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Cooper's acting style consisted of three essential characteristics: his ability to project elements of his own personality onto the characters he portrayed, to appear natural and authentic in his roles, and to underplay and deliver restrained performances calibrated for the camera and the screen. Acting teacher Lee Strasberg once o

Cooper's acting style consisted of three essential characteristics: his ability to project elements of his own personality onto the characters he portrayed, to appear natural and authentic in his roles, and to underplay and deliver restrained performances calibrated for the camera and the screen. Acting teacher Lee Strasberg once observed: "The simplest examples of Stanislavsky's ideas are actors such as Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and Spencer Tracy. They try not to act but to be themselves, to respond or react. They refuse to say or do anything they feel not to be consonant with their own characters."[179] Film director François Truffaut ranked Cooper among "the greatest actors" because of his ability to deliver great performances "without direction".[179] This ability to project elements of his own personality onto his characters produced a continuity across his performances to the extent that critics and audiences were convinced that he was simply "playing himself".[395]

Cooper's ability to project his personality onto his characters played an importan

Cooper's ability to project his personality onto his characters played an important part in his appearing natural and authentic on screen. Actor John Barrymore said of Cooper, "This fellow is the world's greatest actor. He does without effort what the rest of us spend our lives trying to learn—namely, to be natural."[87] Charles Laughton, who played opposite Cooper in Devil and the Deep agreed, "In truth, that boy hasn't the least idea how well he acts ... He gets at it from the inside, from his own clear way of looking at life."[87] William Wyler, who directed Cooper in two films, called him a "superb actor, a master of movie acting".[396]

In his review of Cooper's performance in The Real Glory, Graham Greene wrote, "Sometimes his lean photogenic face seems to leave everything to the lens, but there is no question here of his not acting. Watch him inoculate the girl against cholera—the casual jab of the needle, and the dressing slapped on while he talks, as though a thousand arms had taught him where to stab and he doesn't have to think anymore."[87]

Cooper's style of underplaying before the camera surprised many of his directors and fellow actors. Even in his earliest feature films, he recognized the camera's ability to pick up slight gestures and facial movements.[397] Commenting on Cooper's performance in Sergeant York, director Howard Hawks observed, "He worked very hard and yet he didn't seem to be working. He was a strange actor because you'd look at him during a scene and you'd think ... this isn't going to be any good. But when you saw the rushes in the projection room the next day you could read in his face all the things he'd been thinking."[172] Sam Wood, who directed Cooper in four films, had similar observations about Cooper's performance in Pride of the Yankees, noting, "What I thought was underplaying turned out to be just the right approach. On the screen he's perfect, yet on the set you'd swear it's the worst job of acting in the history of motion pictures."[398]

Fellow actors admired his abilities as an actor. Commenting on her two films playing opposite Cooper, actress Ingrid Bergman concluded, "The personality of this man was so enormous, so overpowering—and that expression in his eyes and his face, it was so delicate and so underplayed. You just didn't notice it until you saw it on the screen. I thought he was marvelous; the most underplaying and the most natural actor I ever worked with."[198]

Tom Hanks declared, "In only one scene in the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, we see the future of screen acting in the form of Gary Cooper. He is quiet and natural, somehow different from the other cast members. He does something mysterious with his eyes and shoulders that is much more like 'being' than 'acting'."[399]

Daniel Day-Lewis said, "I don't particularly like westerns as a genre, but I do love certain westerns. 'High Noon' means a lot to me – I love the purity and the honesty, I love Gary Cooper in that film, the idea of the last man standing."[400]

Chris Pratt stated, "I started watching Westerns when I was shooting in London about four or five years ago. I really fell in love with Gary Cooper, and his stuff. That sucked me into the Westerns. Before, I never got engrossed in the story. I'd just dip in, and there were guys in horses in black and white. High Noon's later Gary Cooper, I liked that. But I liked 'The Westerner'. That's my favorite one. I have that poster hung up in my house because I really like that one."[401]

To Al Pacino, "Gary Cooper was a phenomenon—his ability to take some thing and elevate it, give it such dignity. One of the great presences."[402]

Cooper's career spanned thirty-six years, from 1925 to 1961.[403] During that time, he appeared in eighty-four feature films in a leading role.[404] He was a major movie star from the end of the silent film era to the end of the golden age of Classical Hollywood. His natural and authentic acting style appealed powerfully to both men and women,[405] and his range of performances included roles in most major movie genres, including Westerns, war films, adventure films, drama films, crime films, romance films, comedy films, and romantic comedy films. He appeared on the Motion Picture Herald exhibitor's poll of top ten film personalities for twenty-three consecutive years, from 1936 to 1958.[128] According to Quigley's annual poll, Cooper was one of the top money-making stars for eighteen years, appearing in the top ten in 1936–37, 1941–49, and 1951–57.[406] He topped the list in 1953.[406] In Quigley's list of all-time money-making stars, Cooper is listed fourth, after John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Tom Cruise.[406] At the time of his death, it was estimated that his films grossed well over $200 million[403] (equivalent to $1.71 billion in 2019).

