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April 25, 2018

The Coogan Act

The following information on The Coogan Act was included as part of our library displays during National Library Week as we celebrated "The Art of Law."

Jackie Coogan did not have a typical childhood. Discovered by Charlie Chaplin in 1921, he co-starred with Chaplin in one of the film legend’s best known features, “The Kid.”

The role launched a film career that made him, arguably, the first truly marketable child film star. Appearing in about 35 silent features, he earned an estimated $2 million to $4 million. Decades later, he was incredulous when asked if his childhood had differed from that of a normal boy. “Normal boy?” he exclaimed. “How would I know what a normal boy would do?....Other boys went to see Babe Ruth. Babe Ruth came to see me.”
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When he turned 21, Coogan was informed that he had no right to the fortune he had amassed as a child – California law provided that “the services and earnings of [a] child” were the property of his parents. Coogan sued.

His lawsuit was marginally successful. He won a settlement against his parents, but the money seemed to have disappeared. His efforts, by his own account, netted $35,000.

Coogan’s movie career stalled. He believed his stepfather Arthur Bernstein, who was related to a number of film executives, had engineered a studio blackball against him.

He joined the Army during World War II, serving with distinction as a glider pilot. Coogan resumed his acting career after the war, primarily on stage and television, appearing in numerous productions and many different TV series. He is probably best remembered today for his role as Uncle Fester in the 1960s comedy series, The Addams Family. Coogan retired from acting in 1975, and died in 1984.

Public indignation over Coogan’s plight led to legislation in the State of California to protect child actors and other minors who may sign lucrative employment contracts.

Known as the Coogan Act, Chapter 637, Laws of 1939 required any court approving the contract of a minor child to include a provision setting up a trust fund for the child, to include “such portion of the net earnings of the minor, not exceeding one-half thereof, as the court may deem just and proper.”

The act gave the superior court jurisdiction over the trust, with the power of termination or amendment. A number of other states have enacted similar laws to protect child actors; such laws are generally known as “Coogan Acts.”

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