Just about everyone has seen a stage mom. You know, the one living vicariously through her child. She’s usually on the side lines mimicking her child’s lines or yelling at them to do better. Picture the crazy overbearing pageant moms in Toddlers and Tiaras. She’s caking her little one in make-up, spray tans and glitter. All for a good sum of money. When it comes to child stars, who gets that money? The crazy stage mom or the kid who worked in the play, TV show or movie?
Thankfully for Jackie Coogan, beloved for his role in “The Kid” and for playing Fester in “The Addams Family,” the kids’ money is protected.
Jackie Coogan was born into a family of performers. His father was a dancer and his mother had been a child star. Jackie was on the stage by the age of four and touring around Los Angeles. Charlie Chaplin discovered him and Jackie started his film carrier in the movie, “A Day’s Pleasure” (1919) and then in Chaplin’s famous film “The Kid” (1921). From then on, the 20s were all about Jackie Coogan. By 1923, at the age of nine, Coogan was one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood. At age 13, though, his career started going downward and he was only able to book very few jobs. Coogan lost his father in 1935 and his mother eventually re-married. This is the part of the story where it gets interesting.
On his 21st birthday, Coogan realized he had never gotten the money he worked so hard for as a child. He sued his mother and stepfather for the $4 million he earned. Back in those days, however, the kids had no right to their money, it went straight to the parents.
Jackie Coogan was granted $126,000. Not quite the $4 million he deserved. But Coogan’s lawsuit with his parents brought the issue to the public’s attention, and that spawned a crusade that eventually led to The Coogan Act, designed to prevent future generations from facing the same predicament as Jackie.
It wasn’t perfect; in fact, it turned out there were tons of loopholes in the legislation that still left kids vulnerable. Yet, for generations the Coogan Law helped immeasurably, in spite of its weaknesses. In 2000, finally, changes in California law affirmed that earnings by minors in the entertainment industry are the property of the minor, not their parents, and Jackie Coogan’s crusade was complete.
Since children aren’t allowed to control their money, their earnings go into an account called the Coogan account, until they turn 18. Coogan Accounts are also known as Blocked Trust Accounts and Trust Accounts. They’re required in California, New York, Louisiana and New Mexico. For the Coogan account to work, the parent must supply proof of an account before their child gets a work permit. According to sagaftra.org, “15% of the minor’s gross wages are required to be withheld by the employer and deposited into the Coogan Account within 15 days of employment.” Today, children get to keep their money, but can’t access it until they’re 18.
After the lawsuit against his folks, Coogan went about his life and married his first wife, Betty Grable. That marriage lasted three years. They divorced and he married 3 more times. Coogan went in the Army, served in WWII and came back and tried to get back into acting. For a while he was unsuccessful and booked only small jobs. In the 1960s he was able to land a role in the TV show “Mckeever and the Colonel” (1962) as Sgt. Barnes.
At this point, Coogan was 50 years old and almost broke. Finally he got the role as Uncle Fester in “The Addams Family” (1964), and from then on the work never stopped until the day he passed away at the age of 70.
Jackie Coogan paid a dear price for battling his parents—one can only imagine how tortuous that must have been. But his courageous act and his years of advocacy have made an enormous difference for generations of performers. The Industry is grateful, Jackie.
His advice to future child stars? “Stay away from mothers.”