Mr. Average Joe American: A Gary Cooper Birthday Tribute

Gary Cooper is "Mr. Average Joe American," a Cowboy Artist, a Man of Few Words, & Don't Mess with His Caviar.
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The month of May is full of Classic Hollywood birthdays. (Audrey, Kate, Jimmy, and Hank, to name a few.)  

Today is the birthday of the great Gary Cooper.

Coop, as his fans still affectionately call him, was one of a kind.

Gary Cooper

Gary Cooper: "Mr. Average Joe American"

Despite his super stardom, incredible good looks, immense acting talent, and unique screen persona, Gary Cooper referred to himself as “Mr. Average Joe American” to the day he died.  In the words of his daughter, Maria Cooper Janis:

“This was not an affectation.  He felt this to his very core, along with deep feelings of responsibility and gratitude for all his good fortune.”

To celebrate Coop today, here are a few lesser-known facts that may surprise you:

A very young Gary Cooper, in his Hollywood cowboy days.

The Montana Cowboy Artist

Gary Copper was born in Montana, the son of a Supreme Court judge.  Coop was raised on a ranch, which influenced his lifelong love of nature.  He was also a gifted artist, and as a boy, dreamed of pursuing art as a career.  Though fate pulled Gary Cooper towards Hollywood and stardom, his love of art never left him: even at the height of his film career, it was important to Coop to “keep his hand in practice,” which he did by sketching scenes from nature, or asking his beautiful wife, Veronica, known as “Rocky,” to sit for portraits.  

Gary Cooper

Gary Cooper: The Cowboy Artist Becomes a Movie Star

During his Montana days, Gary Cooper was in a serious car accident that resulted in a broken hip.  At the time, Coop didn’t know his hip was broken, so he continued helping his mom on the ranch with such tasks as herding 500 head of cattle.  On horseback.  (And, oh yeah, with a broken hip.)

The pain got so bad that eventually Coop had to take it easy.  This gave him lots of time to think about his future. And Coop decided his future was on the East Coast, studying art. 

Which Cooper did, for a time.  But one thing led to another, and Coop found himself in California, where he soon learned that working as a cowboy stuntman in Hollywood films was a great way to make money to pay for art classes.  But as we all know, that stuntman ended up becoming not a career artist, but a major Hollywood star.

Gary Cooper
Coop, showing his natural grace on a fishing trip.

Gary Cooper was a Man of Few Words

Maria Cooper Janis shared that on frequent family nature excursions to the mountains or the sea, her father would encourage her to:

“Sit still and watch, look, be aware, and you will learn many things.” 

Jimmy Stewart presents Gary Cooper with his Best Actor Oscar for Sergeant York (1941).

Coop lived by this adage even when hanging out with friends.  Sometimes, it took a good friend like Jimmy Stewart to appreciate that Coop wasn’t one to talk just for the sake of talking. 

As Jim once related about his friend’s economy with words:

“Coop didn’t waste many words.  I remember once we went for a long walk. Aaaah, big bird flew overhead. Cooper pantomimed a gun and said BANG!…high point of the afternoon’s conversation.”

Coop and Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe ((1941).

Gary Cooper Was a Practical Joker.  And Don’t Mess with His Caviar.

Coop loved a good practical joke.  In her heartwarming and page-turning memoir, Gary Cooper Off Camera: A Daughter Remembers [aff. link], Maria Cooper Janis relates one such joke from a family vacation that involves a tin of caviar.  

The Coopers were staying at the Lancaster Hotel in Paris after a trip to Iran, where they purchased some particularly exquisite caviar.  Each day in Paris, the Coopers looked forward to their evening ritual at the Lancaster, when they would feast on the Iranian caviar, straight from the tin with a knife.  Then they would ask the hotel to refrigerate the remaining caviar until the next evening, when they would repeat the feast.

Gary Cooper
Coop with his lovely daughter, Maria.

One night, the Coopers opened the caviar tin to find much more missing than they had eaten the previous evening.  It was clear that someone at the hotel was sneaking huge bites of their caviar!

But Coop had an ingenious plan that the family immediately implemented: he, Rocky, and Maria finished off the whole tin of caviar that night.  Then they filled it with moistened dirt from the geranium planter on the terrace to make it appear that the tin was still full of caviar.  In Maria’s words, Coop then called up the hotel waiter:

 “‘Please, would you send this back down to the kitchen refrigerator as usual? We’ll call for it tomorrow.’ Poppa turned to my mother and me and laughed, and said, ‘I just want to see the look on the SOB’s face when he goes for our caviar!’”

James Stewart,Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Van Heflin
From left to right: Clark Gable, Van Heflin, Gary Cooper, and Jimmy Stewart.

Happy Birthday, Coop!

Happy Birthday, Coop! 

We love you for considering yourself “Mr. Average Joe American,” even though there was certainly nothing average about you.

Coop rehearses with Audrey Hepburn behind the scenes of Love in the Afternoon (1957).

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Sylvia Bechtelheimer

    Thanks for the birthday tribute for/to Coop! I love info and anecdotes about him, and think that he was just about the most handsome actor ever, especially (of course, because age affects us all!) throughout his younger years. I’m going to have to find a copy of Maria’s biography of her dad, because I’ve never read it. Again, thanks! (We lost him way too soon…)

    1. Shannon

      Thank you so much for reading Sylvia! Oh I completely agree, Coop was one of the most handsome actors on screen EVER! Such an elegant, yet down to earth man on and off camera. So happy to find another fan! You will absolutely LOVE Maria’s book, it’s such a beautiful tribute to her father. You can find Maria’s book on Amazon here [aff. link to Amazon]. It’s a must have for any Coop fan! Thanks again for reading, have a lovely day! -Shannon

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