I recently had the pleasure to sit and talk with lifelong actor Keith Coogan. Notably recognizable for two of his most popular films, Adventures in Babysitting and Don't Tell Mom The Babysitter's Dead, he's just one shy of completing the babysitter trilogy. He was very gracious, open and honest, and incredibly generous with his time. As we had been chatting for awhile before we got into any actual "interview" questions, I'll go ahead and drop you, the reader, in mid-conversation.
Keith Coogan: My good friend, Scotty Schwartz -- when he started working, he was Flick in A Christmas Story and he was in The Toy. After he did those, he was immediately up for all the leads in all the TV shows and such. In Hollywood, I had worked since I was like 5 or 6 in commercials, working my way up. Scotty came on the scene and we hated the New York kids, cause the New York kids were always quicker, faster -- they'd get put up in hotels. We had to drive ourselves into auditions and, hand over feet, people were going nuts over the New York kids. They were older, but looked younger, so they could work as adults, so they'd often steal stuff. Me and Scotty were really young. The studios played us off of each other. They wanted Scotty, then they'd use me to drive his price down, and then we got into a battle for it. They'd go back and forth between us, but end up using a third kid. This happened a couple of times where we were pawns in some other game that was going on. We didn't care as kids -- it was like, you don't care who gets the part because everyone was working then.
Jason Howard: I imagine that was pretty common in that time period, because it seemed as if everyone then became a bit of an icon in their own way.
KC: Yep, and there was a shallower field of kids. There was a little reunion we did of former child stars. I always tried to keep working. I never gave up. Some years you make a little bit and some years you make more. But, we were sitting around, all talking about shared experiences of, like, doing homework in the car on the way to auditions, changing clothes in the car, then going up for 2 or 3 different things a day, and seeing the same kids over and over again. There were like 4 or 5 of us at this reunion for this really cool documentary for us kids who didn't overdose and didn't die or didn't get arrested. Basically had as normal a life as you can have in this industry. We tried to guess how many of us there were and we came out to a number of about 40 kids. Danielle Brisebois and Corey Feldman and Todd Bridges. And, there were other kids back then -- Sparky Marcus and Rodney Allen Rippy and Rick Schroeder. My fiance, Pinky, is a huge fan of Ricky Schroeder. She and I met at an autograph convention. Scott Schwartz had thrown a show called the LA Celebrity Show at Hollywood and Highlands. She came up to me and it was love at first sight and I was like "Oh my God, where have you been?". And, we had a very fast courtship and we're getting married. That's it -- I want to spend the rest of my life with her.
JH: That's got to be an ultimate dream of anyone who goes to an autograph show. Most of them walk away with some signatures, but she's walking away with a husband.
KC: Exactly -- very bizarre.
JH: So, was your grandfather, Jackie Coogan, a big influence on your decision to get into the acting game?
KC: No, not really an influence to do it -- he didn't encourage or discourage me. He always just said "watch your money and be careful of mothers."
JH: Wasn't he a big part of the movement towards protecting the money of all child actors?
KC: Yeah, they named it "The Coogan Act." Back then, they didn't see him as a child performer, they just saw him as the world's first film star. You know, Shirley Temple was actually years later in the talkies and things like that. He was just seen as a star, not as a kid star. That circumstance hadn't happened where a minor in a household had made a couple million dollars. So, there's a great biography on him by Diana Serra Cary -- she played Baby Peggy back in that time, kind of a girl Jackie Coogan. She did serials and she had a series of shorts. She said that she remembers the houses with the furs and the cars, so she had a great perspective on the time.
Most don't understand what being Jackie Coogan was like. And, it was all due to Chaplin. None of that would have happened without him. And, Chaplin himself wouldn't have happened without my great-grandfather, having teamed up with Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle to do some silents. And, they were doing vaudeville together but everyone was doing it on cameras now. So, my great-grandfather was on screen and you could see these movies, like Hayseed and Backstage, two where he's the bad guy and he's doing his signature dancing. He was this really tall guy who did this weird dancing. And, then they had this thing where, at the end of the vaudeville show, you'd bring out the kid to end the show. And, if the kid can't sing or dance or do some type of recitation, then he just waves the American flag. Well, my grandfather, from watching my great-grandfather, knew how to dance and stuff, and in LA, at the time, the Shimmy was banned. Girls couldn't shimmy. But, a four year old coming out at the end of the show and doing the shimmy is adorable. That was the night at The Orpheum in downtown LA. Chaplin was upset because he had just lost his child right after birth. He was bummed, so someone said he should come over and see The Coogan Act, it'll cheer you up. They were meaning my great-grandfather. So he went and had a great time, but at the end, when my grandfather came out, he thought "I got to use that kid. I'm going to make a whole movie around him."
