In the 1960’s there was a show that described the character as, “They’re creepy and they’re kooky, mysterious and spooky they’re all together ooky…” it was the “Addams Family”. In that family was a bald man named Uncle Fester, the man who could stick a light bulb in his mouth and make it light up.
Uncle Fester was played by Jackie Coogan, a thespian since he was an infant. He started out on vaudeville and had an uncredited role in the film “Skinner’s Baby” in 1917 when he was three years of age. While he was performing a dance number, the shimmy, onstage at the Orpheum Theatre he was discovered by Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin was a fan of Jackies’s abilities and cast him in the 1919 short film, “A Days Pleasure”.
The role he is most known for though as a child was in the 1921 film classic, “The Kid” which he starred in with The Tramp, Charlie Chaplin’s most notable character. In “The Kid” he played the Child.
But Jackie’s lasting legacy will not be the role of Uncle Fester or the role of the Child or even any of the other 130 plus roles he was in. His legacy is the California Child Actor’s Bill, which is nicknamed the Coogan Act or the Coogan Bill.
The Coogan Act was put into California law books in 1939 after Jackie’s lawsuit against his mother and step-father, Mr. and Mrs. Bernstein. As a child Jackie made between $3 and 4 million but by the time he had reached adulthood Mr. and Mrs. Bernstein had spent nearly all of his money on lavish items.
When Jackie took them to court their defense was that Jackie had fun and thought it was a game, also that he was a bad boy and didn’t deserve it, and finally they said all the money a child makes before turning the age of 21 is the parents to do with as they please. When Jackie won the lawsuit there was only $250,000 left and after he paid his legal expenses he received about half of that.
It was after this lawsuit California decided they needed some legislation that protected children actors from having all their money spent by their parent’s or guardian’s. It stated that a portion of the child’s pay must be set to the side for the child for when they come of age. Since then the bill has been revised and amended several times to include more than just acting. It includes other jobs in the entertainment field as well.
The bill also talks about schooling, work hours and time off. It also now stated that 15% of the child’s pay go into a trust fund for when the child reaches adulthood, and if the parent takes any out of it without authorization they can/will get arrested for theft.
This is the true legacy of everyone’s favorite uncle from television, Uncle Fester (Jackie Coogan).