMDB