The Coogan Act and the rights of child actors

Jackie Coogan on the set of the movie The Kid (1921)

We are over familiar with tales of child actors going through rough patches or deciding to leave their acting careers altogether. While some stories were exploited by tabloids just to sell easy copies – we’re all painfully aware of Lindsay Lohan, Macaulay Culkin, and Britney Spears’s struggles – some others accomplished to change the show business for good. That is the case with Jackie Coogan‘s story.

Jackie Coogan (1914 – 1984) was an American child prodigy. He became famous doing dancing gigs in theaters, such as the back then popular shimmy dance– and that’s actually how Charlie Chaplin discovered him.
He played some of his most popular roles alongside Chaplin himself, e.g., in the movies A Day’s Pleasure (1919) and The Kid (1921).

However, he had to face some serious troubles as soon as he came of age.
Once he turned 21, he hoped to finally have access to his hard-earned money, but he was left with nothing more than a huge disappointment. Out of the 4 million dollars – give or take – he had earned, he was left with no more than a quarter million. The rest had been drained out by Coogan’s mother and his step-father. Therefore, he had no choice but to sue them. His legal action, however, wasn’t that successful, since he was able to recover only 160k dollars.

The public opinion found this outcome downright outrageous, and this shared feeling led to the approval of the California Child Actor’s Bill in 1939, also known as the Coogan Law (or Coogan Act) for the above-mentioned reasons.
This bill establishes that the parents of a child performer – of any kind – must set up a fund (commonly known as a Coogan account) where they have to deposit at least 15% of what their child earns.
If the parents fail to do so, the employer has to set aside that percentage in a common fund: the Actors Fund of America (AFA).

The California Child Actor’s Bill made yet another big change regarding child performers’ finances.
Up until 1939, in fact, every dollar a minor earned used to be his/her parent’s property. However, as soon as this act came into force, the child itself finally became the only owner of that money.

The Coogan Law doesn’t fail to rule other aspects of a child performer’s career. For instance, it also regulates work/school balance and the rules about time off and work hours. However, what has been set on paper isn’t always respected by directors and producers on a daily basis.
Macaulay Culkin himself confessed in an interview that his work day used to start at 4 am when he was only ten years old!

Still, rules about education tend to be the strictest ones.
For example, children aren’t allowed to advance their acting careers unless they perform well enough in their studies. Though, one has to admit that it is easier said than done!

In order to allow child actors to further their education while working, qualified professionals known as studio teachers are always on set. More precisely, they have to guarantee that children study at least 15 hours per week, even when filming.
But while some child actors are followed on set by some kind of teacher or tutor, some others prefer to be homeschooled – as it was the case for Stranger Things’ prodigy Caleb McLaughlin.

Juggling school and work might be easier if you’re a genius like Nolan Gould – a name, a talent.
The Modern Family star has a 150 IQ and accomplished to graduate high school when he was only 13 years old.
He is also part of the high IQ society Mensa, alongside another former child actor – Regan Mizrahi, famous for his role in the television series Dora The Explorer.

If all this talk about actors and series has left you in the right mood to watch a new TV show, have a look at this article: ’90s TV series you should absolutely catch up on!

Polyglot, stand-up enthusiast, Law student. 23, from Italy.

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