Frank James Cooper, a\k\a Gary Cooper, was a child of the last century, being born into it on May 7, 1901, the son of Charles and Alice Cooper. Unlike Alvin C. York, Cooper was born into a prosperous family, his father being a farmer turned attorney who would eventually serve on the Montana Supreme Court. His parents were English immigrants from Bedfordshire, and from 1910-1913, Gary and his brother were educated in England.
After high school, Cooper went on to study at Grinnell College for a few years, although he did not receive a degree. After an unsuccessful attempt to earn a living as an editorial cartoonist in Helena, he followed his parents out to Los Angeles where they had retired. Cooper later said that if he was going to starve, he might as well do it where it was warm rather than where it was freezing.
Out in the land of fruits and nuts, Cooper tried his hand at many things in order to earn a living: promoter for a photographer, a seller of electrical signs and even applied for work as an ink-stained wretch at a newspaper. Out of desperation for employment rather than any burning desire to be an actor, Cooper began to work as an extra in movies. A friend, Nan Collins, advised him to change his name to Gary after her hometown of Gary, Indiana, and Cooper took her advice. After several years as an extra, Cooper achieved early stardom in the western, The Virginian. Although he would appear in every type of film imaginable in his career, Cooper always appeared most comfortable in Westerns, a genre which fit his understated, laid back acting style, and his laconic speech. Cooper specialized in playing ordinary decent men, trying to do their best in extraordinary situations. He also had a flair for comedy where his dead pan delivery, combined with a dry wit, ensured laughter whatever “funny” lines he was attempting to deliver.
The archetypal film during this period of his career for Cooper was The Westerner where he played a cowboy who tangled with “Judge” Roy Bean, “Law West of the Pecos”, magnificently portrayed by Walter Brennan who appeared with Cooper in several films, including Sergeant York as York’s pastor. The film is a skillful mixture of comedy and drama, with Cooper giving a bravura performance.
Alvin C. York had been approached by Hollywood producer Jesse Lasky several times, beginning in 1919, to make a movie of his life. Each time he refused, summing up his position simply with the phrase, “This uniform ain’t for sale.”
In 1941 the film Sergeant York was released. A biopic on the life of America’s greatest hero of WWI, it brought together two American originals: Alvin C. York and the actor Gary Cooper.
York arrived in this world on December 3, 1887, the third of the eleven children of William and Mary York. He was born into rural poverty. Although both of his parents were quite hard-working, the Yorks lived in a two-room log cabin at a subsistence level. None of the York children received more than nine-months education, as their labor was desperately needed to farm the few hard scrabble acres that the Yorks owned and to hunt for food to feed the large family.