LOS ANGELES — In 1961, Hollywood was surprised when the Motion Picture Academy's board gave Gary Cooper an honorary award for his long career.
Not that he didn't deserve it. But he had already won two Oscars as best actor, and honorary awards had traditionally been presented to those who had never received one.
The explanation came at the awards ceremonies that April 17. Jimmy Stewart accepted the Oscar and spoke directly to Cooper, who was watching the show at home.
"We're very, very proud of you, Coop," Stewart said, unable to hold back tears. "All of us are tremendously proud." He ended with a mournful "Aw, Coop."
The black-tie audience was stunned. It was known that Cooper was ill, but few realized how dire his condition was. Two days later, his family announced that he had cancer. President Kennedy called. So did Cooper's hunting pal, Ernest Hemingway. On May 13 he was dead, six days after his 60th birthday.
Today, Gary Cooper is a faded name, except to those addicted to vintage movie channels. To their parents and grandparents, he was the great American hero, representing the United States to the world in the glory years of Hollywood movies.
The academy is celebrating the May 7 centennial of Cooper's birth with a symposium Thursday night that includes Cooper's daughter, Maria Cooper Janis, and his colleagues Joan Leslie, Karl Malden and Frances Dee. The tribute will be repeated at New York's Museum of Modern Art on May 31. The academy has assembled memorabilia that includes Cooper's saddle and chaps and one of his Oscars.
Among other observances: a film series at UCLA; a tribute at the film festival in Sun Valley, Idaho; and a program at the American Museum of the Moving Image in New York.
Among silent screen stars, Cooper was the first to bring a new kind of film acting to talkies: underplaying. Silent film actors necessarily overacted because their work was in effect pantomime. But Cooper's style was taciturn, low-key, quick to action when needed. He paved the way for a parade of strong and silent types, including Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne and Gregory Peck.
What was Gary Cooper really like?
Not much different from his screen persona, said Joan Leslie, who played Gracie, the child bride of Alvin York in 1941's "Sergeant York."
"He was definitely a very shy person," Leslie commented. "I think he was happiest when he went off into the hills with (director) Howard Hawks to shoot skeet."
She added: "I was 16 years old, and very new at Warner Bros. How would I talk to him, this very monument of a man? I had seen 'The Plainsman' 10 or 11 times. When I met him, he treated me as a little sister; he was kind and very informal.
Janis, author of "Gary Cooper Off Camera: A Daughter Remembers," agrees that her father was shy.
"He didn't need to be declamatory for his own sake, to prove that 'Hey, world, here I am!' That wasn't his nature," she observes. "He was very, very comfortable and content in his own skin. That permits one to step back and observe and listen."