JH: He was The Kid!
KC: Yep. So Chaplin figured he'd go backstage and meet him. But, my great grandmother was like, "I don't know about him going alone with him," but they said, "It's Chaplin! It's okay!" So, they met for lunch and he shot a test to see if the kid could behave, and he did fine. He was a perfect mimic - he could totally mimic anything Chaplin would do. Those were Chaplin's favorite type of actors. He'd be every part if he could, so he'd get people who could do it exactly like he would do it.
He became a phenomenon from that. He continued doing movies, with my great-grandfather producing, Jackie Coogan productions. And, he continued doing Peck's Bad Boy, My Boy, Daddy, and they partnered with MGM and got a $500,000 signing bonus. There's a picture of my grandfather at about nine years old, signing this half a million dollar cheque. So, the whole time in the press, they were saying the kid must have an iron-clad, million dollar trust-fund. But, he turned 21, and was married to Betty Grable, they were both each others first spouse -- they both got married four times. And it was gone -- there was no money.
My great-grandfather died in a terrible car accident, that also took Junior Durkin out -- he played Huckleberry Finn, while my great-grandfather played Tom Sawyer in the first talkie versions. There was also a writer, a ranch-hand -- all four died. My grandfather was the only one who lived through the car wreck. He held my great-grandfather in his arms when he died. And, my great-grandmother married their business manager, Arthur Bernstein, and when my grandfather turned 21, the money was gone. He sued, but the judge said that, in the state of California, a minors earnings belong to the parent, so you're going to lose this lawsuit -- and he lost. He did end up getting something -- I think it was something like $126,000 as the final settlement, but of course that was already spent.
So, California's a little upset, and probably about six months to a year later, they came up with The Coogan Act. It protects a portion of the child's earnings -- 15%. It just says that parents should put that away in a trust-fund. There was no mechanism, there was nothing that prevented parents from raiding that account. I saw Corey Feldman, I saw Jason Bateman, the kids from Diff'rent Strokes -- countless kids all lost their money. Even with the suggestion or the law in place, the guideline. So, in the year 2000, Paul Peterson of SAG (Screen Actors Guild) - he's got a thing called A Minor Consideration, to support children in the industry, to protect working hours, school, that kind of thing -- they came out with The Coogan Account. You have to get a block trust account -- the major banks all have them. Some are named Coogan Accounts, some are just block trust accounts. A production company can't hire a kid unless they have a Coogan Account and they have to cut a check to the Coogan Account for a percentage, and the rest goes to the parents. So, it physically HAS to go through and get siphoned off. Block trust means the parents can't touch it. So, finally he did it. I had a young actress come up to me at the Young Artist's Awards, it's like a young Oscars, and she said, "thank you and thank you to your grandfather. I just turned 18 and I got my money." And, I thought, "that's awesome -- that's exactly why it was put in place." And, I just love that it's a legacy that helps kids. You're supposed to act like an adult on set -- no messing around, no playing games, know your lines, be on time, get it right the first time, and do it over and over again, as many times as they need. That's just the minimum professionalism as a kid actor. They're being asked to act like adults.
JH: So, why not get treated like one?
KC: Yeah, exactly. But, that didn't happen until Macaulay Culkin. Kids got shit pay, they got shit billing. They'd carry the pictures, but never get that benefit until then. Of course, then it went overboard with the oversexualization of youth. And, Disney pushing the commoditization of youth. Right now, they're chasing the dollars of the Millennials, which is 18 - 22 year-olds -- there's 90 million of them. Do you know how many baby-boomers there were?
KC: 70 million. There's 90 million Millennials and they're the ones driving the media. They're the ones making studios make The Avengers. They're the ones that the studios are making these huge, huge movies. Not every one of them can be Star Wars, Jaws, or Raiders. But, they keep following that formula of hugely known entities, like comics or stories, and huge stars and huge budgets.
Lynda Obst, who was a producer on Adventures in Babysitting, has this great book out recently that talked about this. She talked about how there's nothing normal in the industry, but now the NEW non-normal normal has happened. Now, they're only getting greenlit if it has a 100-plus million dollar budget. Little pictures now are no longer like 5 or 6 million. Little pictures are 40 million. And, to get a studio to peel that money off, you've got to have the biggest, hottest star in it. You can't really go with unknowns like they used to.
I was reading this thing recently about My Science Project and the producers said they were gonna go with big names. But, because of money, they decided they couldn't -- their justification was that they'd rather have the story, so they cast unknowns. They were going to get Kevin Bacon, but he decided to do Footloose instead. So, they get the Kevin Bacon lookalike.
