Jackie Coogan's grandson joined The Waltons to kick off his career
It’s just like they say, like grandfather child star, like grandson child star.
In the eighth season of The Waltons, some new family members were introduced.
Olivia Walton’s cousin Rose Burton comes to the Mountain with two kids in tow, Serena and Jeffrey Burton.
Playing little Jeffrey Burton was a child star named Keith Mitchell.
Mitchell was just starting his career, featured in a TV movie that spawned a short-lived TV series called Stickin’ Together.
New to acting, Mitchell was following in the footsteps of his grandfather, the original child star, Jackie Coogan. Coogan famously costarred with Charlie Chaplin in The Kid, then went on to play Uncle Fester on The Addams Family.
Mitchell was the son of Coogan’s daughter Leslie, and he told the Sioux City Journal in 1989 that when his grandfather would visit when he was young, he always "knew grandpa was a strange man" with a remarkable career.
But when Mitchell finally watched The Kid when he was 8 years old, he didn’t see his grandfather acting with Chaplin. He saw what looked like himself.
By that time, the younger child actor had been acting for 3 years in commercials.
"I thought it was me up there," Mitchell said. "We looked alike and since I had done a couple of commercials, I recognized the technique."
After Mitchell’s sitcom failed to launch, he joined the cast of The Waltons in 1979.
As Jeffrey, Mitchell injected some extra energy into the drama. One critic in The Lincoln Star wrote in 1979 that the young boy "transforms the peaceful Walton home into pandemonium."
Describing his early acting, Mitchell joked that he wasn’t much of an actor at all at this young age.
"I was not an actor," Mitchell said. "I was a performer – a vaudeville showpiece. Someone would tell me what to do and I’d go out there and do it. My career was, up until the age of 12, what I’d like to call ‘jump and shout.’"
Mitchell appeared throughout the eighth season of The Waltons, and then continued acting in the 1980s, appearing on hit shows like Laverne & Shirley and even voicing young Tod in Disney’s The Fox & The Hound.
At this point, Mitchell felt he was ready to star in a feature film, and he was hugely disappointed when Steven Spielberg didn’t cast him in 1982’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
Spielberg told Mitchell’s agent that the child star had appeared in too many TV shows and that he was looking for an unknown child actor to star in the movie.
Reacting to this casting disappointment, Mitchell decided to distance himself from his more immature acting as a child, and at the age of 12, he adopted his grandfather’s last name and officially changed his name to Keith Coogan.
He said once he took Jackie’s name as his, more people asked him to talk about his grandfather. It "gave me a chance to talk about him more… and that’s nice," Keith said, explaining, "The purpose is to make kids my age aware of the Coogan name and what he did."
Shortly after becoming Keith Coogan, the young star took on one of his biggest movie roles in Adventures in Babysitting.
After that, he could be seen on the big screen throughout the 1990s in movies like Toy Soldiers (with Jackie Coogan’s costar John Astin’s son Sean), Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead and In the Army Now.
Keith felt at this point in his career that unlike other young stars, like his Fox and the Hound costar Corey Feldman, he wasn’t trying to become famous.
"We weren’t in it for the same reasons," Keith said. "They were in it for the money or the power or the flash; I was there because I wanted to do it."
Much like Jackie Coogan, Keith was a natural performer and because he gained so much experience as a child, he felt seasoned before he hit the age of 18.
"I felt I became a different actor at 16," Keith said.
His grandfather Jackie never got to see that side of Keith, because he died in 1984. Keith was 14.
When his heart and kidney started troubling him, Jackie moved in with Keith and his mom, and Keith said they spent a lot of time together playing chess.
During those games, Jackie would always win, and he’d always give Keith acting advice.
"He just told me amazingly simple things like ‘Don’t treat the grips and the prop man and the set dresser like garbage. These people are working harder than you, physically.’" Keith said. "And he told me to be a good listener: ‘Everyone has something to say about the scene, not just the director.’"
Apart from his acting, Coogan became famous when he lobbied for and passed what became named for him: The Coogan Act. It protected child stars from parents who might squander their earnings.
Jackie was looking out for other child stars his whole life, and one of the last things he told his grandson Keith, who still acts in TV and movies today, was: "Always keep an eye on your money and you’ll do OK."