Jackie Cooper: Crying on Cue

"In Skippy (1931), Jackie Cooper [then an up-and-coming nine-year-old child actor] had three crying scenes and it was difficult for him to produce tears each time. The first time, his grandmother, who was with him on the set, said, 'Be a good boy and cry,' but though he tried, he failed miserably. Norman Taurog

[Cooper's uncle and the film's director] yelled and hollered at him and called him a lousy actor, but that produced anger, not tears, and things reached an impass. Then Taurog arranged for a boy wearing the Skippy costume to appear on the set. That did it. Overwhelmed by the thought of another boy taking over his part, Jackie started crying. Taurog quickly shot me scene, called him a good actor, and gave him an ice cream cone.

"The second crying scene was just as hard for Jackie as the first. This was partly because he had a dog in the scene with him and liked the dog so much he felt too happy to cry. After Taurog had worked on him for a while without success, he instructed the security guard to take the dog away. 'The policeman's got your dog,' he told lackie. 'He's taken your dog and he's going to kill it.' 'Why?' wailed Jackie. 'What did I do?' 'You won't cry,' said Taurog. So Jackie tried again, but still no tears came. Then he heard a pistol shot in the distance. 'The policeman has shot your dog,' Taurog told him solemnly. 'He shot him because the dog distracts you. You're more interested in the dog than you are in your work.' At this point Jackie burst into tears and Taurog got his scene. After it was over the security guard brought the dog back and Taurog gave Jackie some ice cream again for his 'realistic' acting job.

"Jackie knew he had one more crying scene to do, and since he knew he couldn't produce tears on demand, he began worrying about the terrible things the director would do this time to induce him to cry. When the time came to shoot the scene, however, his mother (who was with him on the set this time) did something that apparently hadn't occurred to anyone before: She took her little boy aside, discussed the scene with him, went over the lines with him, and explained how grief-stricken Skippy was in the scene over the loss of a close friend. As Jackie talked about Skippy and his friend, he began weeping. Still crying, he took his place on the set and did the scene in one take. It was probably his best scene in the picture."

[Cooper was later nominated for an Oscar for the role. (Other directors have used similar ploys. Norman Jewison once told a child actor that he had received a telegram indicating that his dog had died. After the scene was in the can, Jewison suddenly received another "telegram" -- indicating that the dog was fine, after all!)]

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