The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Uncle Fester From The Addams Family

According to the New York Times, Jackie Coogan was discovered by silent film superstar and filmmaker Charlie Chaplin when he saw the child perform in a vaudeville routine with his father. Chaplin built the movie “The Kid” around Coogan, and the 1921 film made 5-year-old Coogan a sensation. By the time he was 21, Coogan had earned $2 million from films (and likely another $5 million from merchandise, per the Associated Press), but since he was a child, his mother and stepfather, lawyer Arthur Bernstein, had looked after the money, doling out only $6.25 a week to Coogan. 

When he reached adulthood, Coogan asked for his trust. Not only was he denied, but he also discovered that only about $600,000 was left, his mother and stepfather having spent the rest of the money on themselves. The actor had little recourse but to sue his parents.

Coogan won the suit, according to the Library of Congress, but legal fees further ate up what little was left of his bank account, leaving the 23-year-old actor with about $126,000. However, the high profile of the suit and the egregious nature of the actions that led to it resulted in California passing the “Coogan Law,” per SAG-AFTRA. While it contained many loopholes and would be subsequently amended over the years, the law gave financial protection to child actors, requiring their parents to place at least 15% of the minor’s earnings in a trust accessible when the performer reaches adulthood.