JH: Was it difficult as a child, having to go from role to role, being a completely different person each time, while you were still at an age where you were trying to discover who you actually are as a person?
KC: Of course it is. That's why you see a lot of breakdowns with Lindsey Lohan and Amanda Bynes, and Edward Furlong. And, I lost good friends, like River Phoenix, Brad Renfro, Corey Haim, Jonathan Brandis, and we all lost Heath Ledger. I came up with this determination that if you had family in the industry, you've already gotten your primer. And, you are prepared for the cyclical nature of the industry. You're prepared to not believe your own press. You are warned that this is an incredibly different way than the way most people live, and it's going to fuck with your head. So, you better love it. You better love to make believe. So, switching characters -- that's the best. To play a brat, then a sweet kid -- that was the best part. I would really get into it. After Cousins, I carried a video camera around. After Don't Tell Mom The Babysitter's Dead, I learned to play guitar and to cook. You carry them with you because you put a piece of you in the character and a piece of that character follows you.
JH: How did your approach to your early television-work differ from film?
KC: That, I always like to say, is called "Jump and Shout." As a kid, in television, you're just expected to jump on your mark and shout your lines. Have lots of energy, be upbeat, keep your eyes open -- literally just be this cute little plot device. It was tough to transition from TV to film. Before Bruce Willis crossed from Moonlighting into Die Hard, it wasn't done. They said, you're just a TV actor.
JH: There was a stigma about being one or the other. Particularly, film actors seemed to look down on television actors.
KC: There totally was a stigma. And, then it changed with, like Evening Shade with Burt Reynolds and the like. Slowly, we started to see big movie star names do television. For instance, Robin Williams is a fine dramatic actor. Sometimes. I mean, sometimes, he's in his "actor drama" mode.
JH: Robin Williams with a beard.
KC: Yeah, if he's got a beard it's a serious movie. Is this Garp?. Actually, I love Garp. I thought that a name change would help me with my transition. I started in TV as Keith Mitchell. Then, I changed to my mother's maiden name as my stage name. My mother's father was Jackie Coogan. At about 15 years old, I started to transition over to Coogan, trying to get feature work and just biding time. I booked Silver Spoons under Coogan, and then Adventures in Babysitting. I got really lucky with that.
JH: Why do you think it is that a lot of the movies you did in the 80s and early 90s still resonate and have a lasting impression on people? They still come to an event like this and watch them. As popular as movies like The Avengers or Inception may be, I just don't picture there being a similar type of nostalgia in 25 or 30 years for them as there is for the movies of that time period.
KC: Because they weren't budget driven back then. They didn't just throw 150 million at the screen and see what happens. You can take someone like M. Night Shyamalan to do something and cast the biggest stars, but they just had the biggest flop recently. So, if you put all those elements together, it doesn't necessarily work. Back then, it was about story. Yes, they were targeting a teen market with, for instance, Adventures in Babysitting, but, they kept working on the story. We had a script. It was locked. We were in rehearsal. It only cost 8 -10 million to make a movie back then. I still called it "Rolling Thunder" - you had all the big trucks and acoutrements of a big picturre, but you have stars that were not as well known. It was all about the material. Now, it's more like "I saw that. I put that in my pocket. I saw the next thing that big star was in."
It wasn't as commoditized in that way. The commoditization was the adventure, the story. Gremlins, Goonies, Adventures in Babysitting, Young Sherlock Holmes... it was about telling the story. And, when you get unknowns, they don't bring the baggage. For instance, if I cast Walter Mitty, but I put Stallone or Schwarzenegger as Walter Mitty, your expectations are that when the action starts, they're going to be able to handle their shit. But, if I cast an unknown in that role, then I really get to take you on the ride of the movie. And, they used to do that. They didn't want the star to outshine their story and would consciously make decisions not to cast the big names that came with the baggage.
JH: How does it feel to be a part of these films that people will still gather to see 25 years later?
KC: It's amazing. Just before coming here, I was reading about people saying that they just watched Don't Tell Mom or Adventures in Babysitting with their kids, and movies are now babysitters for kids. It's neat. It just means that they were more than just the commercial moment of taking advantage of a trend or something like that. There's some sort of story or heart in them that allows for that replay and enjoyment of it. I've seen Adventures in Babysitting dozens of times and it still plays for me. Even something like Toy Soldiers plays like gang busters.
JH: To this day, I can still stop and watch Toy Soldiers any time that it's on - all the way to the end.
