Gary Cooper found solace in the outdoors, meeting American troops, daughter says: 'It meant the world to him'

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Gary Cooper’s only child is determined to keep the legendary actor’s legacy alive.

The Oscar winner, who started his Hollywood career in 1925 doing stunt riding for Westerns, passed away in 1961 just six days after turning 60. In his lifetime, the actor who appeared in over 100 films, was idolized as the everyman who commanded the screen with ease. But despite his fame, Cooper felt truly at peace in the outdoors, which stemmed from his childhood on his father’s Montana ranch.

His daughter, Maria Cooper Janis, carved out a successful career as an artist, exhibiting her work in the U.S., Europe and Asia. She has tirelessly worked over the years protecting his estate and introducing budding film buffs to her father’s extensive body of work. She previously wrote a memoir, titled “Gary Cooper Off Camera: A Daughter Remembers,” which details her upbringing with the film icon.

Cooper Janis spoke to Fox News about what it was like growing up with the patriarch, how he felt about Hollywood, as well as his connection with our American troops.

Maria Cooper Janis is the only daughter of late Hollywood star Gary Cooper.
(Getty Images)

Fox News: When did you first realize that your father was different?
Maria Cooper Janis: I think it was on my seventh birthday. We had a party at home. We didn’t have a formal projection room like some of my friends did. We had a large screen where you could watch a big picture. That was the first time I was allowed to see my father in a film. But you know, that was the first time I understood what my father did. My friends were children of other actors, like Jane Fonda. So they were already exposed to the realities of their parents’ lives. But that was mine.

Fox News: How determined are you to keep your father’s legacy alive?
Cooper Janis: In terms of Hollywood heroes, I think they’re in short supply these days. They certainly exist… But regarding my father, someone once asked him why he chose the roles that he did. He said he wanted to choose the best that an American man can be. That was his goal when he looked at a script.

I’m hoping that the younger generation doesn’t forget the history of Hollywood. My father did become an American icon and stood for something. But ultimately, he understood the difference between being a celebrity and being a star. In this day and age, there are an awful lot of celebrities. But I don’t know about that star aspect. There are a lot fewer. So I hope that the public will learn the difference.

A proud father, Gary Cooper talks with his daughter, Maria, 24, during a party. Cooper was cited by the Friars for his patriotic and philanthropic activities during his three decades as a top movie star.
(Getty Images)

Fox News: What’s one memory of your father that makes you smile whenever you think about it?
Cooper Janis: Oh, it’s countless. But I will say that the sense of family life was so important to him. It was my mother, my father and myself. We were very much a close-knit group. We did so many things together as a family. We were always learning new skills together, whether it was playing tennis, golf or diving. My mother insisted that we get the best teachers so we can learn how to do it the right way.

American actor Gary Cooper and his wife "Rocky" pose beside the Red Fish Lake in Idaho, circa 1940.
( Photo by Lloyd Arnold/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I remember after school, my mother would pick me up and we’d go down to the beach and swim. Afterward, we’d get some ice cream. And on the weekends, we would go with our father and our two dogs and just swim. We were a very athletic family. There are very few sports activities we didn’t do.

Fox News: What are some fun facts about Gary Cooper that would surprise old Hollywood fans today?
Cooper Janis: He was a star, but he was also completely down to earth. There was no BS about him. He wasn’t phony. He couldn’t stand that. It bored the heck out of him and he didn’t have much patience with that. That’s why he wasn’t really seen at Hollywood parties. He was very sensitive to people who were real and those who were putting up an act and trying to impress everybody with no valid reason.

Actress Patricia Neal and Gary Cooper in a scene from the movie "The Fountainhead"
(Photo by Donaldson Collection/Getty Images)

When he did go to a Hollywood party, such as a get-together at [Warner Bros. president] Jack Warner’s home, he would often spot those who were hoping to get into movies. They were terrified at showing up. Their agents had just dropped them off and disappeared. But my father would always pick them out of the crowd. He would notice someone who was very lost and uncomfortable, had no idea what to do.

And here was my father, this big star, and yet he would come over, formally introduce himself and say something like, “Hey, let’s get a drink and chat.” And just like that, my father would take them around and introduce them to different people. Many of those folks later wrote letters to my father thanking him for his kindness. But that’s just the kind of man he was.

Fox News: How did your father feel about Hollywood?
Cooper Janis: He loved it. He loved the industry and the lifelong friends he made. But more importantly, he loved the craft of making films. He was always pushing himself. And he was a natural in Westerns because those are his roots. I think he could have fallen asleep riding a horse *laughs*. He was so comfortable on horseback. He could fall off a horse for a scene and look pretty handsome while doing it. But he was always up for a challenge, too.

