Actor Jackie Coogan is probably best known today for playing bald-headed Uncle Fester in the 1960s television series The Addams Family. But four decades before that, he was a major child star of the silent era.
A lead role alongside Charlie Chaplin in The Kid in 1921 had established Coogan’s reputation in Hollywood by the age of just seven, and the following year he cemented his celebrity by taking on the title role in Frank Lloyd’s 1922 adaptation of Oliver Twist. By 1935, he was a star, estimated to have earned as much as $5 million—equivalent to some $100 million today—by his 21st birthday.
Child labor laws at the time, however, meant that Coogan’s parents were fully responsible for his earnings. His father, however, had tragically died alongside several other passengers in a horrific car accident earlier in 1935; Coogan himself was the only survivor. His mother later remarried, and by the time Coogan came of age and sought to take control of his earnings, he found that she and his new stepfather had spent millions of his dollars on jewelry, sports cars, fur coats, and countless other gaudy possessions. Astonishingly, barely $250,000 of his multi-million-dollar fortune remained and Coogan quickly resolved to get his hands on it.
All but abandoning his film career, in 1938 Coogan took his parents to court and successfully sued his mother and stepfather. The following year, the State of California introduced legislature to protect the earnings of actors and performers below the age of majority. The so-called California Child Actor’s Bill, which remains in place to this day, is still known colloquially as the “Coogan Act.”