In over half of his feature films, Cooper portrayed Westerners, soldiers, pilots, sailors, and explorers—all men of action.[395] In the rest he played a wide range of characters, included doctors, professors, artists, architects, clerks, and baseball players.[395] Cooper's heroic screen image changed with each period of his career.[407] In his early films, he played the young naive hero sure of his moral position and trusting in the triumph of simple virtues (The Virginian).[407] After becoming a major star, his Western screen persona was replaced by a more cautious hero in adventure films and dramas (A Farewell to Arms).[407] During the height of his career, from 1936–43, he played a new type of hero—a champion of the common man willing to sacrifice himself for others (Mr. Deeds, Meet John Doe, and For Whom the Bell Tolls).[407]

In the post-war years, Cooper attempted broader variations on his screen image, which now reflected a hero increasingly at odds with the world who must face adversity alone (The Fountainhead and In over half of his feature films, Cooper portrayed Westerners, soldiers, pilots, sailors, and explorers—all men of action.[395] In the rest he played a wide range of characters, included doctors, professors, artists, architects, clerks, and baseball players.[395] Cooper's heroic screen image changed with each period of his career.[407] In his early films, he played the young naive hero sure of his moral position and trusting in the triumph of simple virtues (The Virginian).[407] After becoming a major star, his Western screen persona was replaced by a more cautious hero in adventure films and dramas (A Farewell to Arms).[407] During the height of his career, from 1936–43, he played a new type of hero—a champion of the common man willing to sacrifice himself for others (Mr. Deeds, Meet John Doe, and For Whom the Bell Tolls).[407]

In the post-war years, Cooper attempted broader variations on his screen image, which now reflected a hero increasingly at odds with the world who must face adversity alone (The Fountainhead and High Noon).[408] In his final films, Cooper's hero rejects the violence of the past, and seeks to reclaim lost honor and find redemption (Friendly Persuasion and Man of the West).[409] The screen persona he developed and sustained throughout his career represented the ideal American hero—a tall, handsome, and sincere man of steadfast integrity[410] who emphasized action over intellect, and combined the heroic qualities of the romantic lover, the adventurer, and the common man.[411]

On February 6, 1960, Cooper was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6243 Hollywood Boulevard for his contribution to the film industry.[412] He was awarded a star on the sidewalk outside the Ellen Theater in Bozeman, Montana.[413]

On May 6, 1961, he was awarded the French Order of Arts and Letters in recognition of his significant contribution to the arts.[373] On July 30, 1961, he was posthumously awarded the David di Donatello Special Award in Italy for his career achievements.[414]

In 1966, he was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.[415] In 2015, he was inducted into the Utah Cowboy and Western Heritage Hall of Fame.[416] The American Film Institute (AFI) ranked Cooper eleventh on its list of the 25 male stars of classic Hollywood.[417] Three of his characters—Will Kane, Lou Gehrig, and Sergeant York—made AFI's list of the one hundred greatest heroes and villains, all of them as heroes.[418] His Lou Gehrig line, "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.", is ranked by AFI as the thirty-eighth greatest movie quote of all time.[419]

More than a half century after his death, Cooper's enduring legacy, according to biographer Jeffrey Meyers, is his image of the ideal American hero preserved in his film performances.[420] Charlton Heston once observed, "He projected the kind of man Americans would like to be, probably more than any actor that's ever lived."[421]

In the TV series Justified, based on works and characters created by Elmore Leonard, Gary Cooper is used throughout the six seasons as the man whom U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens, played by Timothy Olyphant, aspires to be. When his colleague asks Marshall Givens how he thinks his dangerous plan to bring down a villain can possibly work, he replies: "Why not? Worked for Gary Cooper."

Gary Cooper is referenced several times in the critically acclaimed television series The Sopranos, with protagonist Tony Soprano asking "What ever happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type." while complaining about his problems to his therapist.

In the 1930s hit song "Putting on the Ritz", Cooper is referenced in the line "dress up like a million dollar trooper/Tryin' hard to look like Gary Cooper, Super duper!" More than two decades after Cooper's death a new version of the song was released in 1983 by Taco; the original lyrics were kept, including the references to Cooper.

In J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, Cooper is "spotted" by Holden Caulfield to distract a woman he is dancing with.