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Tall, strong and silent, Gary Cooper was one of Helena’s most famous native sons.

Born Frank James Cooper, May 7, 1901, he would become known in Hollywood as Gary Cooper, and would be one of the biggest stars of the silver screen in the 20th Century.

Beloved by his hometown, film fans worldwide and Hollywood, he went on to earn two Academy Awards for best actor and an Academy honor award for lifetime achievement, and he was nominated for numerous film awards over his 36-year career.

“He projected the kind of man Americans would like to be, probably more than any actor that’s ever lived,” said Charlton Heston.

“His movie career started in the 1920s,” said Susan Near, Montana Historical Society development officer, at an MHS program on Saturday titled “Gary Cooper - Helena’s Hollywood Hero.”

Born to Charles Cooper and Alice Brazier Cooper, he was a child of the West, particularly shaped by his experiences living on the family’s ranch -- Seven-Bar-Nine, a 600-acre spread on the Missouri River near Craig.

It’s there he became an expert horseman. After he was injured in a car accident at age 15, breaking his hip, he rode horses as part of perhaps some misguided therapy advice and learned to ride in a way that would minimize jarring and pain to his hip.

“He learned to be one with his horse,” said his daughter Maria.

Return to civilization

Earlier in his childhood, his mother, in an attempt to give her sons some civilizing influences, returned to her and Charles’ native country, England, enrolling Gary and his older brother Arthur at Dunstable Grammar School for two years.

While in Helena, the family lived first at 730 11th Ave. and later at at 115 N. Beattie after the boys and their mother returned from England.

A student at Central School, he would go on to attend Helena High School until 1918, when he left school to be a full-time cowboy on the family ranch.

The following year, his father, an attorney who would soon become an associate Supreme Court judge, enrolled him at Gallatin County High School.

His English teacher there, Ida Davis, urged him to get involved in debate and dramatics and is credited with getting him to finish high school and attend college.

“He wanted to be an artist,” said Near. After a brief stint at Grinnell College, he sought work with newspapers and sold four cartoons to the Independent Record.

“It didn’t pan out,” said Near of his newspaper and art career.

A short time later, in 1924, he headed to California, where his parents had moved. Several of his Montana friends worked there for the movie studios as extras and stuntmen and introduced him to a casting director.

“I quit trying to draw when I started falling off horses,” Near quoted Cooper.

But he continued to love art and remained interested in it all his life, becoming a close friend of Pablo Picasso, according to a biography on the Internet Movie Database website IMDb.com

A natural

What made him a natural on the screen was likely his years of ranch life that not only gave him confidence and grace in the saddle, but also friendships with ranchers, cowboys and local Indians.

Longtime family friend, Wellington Rankin, the brother of Jeannette Rankin, encouraged Cooper in acting, said Near, and pointed out how Rudolph Valentino conveyed emotions on screen.

Interestingly, a Grinnell theater professor wrote of Cooper’s college acting career: “shows no promise.”

In 1926, Cooper got his big break, said Near, a credited role in the silent film, “The Winning of Barbara Worth.”

Not only did he catch the eye of studio heads, but also, apparently, the ladies. One biographical article claims he was receiving 1,000 fan letters a week. He’d go on to appear in 107 films, according to IMDb.com

He would play opposite some of the leading ladies of the screen -- Carole Lombard, Tallulah Bankhead, Fay Wray, Helen Hayes, Barbara Stanwyck, Grace Kelly, Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur, Marlene Dietrich, Audrey Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Ingrid Bergman and Patricia Neal -- and have affairs with several of them, most notably Neal.

He married debutante Veronica Balfe in 1933 and they had a daughter, Maria Veronica Cooper Janis, whom they were both devoted to.

His daughter, who has written about him and made a film tribute in his memory, called her father “a natural.”

He was naturally playful, she said, and “loved playing the harmonica,” doing so whenever he had the opportunity -- both on screen and off.

An “active man,” he liked to hunt, fish, ski, ride horses and swim, according to one bio.

He had a 20-year friendship with Ernest Hemingway, who reportedly wrote the character of Robert Jordan in “For Whom the Bell Tolls” with Cooper in mind. He would later star in that role.

Interestingly, a 2008 NPR report pointed out that Robert Jordan, an American waging guerilla warfare against fascists in the Spanish Civil War, was a hero to both presidential candidates on opposite sides of the political spectrum -- John McCain and Barack Obama.

“Robert Jordan is manly, honorable and idealistic, even in the face of sure defeat. He's charged with blowing up a bridge. It's a bad order, and he knows it. Yet he carries out his mission, protecting the small band of fighters who've been helping him in the snow-covered mountains. He sacrifices himself, for their cause. ... Jordan ... was a bright young American who left a comfortable teaching job in Missoula, Montana, to hide in caves with the partisans -- farmers and guerrillas who were disenfranchised from the larger society.”

Acclaimed actor

A few of Cooper’s most acclaimed films were “Beau Geste,” “High Noon,” “A Farewell to Arms,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “Meet John Doe,” “Sergeant York,” “Friendly Persuasion” and “The Pride of the Yankees.”

Nominated five times for the Academy Award for Best Actor, he won it for his roles in “Sergeant York” and “High Noon.”

Typically he played the hero.

However, there was at least one role he took on as a private citizen that he would apparently later regret -- appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Unlike a number of actors and actresses, he never named names of suspected communists, according to the IMDb.com bio.

Later, when he was an independent producer, Cooper would hire blacklisted actors and technicians and befriended blacklisted screenwriter Carl Foreman during the filming of “High Noon.” The movie has been seen as an allegory for the communist witch hunts.

Cooper never forgot his roots, said Near, and he returned to Montana periodically. He attended a Helena celebration of the 85th anniversary of striking gold in Last Chance Gulch on Golden Canyon Day in 1949 and was inducted into the Blackfeet Tribe as an honorary chief in 1957 with the name Eagle Cloud.

A short time before Cooper’s death from cancer in 1961, his good friend, James Stewart, accepted an honorary award at the Academy Awards on Cooper’s behalf for his lifetime achievement, saying: “Coop, I want you to know I’ll get it to you right away. With it goes all the friendship and affection and the admiration and deep respect of all of us. We’re very, very proud of you Coop.”

Reporter Marga Lincoln can be reached at 447-4083 marga.lincoln@helenair.com

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