The Kid's Grandkid
07/08/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT
ITS A LOVELY, WARM DAY IN SANTA Monica, and Keith Coogan is about to admit his pit bull terrier into his living room. "Don't stare at her; let her sniff you out first," he cautions, whisking a plate of jelly rolls from the coffee table. Hey, no problem, but can we at least know the name of this beast? Nope, he answers quickly, mindful lest publicity aid would-be villains. "I'm afraid somebody will wind up poisoning her."
When you're a Coogan, of course, you learn to guard your assets early. Keith, now appearing as pot-puffing, plate-shooting Kenny Crandell in Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead, is the 21-year-old grandson of the late Jackie Coogan. Grandpa made a fortune as Hollywood's first child star but ended up broke after his mother and stepfather squandered the money he made. His plight eventually inspired California's so-called Coogan Act, which requires children's earnings to be kept in trust, but that was little help to Jackie. He became an alcoholic, turned up occasionally on TV (including a stint as goofy Uncle Fester in The Addams Family), then died of kidney failure in 1984 at age 69.
For the young Coogan, though, Jack would become both crotchety mentor and kindly father figure. Leslie Mitchell, the third of Jack's four children (by four wives), bore Keith at 16, divorced soon after and then married sometime musician Danny Franklin. The struggling family lived in a rented tennis cabana for a while ("just a room and a bathroom," says Keith), on a converted porch and eventually in an apartment over a toy store. Mom and stepdad (now a computer salesman) eventually separated, but grandpa Jack filled the void, visiting each summer and bringing along tales of early Hollywood. "Ooh, he had a nasty mouth," recalls Keith. "He always told me, 'If you have an opinion, let 'em know what it is.' "
By 5, Keith was landing TV commercials and, soon after, kiddie parts in "all the bad '70s shows—CHiPs, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island." At 8, he saw The Kid, his grandfather's classic 1921 silent film with Charlie Chaplin. "It really moved me," Coogan recalls. "I was blown away. Film has been my goal ever since."
When the elder Coogan died, 14-year-old Keith abruptly quit acting. "A part of him died," says his mother. "He finally told me he actually thought there was no point in acting if Jack wasn't around to see it. We talked about it, and that helped." Finally, after a year, Keith assumed his grandfather's last name and went back to the casting calls. At 17, he got his first movie role.
This year he has already appeared in three films, Book of Love, Toy Soldiers and in his current role as Christina (Married...with Children) Applegate's brother in Don't Tell Mom. He relies on Leslie as his manager, paying her what he calls "a very lair manager's salary," and, with the roles she has gotten him, he now lives in a plush, two-bedroom Santa Monica condo. "I'm very aware of where my money is," he says. "Jack wasn't."
Coogan shares the quarters with Dominique Cole, 21, a stage actress he met seven years ago at an improv class. "She has a great strength about her that I can turn to," he says, but adds that they have no plans to marry. In his free time he is often with his mother, who now mixes her management duties with stand-up comedy gigs in L.A. clubs. "We're like children laughing in church," says Leslie, 37, adding jokingly, "We're only 16 years apart, and if you count his maturity and my brain damage, we're like the same age."
Between his screen assignments, Coogan and his mother are trying to develop a TV miniseries about Jack, the pivotal figure in both their lives. Leslie is writing the script, and Keith says he'd like to play the leading role himself. "I think my grandfather would approve," he says—although he confesses to one big worry about their family resemblance. Says Keith, worriedly patting his already receding hairline: "I'm gonna grow bald like him. I know it."
CHARLES E. COHEN
JOHN GRIFFITHS in Santa Monica