Biography of Gary Cooper

Iconic Classic Movie Star

Gary Cooper
Photo by Bettmann / Getty Images

Frank James Cooper (May 7, 1901 - May 13, 1961) rose to movie stardom by portraying classic American heroes. Some were fictional, and others were based on real-life heroes like Sergeant Alvin York and New York Yankee baseball star Lou Gehrig. Cooper remained a star until his untimely death from cancer at age 60.

Early Life

Born in Helena, Montana, Gary Cooper grew up spending summers at the Seven-Bar-Nine ranch owned by his English immigrant parents.

He learned to ride horses and spent time hunting and fishing. Gary Cooper's father Charles Henry Cooper became a Montana Supreme Court Justice. His mother Alice Brazier Cooper wanted her sons to have an English education and enrolled Gary and his brother Arthur in the Dunstable Grammar School in Bedfordshire, England from 1910 to 1912. They returned to the United States and enrolled in American schools once again in August 1912. 

Cooper sustained injuries in a car crash at age fifteen. As part of his convalescence, he was sent to the Seven-Bar-Nine ranch to ride horseback. The crash left him with his trademark stiff, slightly off-balance style of walking. He left high school for a year to return to the family ranch and work as a cowboy, but his father convinced him to finish his high school diploma. 

Gary Cooper spent eighteen months as a student at Grinnell College in Iowa studying art, but he left abruptly to pursue work as an artist in Chicago.

Failing there, he returned to Helena, Montana and sold cartoons to the local newspaper. In the fall of 1924, when Cooper was 23, his parents moved to Los Angeles to oversee the properties belonging to two relatives. They asked their son to join them, and soon Gary Cooper was working as an extra and stunt rider for the local movie industry.

Silent Film Career and Sound Stardom

It didn't take long for Cooper to realize that stunt work was challenging and risky. Riders often sustained severe injuries and after the trauma of his car crash as a teenager, Cooper couldn't afford another physical tragedy. He chose to pursue work as an actor instead. His agent Nan Collins suggested changing his name from Frank to Gary, after her hometown of Gary, Indiana. Gary Cooper appeared in his first significant role in 1926's "The Winning of Barbara Worth" starring Ronald Colman. Critics noticed the rising talent, and soon Cooper was appearing in more major releases. In 1928, he played a supporting role in "Wings," the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture.

But it was his debut speaking appearance in the sound film "The Virginian" in 1929 that made Gary Cooper a star. His performance as a tall, handsome and quiet hero enthralled movie audiences and opened Cooper up to other romantic roles. In 1930, he co-starred with Marlene Dietrich in her first American film "Morocco." And in 1932, he co-starred with Helen Hayes in the critically celebrated Ernest Hemingway adaptation "A Farewell to Arms." Frank Cooper legally changed his name to Gary Cooper in 1933.

Classic American Hero

In 1936, Gary Cooper appeared in one of his defining movie roles playing Longfellow Deeds in "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town." His performance as an all-American symbol of virtue and courage earned Cooper his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. He also appeared on the annual list of top 10 film personalities for the first time where he would stay for 23 years.

Gary Cooper's stardom faded somewhat in the late 1930s, but he came roaring back in 1941 when he appeared in the title role of World War I hero "Sergeant York" and the lead in Frank Capra's anti-corruption classic "Meet John Doe." "Sergeant York" was the top money-making film of the year and earned Gary Cooper his first Academy Award for Best Actor. The following year he took on another career-defining role as Lou Gehrig in "The Pride of the Yankees." Gary Cooper learned how to move like a baseball player for his role in the latter film.

Later Years and Death

Cooper was an aging star when he took on the role of Sheriff Will Kane in 1952's "High Noon." He was in poor health during the filming, and many critics believed his pain and discomfort added believability to his on-screen role. The finished product earned acclaim as one of the top Westerns of all time, and it gave Cooper his second Best Actor Academy Award. 

Gary Cooper struggled with health problems in the 1950s. One of his celebrated late career appearances was 1956's "Friendly Persuasion" co-starring Dorothy McGuire. In April 1960, Gary Cooper underwent surgery to treat aggressive prostate cancer that spread to his colon. After another surgery, he spent the summer recuperating before making his last film "The Naked Edge" in England in the fall. In December, doctors discovered cancer had spread even more and was inoperable. Gary Cooper was too ill to attend the Academy Awards ceremony in April 1961, and he watched his good friend James Stewart accept a lifetime achievement award on his behalf. Gary Cooper died quietly on May 13, 1961.

Personal Life

In his early years of stardom, Gary Cooper was linked romantically with a string of fellow performers. He had relationships with Clara Bow, Lupe Velez, Marlene Dietrich, and Carole Lombard. On Easter Sunday 1933, he met his future wife, New York socialite Veronica Balfe, nicknamed "Rocky" by her family and friends. The pair married in December 1933.

The couple had one daughter, Maria Veronica Cooper. They were both devoted parents even after a legal separation beginning in May 1951.

Gary Cooper had well-known affairs with Ingrid Bergman and Patricia Neal in the 1940s. The indiscretions contributed to the separation, but in February 1954, the Coopers formally reconciled and remained together for the rest of Gary Cooper's life.

Gary Cooper was a conservative Republican throughout his life and regularly supported Republican presidential candidates. He joined the conservative Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals in the late 1940s and encouraged Congress to investigate communist influence in Hollywood. He testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but he did not reveal any names of others in the movie industry. 


Critics celebrated Gary Cooper for his natural, authentic style of acting. His characters were men of action, who often had a naive streak that proved to be one of their most substantial assets. The naivete allowed them to stand outside of a corrupt world and promote the best in the human spirit.

Cooper was one of the top money-making movie stars of all time. Quigley's, the organization that lists the top ten money-making stars of each year, listed Gary Cooper as fourth behind John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Tom Cruise among all-time money-making actors.

Memorable Films

  • "The Virginian" (1929)
  • "Morocco" (1930)
  • "A Farewell to Arms" (1932)
  • "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" (1936)
  • "Meet John Doe" (1941)
  • "Sergeant York" (1941)
  • "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (1943)
  • "High Noon" (1952)
  • "Friendly Persuasion" (1956()


  • Academy Award Nomination for Best Actor (1937): "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town"
  • Academy Award for Best Actor (1942): "Sergeant York"
  • Academy Award Nomination for Best Actor (1943): "The Pride of the Yankees"
  • Academy Award Nomination for Best Actor (1944): "For Whom the Bell Tolls"
  • Academy Award for Best Actor (1953): "High Noon"
  • Honorary Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement (1961)

Resources and Further Reading

  • Arce, Hector. Gary Cooper: An Intimate Biography. William Morrow and Company, 1979.
  • Janis, Maria Cooper. Gary Cooper Off Camera: A Daughter Remembers. Harry N. Abrams, 1999.