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Jackie Cooper: Best. Perry. White. Ever.

Jackie Cooper (1922-2011)

Smack Classix Week: Superman - Crisis of Conscience?The FilmGuruRemembering Perry White: Jackie Cooper (1922-2011)

“Don’t call me Chief!”

This week, the Daily Planet has lost its editor-in-chief. We at the Smackdown mourn the loss of Jackie Cooper.

Cooper, a child-actor in the Depression era and later a TV executive and producer, died this week at the age of 88.  And though he had a score of acting credits, his name evokes just one image for me: Perry White, the editor-in-chief of the Daily Planet.

In all four of the Christopher Reeve Superman films, Cooper played Clark Kent’s boss at Metropolis’ number one newspaper. And though Perry White is most known for his signature catch phrase “Don’t call me Chief!” (most always aimed at poor Jimmy Olsen), he didn’t utter those words in Superman: The Movie. Instead, a mix-up with the morning coffee and the sugar gave us the humorous line “Don’t call me ‘sugar’!” instead.

It may sound strange, but Cooper’s portrayal of Perry White is one of the things that have stuck with me over the years. Sure, Christopher Reeve is/was/and-always-will-be Superman because of those films. But for me, Cooper’s portrayal of the hard-hitting newspaperman is every bit as important. So much so, that when they made Superman Returns in 2006, my biggest concern — aside from Brandon Routh — was who they would get to replace Cooper.

Cooper had such presence. His performance solidified for me what a newspaper editor should be. Tough. Rushed. Always on a deadline. Always grasping for the perfect metaphor.

We’re sitting on top of the story of the century here! I want the name of this flying whatchamacallit to go with the Daily Planet like bacon and eggs, franks and beans, death and taxes, politics and corruption.

Somehow it’s fitting that, as we talk about Superman this week in our “Crisis of Conscience” series, that we take a moment to remember the man who played Perry White as well. A lot has been said about Superman’s decision to renounce his American citizenship. It’s been a media frenzy as the right-wing politicos denounce it as an attack on American values.

A good reporter doesn’t get great stories — a good reporter makes them great.

As a journalist, Perry White would have made it a headline in 96-point type: “Superman: American No More” No question mark. No exclamation point. No editorializing. Just the facts.

Cooper’s early career included appearing in 15 Our Gang comedy shorts produced by Hal Roach. He was later cast as Skippy, the titular character in a film directed by his uncle, Norman Taurog. Cooper was nominated for an Academy Award as best actor in that film, the first child actor to be nominated and still the youngest.

As an adult, Cooper entered a new phase in his career. He began to produce and direct television. His work on the shows The White Shadow and M*A*S*H earned him Emmys.

Sadly, this isn’t the first Perry White that Superman fans have lost. Read Bryce Zabel’s remembrance of Lane Smith from Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. It’s the first comment below.

3 Comments on Jackie Cooper: Best. Perry. White. Ever.

  1. Bryce is spot on about Lane Smith – but this IS a tribute to Jackie Cooper, and I’d like to add my two cents in by saying I think he was “my” Perry White…. a bit like Tom Baker was “my” Doctor Who… or Pierce Brosnan was “my” James Bond.

    May Mr Cooper rest in peace.

  2. To take absolutely nothing away from the great Jackie Cooper and his wonderful performance as Perry White, another memory.

    “Great Shades of Elvis!”

    That’s what I first thought when I heard that Lane Smith had died back in 2005. He played Perry White on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, where I worked as supervising producer during the first season. My friend and executive producer, Deborah Joy LeVine, had given him that exclamation to replace the 50s series version of “Great Ceaser’s Ghost” because of Lane’s background, coming from Memphis, Tennessee.

    Working with Lane on Lois & Clark, however, was a re-union, not an introduction. The first series I’d ever produced on network TV, Kay O’Brien, gave me the chance to work with Lane when co-creators Bill Asher, Brad Markowitz and I all agreed that he was the perfect choice to play Dr. Robert Moffitt, Kayo’s attending surgeon and a series lead. He was spot-on in his characterization, the classic tough but tender friend and mentor.

    Lane had tons of credits from playing Nixon in The Final Days to playing Randle McMurphy for 650 off-Broadway performances of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

    What I remember is that Lane could be a southern gentleman, sure, but he could also tell a great joke and with his drawl any story turned out to be worth listening to. That’s the side people got to see when he played Perry White. Damn, he was funny! But I also liked how he brought such craft and integrity to all his roles and always cared enough to get it right.

    A line that Brad and I wrote for Lane in the Kay O’Brien pilot comes back to me now. Kayo had been complaining about how hard life was and he was sympathetic but honest.

    “It ain’t right and it ain’t fair. It’s just the way it is.”

    • Great shades of Elvis even made it into the comic book around the same time, man. You did well with that, ‘cos I thought it was better than the Caesar line….

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