KC: (laughs) I hear that a lot, actually.
JH: It seems that you're pretty active in social media. How do you think that has affected the way that actors connect with their audiences, both literally and figuratively?
KC: Oh, in such a direct way. Before, you would get a fan letter, and it would take awhile to get to you. You'd put some picture or card in there and send it back. But, social media is a way to answer questions directly. I mean, sure, Facebook is this ultimate narcissist tool - "look at me, I'm going to do this!" But, the interactions can lead to events like this, where you actually meet the fans. That's the best thing.
JH: And, you run your own Facebook and Twitter accounts, right?
KC: Oh, yeah. It's funny -- you'll see some, like George Takei, just got busted that he doesn't write his posts. I've reposted his stuff. I reposted something that he reposted -- the child celebrities opposing Kirk Cameron, from Funny or Die. So, I was upset later when I found out that George Takei didn't originally find that. The other day, I got added by Barry Bostwick. It said, "Barry Bostwick wants you to join the Barry Bostwick Fan Page." And, I went, "oh, I'm so excited -- Brad from Rocky Horror!" And, I read a thing that the guy behind the account said that "Barry does occasionally post here." Now, that comes from the Barry Bostwick profile, so he doesn't even write his profile, or his fan page.
I openly and unabashedly run both. Yeah, I run my own fan page. I'll type something in my fan page and people will say, "that's you, isn't it, Keith?" And I'll say, "yeah, it's me!" It's so easy to run -- because I've done computer programming and web stuff, too. Now, it's super easy with Blogger, and Facebook. Even MySpace -- I'm hanging in there with MySpace.
I've got friends here in Texas that I met in film school -- the Media Tech Institute. They were doing a project and called me up, flew me out, put me up and we did it. Banged it out. It was one of the first years that Media Tech was going. It was a really big hit and a lot of fun. I love supporting filmmakers. I think that everybody should be encouraged, rather than discouraged. "Do it." "Well, I don't have a budget." "What do you need a budget for? Pick up your camera and fucking shoot."
JH: You can make a movie on a phone.
KC: You can make a movie on a phone. I am making a movie on a phone.
JH: That's great! Can you tell us about it?
KC: Well, I'm making a documentary called On The Rail. There's autograph hunters and autograph seekers, or photo-oppers, people that like to get photos with stars. They're on this side of the rail or the rope at premieres. So, the rail is the thing where people are standing behind with their books to have people sign or take pictures. I'm doing a whole documentary on that subculture of fans who go to all the premieres, screenings, functions and benefits to get these autographs. There's a lingo, there's a culture, there are strategies for them. There are weekly sheets that show them where who's going to be at what event. So, there's this whole subculture that people know nothing about and seeing it from the other side is very interesting.
Pinky runs a blog -- my fiancee Kristen, her name on the blog is Pinky Lovejoy. She's got probably 3,000 photos with stars. Everybody. The front page of her blog is Dustin Hoffman holding our dog. I was able to see it through her point of view, and I fell in love with the whole scene. And, I'm shooting it entirely on my phone. It's unobtrusive. Believe-it-or-not, all of the autograph collectors don't like being on camera. And, I think, "wait, you're sitting here making money off of other people's fame, and their autographs and pictures, but you yourself don't want to be in them?" That's kind of interesting.
JH: So, do a lot of those people ask you not to personalize the autographs that you sign?
KC: Now, that's how you spot a dealer. The dealers say, "no, please don't make it out to so and so. Just sign it and put your character name." And, they don’t want a photo WITH you. They want a photo OF you signing it, so they can have providence and later prove that you signed this. Instantly you can spot a dealer. Let's just say that about 1 out of every 5 on those rails are dealers. There's professional autograph hunters that just do it for themselves. There's new kids that just got on the scene and are just figuring it out. You'll see them in teams out there. They don't know where to stand or how to get people. And, then you'll have the dealers, who'll have you sign like, 20 at a time.
You have stars, like Matt Damon or Leo DiCaprio, that sign every single thing put in front of them. They never turn away from the line. They never ignore their fans. They take care of the fans. I even heard that Matt Damon was signing a bunch, it's called "getting racked." They were "racking" Matt Damon - getting him to sign a rack of pictures. And, he goes, "how's it going? You gonna make your rent this month?" And, you have to do that. You're allowed one bad day. That second bad day, and it gets around that you're a Molly Ringwald. She's got the worst reputation in this town. Her reputation precedes her. She's like the benchmark for how not to treat fans. People are really unhappy with her on that. I really appreciate hearing about the big stars that do take care of their fans. They take the time -- sure, they're going to be 15 minutes late to wherever they're going, but they'll still stop and sign every autograph.