Actor Gary Cooper thrills Marines at a Southwest Pacific base by repeating the famous farewell speech he gave as Lou Gehrig in the movie "Pride of the Yankees." Cooper headed a camp show, which toured the Pacific islands, circa 1942. 
(Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Fox News: Like many stars of his era, he entertained the troops. Could you tell us more about that?
Cooper Janis: That was extremely important to him. It meant the world to him. When he had to do his first tour, he was very nervous. He said, “I don’t dance. I don’t sing. I can’t tell funny jokes. What the hell am I going to do? What can I possibly give?” At that moment, he honestly became very shy and nervous. He didn’t want to just stand there on that stage. He wanted to give something back to our troops. Well, my father played Lou Gehrig in “The Pride of the Yankees” (1942). And they wanted him to say the famous farewell speech that Lou Gehrig made after he had to stop playing baseball.

My father said, “Oh my God, that was last year!” So I have this wonderful photo of him sitting in a tent. I think it was raining. And he’s writing on a piece of paper just trying to scribble down what he remembered of the speech. He wanted to be as accurate as possible. Every stop he made, all the troops wanted to hear that speech. And it’s an emotional speech. It made my father very emotional. How many of those young boys would come back home after hearing his speech, you know? He would go and visit the hospitals. He loved visiting and just sitting with them, talking with them. It meant the world to him. He never forgot those experiences.

American actor Gary Cooper won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his roles in "Sergeant York" and "High Noon." 
(Photo by Clarence Sinclair Bull/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

Fox News: It seemed like your father was probably one of the few Hollywood stars who managed to have a successful career without scandal. What was his secret?
Cooper Janis: *Laughs* Well, his career started very early. One of his first real movies was with [silent movie actress] Clara Bow. He was young and very beautiful looking so the press called him “The It Boy.” Well, that did not please him. I wasn’t around then *laughs* but I’ve heard stories.

American actors Gary Cooper and Clara Bow on the set of "Children of Divorce," based on the novel by Owen Johnson and directed by Frank Lloyd. 
(Photo by Paramount Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

But you know in those days, the studios had much more control over what their stars could and couldn’t do. And my father also didn’t fall into that trap of escapism that you hear about in Hollywood. He was from Helena, Montana. He grew up on a ranch. They had about 500 head of cattle. He would say, “You know, when you’re up at 4 in the morning trying to break the ice so the animals can drink and then you’re shoveling manure – it keeps you grounded.”

He preferred being in the outdoors. In our house, he planted all sorts of fruits and vegetables. We had a tractor and my father would be out there driving it… He was more impressed by work ethic and talent. Did he enjoy meeting the queen and Princess Margaret? Sure. He didn’t like getting dressed up for it, though.

But he loved being around creative people and exchanging ideas. He loved learning about what they did. That’s why he felt at ease meeting people, whether it was the queen or the guys repairing the telephone lines in Idaho. My father wasn’t pretentious. He was comfortable in his skin. When he wasn’t working, he would go duck shooting or having the greatest day sitting at a local coffee shop having a hamburger.

Gary Cooper was a great admirer of the outdoors, a trait that never left him even after achieving fame in Hollywood.
(Getty Images)

Fox News: How did your father, this big star in Hollywood, feel about getting older?
Cooper Janis: You know, getting older… can get to anyone. Think of the actresses for example. One minute she’s the most beautiful thing who can get any man, and in a blink of an eye, she’s only getting parts of the mother. That can be a tough transition for any actor.

I think my father was frustrated that the kinds of roles he wanted to do were harder and harder to come by. I think that’s why “High Noon” was such an incredible stroke of fate. And he was only 50. That’s certainly not old in this day and age, but back then it meant something. And my father loved to work. He wanted to stretch as an actor and be given the ability to do different things. And that film is such a brilliant one.

Gary Cooper with his wife, Veronica Balfe, and daughter, Maria Cooper, at a New Year’s party held at Romanoff’s in Beverly Hills, Calif.,  Dec. 31, 1957. 
(Photo by Slim Aarons/Getty Images)

Fox News: For those who are discovering your father’s work for the first time, what do you hope they will take away from his life and legacy?
Cooper Janis: I do hope they watch as many of his films as they can. They’ll see versatility… I hope they take away the sense that he wanted to represent the best a man can be.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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