Born July 9, 1951 in Kansas City, Missouri, Christopher Walton (Chris) Cooper was the son of a cattleman and internist who served as a doctor in the U.S. Air Force, and his wife, a homemaker. Raised in Texas, where his parents were from, Cooper was educated at the University of Missouri school of drama.
Cooper made his Broadway debut in 1980’s Of the Fields, Lately. He appeared off-Broadway in two 1983 plays, the year he married his wife, actress Marianne Leone. He made his film debut as the star of John Sayles’ 1987 film, Matewan. The acclaimed film earned an Oscar nomination for Haskell Wexler’s cinematography but its failure at the box-office stymied Cooper’s screen career. He kept busy with guest-starring roles on TV, most memorably in 1989’s Lonesome Dove. His next big screen role was in Sayles’ 1990 film, City of Hope, which he followed with roles in 1991’s Guilty by Suspicion, 1993’s This Boy’s Life, and a return to TV for 1993’s Return to Lonesome Dove.
Alternating between TV and film, the actor’s biggest role during this period was as the lead in Sayles’ 1996 film, Lone Star. for which he was nominated for several awards including Best Male Lead from the Film Independent Spirit Awards. That was followed by 1996’s A Time to Kill, 1998’s Great Expectations and The Horse Whisperer, and 1999’s October Sky in which he played Jake Gyllenhaal’s father and American Beauty for which he received a Screen Actors Guild nomination for Best Supporting Actor as Wes Bentley’s father.
Cooper had major supporting roles in 2000’s The Patriot and 2002’s The Bourne Identity. That year’s Adaptation, co-starring Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep, brought him a second SAG nomination and an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. 2003’s TV movie. My House in Umbria opposite Maggie Smith, brought him an Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actor whileSeabiscuit on the big screen brought him his third SAG nomination in that category.
Cooper and his wife’s only child, their son Jesse, died of complications from cerebral palsy at 17 in January 2005. That year he was in three major films, Capote in support of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jarhead in support of Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard, and Syriana in support of George Clooney and Matt Damon. In 2007, he had a rare lead in Breach for which he received an AARP Movies for Grownups Award for Best Actor.
Cooper’s more recent films include 2010’s The Company Men and The Town both in support of Matt Damon, 2013’s August: Osage County in support of Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts and 2019’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood in support of Tom Hanks and Matthew Rhys and Little Women in support of Saoirse Roman, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern and Streep.
The actor remains ever busy as he approaches his 69th birthday.
LONE STAR (1996), directed by John Sayles
It was Sayles who gave Cooper his first big break as the star of 1987’s Matewan, later worked with him on City of Hope and then gave him another plum role as the current day Texas sheriff investigating an earlier crime that involved his father played by Matthew McConaughey. Kris Kristofferson as a former corrupt sheriff succeeded by McConaughey and McConaughey carry the flashback scenes, but it’s Cooper and Elizabeth Pena in the present scenes that anchor the film, Pena receiving an Independent Spirit award for her performance and Cooper his first major acting nomination.
AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999), directed by Sam Mendes
Alan Ball, who later created the TV series, Six Feet Under and True Blood first attained international recognition with this behind-the-curtains expose of modern American suburbia that won five out of the eight Oscars it was nominated for, including Best Picture. Cooper had the plum role of the sadistic marine colonel with a comatose wife who moves next door to real estate agent Annette Bening and her husband, Kevin Spacey, who narrates from the grave. Thora Birch as Spacey’s daughter, Wes Bentley as Cooper’s son and Meno Suvari as Birch’s friend represent the young generation.
ADAPTATION (2002), directed by Spike Jonze
Written by Charlie Kaufman, and directed by Jonze, the team behind Being John Malkovich come up with another fevered comedy in which Kaufman and his imaginary brother, both played by Nicolas Cage, are entangled in Kaufman’s severe case of writer’s block as he works on an adaptation of a book about an orchid thief by Susan Orlean, played by Meryl Streep. Cooper is the orchid thief who is nuttier than everyone. Kaufman and his fictional brother were nominated for Oscars as were Cage for Best Actor, Streep for Best Supporting Actress and Cooper, the only one to win, for Best Supporting Actor.
BREACH (2007), directed by Billy Ray
In this fascinating film about the FBI’s investigation of the CIA, Cooper plays Robert Hanssen, a mass of contradictions as the biggest double agent and spy caught in U.S. history in February 2001. A stickler for protocol and unforgiving of others who fall short of his standards, he is oblivious of his own shortcomings. Told through the eyes of the junior agent (Ryan Phillippe) who helps set him up and bring him down, the film is a political thriller par excellence for which Cooper won the AARP Movies for Grownups award for Best Actor. Laura Linney, Caroline Dhavernas, Gary Cole and Kathleen Quinlan co-star.
LITTLE WOMEN (2019), directed by Greta Gerwig
There are many things to admire in Gerwig’s version of the oft-told tale of the four sisters growing up during the Civil War, but for my money both the 1933 and 1994 versions did it better. Cooper plays the father of the girls, a shadowy figure at best in other versions, some of which in he is spoken of but never seen. The odd thing is that the autocratic Aunt March, played here by Meryl Streep, is supposed to be his sister rather than his aunt, defies credulity since Streep’s character is clearly a much older character. Sorise Ronan as Jo, Florence Pugh as Amy, Timothée Chalamet as Laurie and Laura Dern as Marmee come off best.
CHRIS COOPER AND OSCAR
- Adaptation (2002) – Oscar – Best Supporting Actor