JH: With a lot of actors that got started around the time that you did, fans have certain expectations and particular memories of you from the movies that they enjoyed when they were young, and assume that you've done nothing since those. Now, you've worked pretty steady your entire career, still to this day, but do you get bombarded often with the question of "where have you been?"
KC: Yeah, sometimes. I mean, I guess what I'm doing devolved into low-budget, art-house horror movies, ski movies, surf movies, snake movies -- I've got a snake movie.
KC: Yep, Python with Will Wheaton, Billy Zabka, Robert Englund, Jenny McCarthy, Casper Van Dien and a great 130 foot snake. But, you get two ways of people asking "where have you been." One is, "hey, so what are you doing lately?" The other is, "so, how come you don't act anymore?" or "when was the last movie you were in?" Of course, the dickish answer is "when was the last movie you were in?" But, that's just the bitterness. That's your ego taking a hit, going "they're right."
It's funny, though -- I love being on a set, regardless of the budget. Look at IMDB - I just keep working and working. My manager came up with a great phrase. Lifelong actor. Instead of child actor or teen actor, she said, I'm a lifelong actor. I've been doing it 38 years. I don't know how else to make a living, so hopefully I'll be doing it another 38 years.
And, I've been moving into the producing realm, which has been unbelievably challenging, but really, really rewarding. I never thought I would like it as much or feel as satisfied at the end of a tough day than producing. Now, as a producer, I get to pick cast members, so maybe I'll put myself in some of my movies. (laughs)
JH: I know you've also done some writing, but any plans to direct, besides On The Rails? A narrative perhaps?
KC: Yes. I'm in the middle of writing a script for a narrative feature. It's low-budget. It's an endictment of plastic surgery and the objectification and sexualization of women in the industry. It's a horror movie. Think The Fly. Think the image of Brundlefly tearing his face off in front of the mirror. Imagine a young ingenue with bad plastic surgery that turns into a monster and gets revenge on all of the agents and managers that made her have the plastic surgery. A bloody, dripping mess. (laughs)
JH: I read about another project that you did. Can you tell us a little bit about your "monologue-a-day" undertaking?
KC: Yeah! I was wondering what project I could do at the time. As a film actor, you typically don't have the two theater monologues that you need. In theater, when you go up for a part, you'll need like a Shakesperean monologue and a newer, contemporary monologue. You need those two monologues in your pocket, ready to go at any time, so you can always show your stuff. Well, I didn't really have these. So, I was looking through monologue books and, me, I thought, "why learn just one or two? Why not learn hundreds?" So, I did a monologue a day. I would learn it by heart in the mornings - short ones; one or two minute monologues. Then, turn the camera on and shoot a couple of takes. When I was happy with the take, I'd put it right on YouTube. I did this day, after day, after day. I got up to 192. 192 monologues -- everything from film, television, theater, books, songs, whatever. I ran out of material.
I did one -- I thought it was just urban. I got a note from the playwright saying "hey, really good job on that. I never saw this as if a white person could play it." I didn't even know. It didn't say anything in the play. I thought that was great. It opened his eyes as an author. I also got a note from Chuck Palahniuk when I did a monologue from Fight Club. He said, "great job!" I thought at this point, "I'm over, I'm done!" I'm hearing back from the actual writers, which was great. It was a neat project. The project got me jobs, too. Studios would ask, "hey, what does Keith look like now?" and you can say, "do you want to know what he looked like at 10:00 last night? That's when he posted his last video." It worked as my clip tape.
JH: Anything else that our readers should look out for besides On The Rails and the plastic surgery movie?
KC: I've got Dawn Patrol, which is reuniting me with Dan Petrie, Jr. It's the third film I've done with him. And, Waking, which is in the festival circuit right now. It's a really great love story with no sarcasm. It's killing. They're saying they haven't seen a film that genuine in a long time. I just love it - it doesn't have hipster snark or anything like that. Waking is doing really well. And, I'm doing a project in September in South Carolina where I'm going to play a meth cook. So, it's really going well.
JH: That's great - I really appreciate you taking the time to sit down with me out here in the heat.
KC: It was great - thank you very much.
So, there you have it. Someone who has survived the industry longer than most people that begin at the age that he did and is as relatively adjusted as you or I (well, you anyway). I hope you enjoyed our chat, and please feel free to seek out Keith on social media - Facebook: keithcoogan or on Twitter: @keithcoogan. He has a ton of fascinating stories about his time as an actor, so I hope that you all stop by, tell him hello, and seek out his upcoming projects -- they all sound great...