Keith Coogan talks growing up with Jackie Coogan, escaping Hollywood’s child star curse
Keith Coogan had always known he wanted to be an actor long before he knew who his grandfather was.
In 1919, Jackie Coogan became the first major star in American movie history when he appeared alongside Charlie Chaplin in “The Kid.” He would later go on to capitative a different generation as Uncle Fester in “The Addams Family.” And the patriarch influenced Hollywood in other ways.
The Coogan Law, enacted in 1939 after Jackie sued his parents for burning through the money he earned as a child actor, requires 15 percent of a young performer’s earnings to be deposited in a blocked trust account, The Hollywood Reporter shared. It still aims to protect young entertainers today.
Keith went on to launch his own career in Hollywood and has appeared in several cult classics, such as 1987’s “Adventures in Babysitting “ and 1991’s “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead.” These days, Coogan is keeping busy with other former child stars in “The Quarantine Bunch,” a comedy series shot entirely on Zoom amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Keith spoke to Fox News about his famous grandfather, launching his own career and how he escaped the so-called child star curse.
Fox News: Looking back at your career, what initially drew you to acting?
Keith Coogan: The desire to be one of those kids I saw on television. It looked like fun. I didn’t understand my grandfather’s contributions to Hollywood because I was very young. But his film with Charlie Chaplin, “The Kid,” was released in 1921. And he started filming in 1919. There was a path to follow and I just hopped on board.
But as a child, I was very social. I could hit my marks and say my lines. My mother taught me how to read at a very young age. I was also very well-behaved on set because I understood it was a professional environment and I wanted to be a part of it. I got my union card at 6 and I haven’t stopped since… Not a lot of businesses pay you to go play make-believe.
Fox News: Growing up, did you have any kind of interaction with your grandfather Jackie Coogan?
Coogan: I was so lucky – I did. He had retired to Palm Springs with my grandmother, who was a showgirl. We lived in Malibu and they’d come out during the summers and spend it with us. He passed away in ’84 when I was 14. So I did get to know him and spend some time with him.
I remember he was very competitive. I was about 12 years old and I had won a Young Artist Award for appearing on “Knight Rider.” At the time, he was also receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award. I remember we were both holding our awards and I said, “Look, grandpa, mine’s just like yours!” And he goes, “No, they’re not. They’re different. You won yours. I earned mine!”
Fox News: How did you escape the so-called child star curse?
Coogan: My mother was an anchor. I worked in this crazy business, but she made sure my life remained as normal as possible. I went to public school, play little league and did lots of chores — she insisted on lots of chores. And I had to maintain my good grades in order to keep working. If I got a B, it was a red alert in the house. And my family didn’t put me on any kind of pedestal. If my show’s ratings were low, my mother would turn to me and say, “I have notes.” She was all about discipline and learning. You have to take your ego out of it.
Fox News: What’s a fun fact about “Adventures in Babysitting” that would surprise fans today?
Coogan: There were a lot of screen tests involving many actors. For example, Jennifer Love Hewitt tried out for the younger sister. We had Valerie Bertinelli read for the babysitter role. But once that was done, the movie was completed very quickly. We shot for two months in Toronto, came down to Chicago for several weeks and then did some special shots in Los Angeles for about a week. And that was it. We shot in January and February, wrapped up in March and released it in July.
Vincent D’Onofrio was an amazing method actor who took his role very seriously even when cameras stopped rolling. Elisabeth Shue was a dream to work with, especially as a 17-year-old *laughs*. And the director, Chris Columbus, was a gracious and passionate director. We had a lot of fun bringing that film to life, but it was a whirlwind.
Fox News: What was it like working with Christina Applegate in “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead”?
Coogan: It was a dream come true because she was already a very dear friend for years. She was part of that circle of Hollywood kids who hung out together at functions. But not only is she so talented, but she’s incredibly intelligent and a genius comic in front of a camera. She knows how to play dumb in a very smart way. Kelly Bundy is one of the greatest characterizations in the history of mankind, but that was her creation.
In “Don’t Tell Mom” she was very much herself. She was in every scene of the movie and did it gracious every day. She never complained. Instead, it was, “How do we do this?” “How do we make it work?” And that’s remarkable for someone of her age. But the cast in itself was just fantastic. We were in very good company and I think the film speaks for itself.
Fox News: Do you believe Hollywood will be able to successfully adapt amid the coronavirus pandemic?
Coogan: Oh, it’ll quickly adapt. I know there are many productions that will aim to have smaller crews instead of having 100 people on set. There will be much more screening and testing. There are guidelines and plans being worked on. I don’t think Hollywood is taking this lightly. If anything, it will go above and beyond to make sure that everyone, from the actors to the crew, is safe while working.
Fox News: What’s it been like reuniting with fellow former child stars in a show like “The Quarantine Bunch”?
Coogan: It’s interesting, most of us as child stars did our work in the ‘70s and ‘80s. We were in the same circles and perhaps even worked together but we never really had the opportunity to sit down and share our experiences.
But because we had this unusual upbringing, we’ve developed a deep bond. It’s a unique experience to enter a professional working environment when you’re a single-digit age. And it’s hard for someone to truly understand it unless they themselves have done it. It’s been great keeping busy now, but it’s even more wonderful we can talk to each other and support each other in different ways.
Fox News: How have you managed to keep a positive outlook during times of uncertainty?
Coogan: Entertainment is my comfort food. I think relying on your favorite films, TV shows – they all help during unprecedented times. I miss going to the movie theater and enjoying a new film with popcorn and soda, but there are more important things to worry about right now. I guess the key is to be grateful for what you have at this moment. And for me, I’m grateful for entertainment and finding creative ways to entertain others.