Gary Cooper remembered as Montana’s homegrown hero

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LOCAL ACTOR and theater director Neal Lewing paid a musical tribute to Montana-native Gary Cooper at the North Lake County Public Library on Jan. 31. (Brett Berntsen/Lake County Leader)

Montana’s most famous movie star received a rousing remembrance at the North Lake County Public Library last week, as local theater director Neal Lewing performed a musical tribute to silver screen legend Gary Cooper.

Part of Humanities Montana’s historical speakers series, Lewing’s presentation traced the trajectory of Cooper’s career from a horse wrangling Hollywood stunt man to the embodiment of the American male persona.

Along the way, Cooper influenced generations of Americans, including Lewing and perhaps more profoundly, Lewing’s mother.

“My mother used to tell me that if I could grow up and be more like Gary Cooper in ‘High Noon,’ the world would be a whole lot better place,” said Lewing, who credited the 1952 film with providing his inspiration to become an actor.

Like the stoic characters he often portrayed, Cooper’s career came from humble beginnings. Born in 1901 in Helena, Cooper expressed an interest in art at an early age but success did not come immediately.

In fact, Lewing said, Cooper’s college theater director once stated in a review, “he shows no promise.”

Set back by the assessment, as well as a severe automobile accident that left him with his distinctive limp, Cooper’s primary occupation became a door-to-door salesman.

“But he’d been raised with the idea that if you want something so badly you just go out and do it,” Lewing said.

Cooper eventually followed some friends to Hollywood where he found work as a stunt man for $10 a day.

Lewing said Cooper once remarked to a reporter that during this period he would sometimes play a cowboy in the morning and an Indian in the afternoon. He was quoted as saying his best skill was that he “sure could fall off a horse.”

Lewing said Cooper’s big break came by accident, when he took over the male lead in the 1926 film “The Winning of Barbara Worth,” after the original actor cast for the role failed to appear on set.

Three years later, Cooper’s career exploded with “The Virginian,” the iconic western which delivered such classic lines as; “This town ain’t big enough for both of us,” and “You wanna call me that? Smile.”

Cooper went on to win three Academy Awards, two for best actor and one for lifetime achievement.

He also became known for his unique sense of fashion, as noted in the Irving Berlin song “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”

“He was the first celebrity to wear a pink shirt with a gray jacket,” said a similarly clad Lewing, who performed the catchy tune for the audience.

While they cemented his legacy in the eyes of the public, Lewing said less than 25 percent of Cooper’s films were westerns, and the actor eventually came to resent the glorification of such characters.

“He felt the idea that a stranger would come and save the day was not realistic,” Lewing said.

Instead, Cooper prided himself on personal integrity, which Lewing said he exemplified in acting and in life.

Cooper was a prolific performer over the course of his career, acting in up to seven major motion pictures per year. This exhaustive schedule caught up with him in the end, however, with Cooper dying of cancer in 1960, one week before his 60th birthday.

Lewing said during Cooper’s funeral procession fellow star Bing Crosby wept openly, “As did my mom.”

Despite his untimely death, Lewing said Cooper’s influence lives on, making him Montana’s most famous movie star, “first, last and always.”

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