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I Could Have Been A Juvenile Delinquent—Ben Cooper

It wasn’t that I was a fiend type. As a matter of fact, when I look back on my boyhood I see myself as a walking symbol of the YMCA—such an angel that it’s a wonder I lived through it. At home in Beechhurst on Long Island, it wasn’t too bad. The guys in my class understood, or tried to understand, that I was in a Broadway play called Life With Father. It wasn’t easy for kids in the third grade to figure out why, but at least they realized my hair was red for a reason, and they knew my family and they were always welcome in our home. But no kid wanders around the streets of New York with longish bright red hair that’s obviously dyed, in junior Brooks Brothers suits, and escapes the evil eye and tongue of the flintier guys who consider that they are leading a more normal life. Add to that the fact that I was an actor—they’d catch me breezing out of stage doors—and I was a game target for name calling that would curl your hair. More than once I was tempted to join a rat pack, just to prove I could be as rowdy as the rest of them. And knowing New York like I got to know it, and knowing the kids who turn into hoods like I got to know them, it wouldn’t have been tough to become one of them.

But let me tell you about it like it happened to me.

For instance. . .

One kid in school, about four years older than I, had a nasty habit of sidling up to me and drawling “Eeeehhh, Bennneee!” He was more than a head taller than I and I wasn’t about to tackle him. But there were other kids, too. We’d go, My own gang and me, to the local movie theatre—a building fondly known as The Itch because it had no screens and used to be attacked by swarms of mosquitoes in battle formation. There I’d bump into strangers my own size who were itching, figuratively as well as literally, for a fight. It wasn’t just my hair; I guess it was also because my name was in the papers so often. Kids can be pretty cruel, and they’d taunt and taunt until I’d put up my dukes.

I’m not a fighter by nature—never was. But my father settled it for me with a hunk of wisdom in the shape of a punching bag. “Fighting isn’t worth it,” he told me. “Even if you win, you can lose.” And many, many times I came home seething, took off my coat and knocked it out on that punching bag, trying to prove to myself I was as tough as the bullies—and at the same time getting rid of a lot of steam.

It’s tougher to walk away

At first I fought back, but soon I began to see my father’s point. These kids didn’t care if they carried home a black eye, but with me it meant that I had to put on the greasepaint a little thicker that night, and sidle on stage so that the audience couldn’t see my shiner. As an actor, I had to protect my face. Friends in school used to ask me, “Ben, why do you want to be an actor? Look at all the trouble it makes for you.”

I ought to clear up the point right now that acting was important enough to me so that all this was worth it. Some kids are pushed into violin or piano lessons by their parents and hate every minute of it. Me, I wanted to be an actor, and I felt sorry for other kids because they didn’t have a goal in life like me. My parents let me go ahead with the work because it made me happy, but they were never theatrical parents.

Anyway, soon I learned to walk away from a fight, and believe me that takes more guts than fighting. You leave yourself wide open to being called yellow, but I could see that if I fought one kid I’d have to fight every boy on Long Island.

When I was eleven I left Life With Father, and then began long years of radio and television work. I used to have running parts in radio serials, and I averaged about ten shows a week. This meant I had to spend every day in New York City. My mother went over with me at first, delivering me from one network to another.

The Beechhurst delinquent

But by the time I was thirteen she figured I could go it on my own, and this left all of Manhattan wide open to me, with three or four hours of nothing to do. In between shows I’d roam the streets until I knew every lamp post in the city. I used to go into the penny arcade at 51st and Broadway to while away the time, and from there I walked away from at least a dozen fights. Of course there was an occasional exception—one show I did, you couldn’t see me for the greasepaint. I had to cover the shiner!

At home during this period I was enjoying a little delinquency of my own.

After an evening in the movies and a stop at the GREEN LANTERN for my favorite concoction, banana and black raspberry ice cream with chocolate syrup, marshmallow syrup, whipped cream and cherry, my pals and I would walk the long mile home and break every street light on the way. With snowballs or stones; it didn’t matter. Those unprotected dinky light bulbs were too much of a temptation. We may have made the street maintenance department a little sore, but we figured we were providing an ideal Lovers’ Lane for all of Beechhurst.

But things were a little different in the city! There the tough guys are really tough. At fourteen, I was working at a studio up around 109th and Lexington.

It’s a rough neighborhood.

Proud of the scars

It was swarming with guys in leather jackets and dark looks. I’d come out of the studio at night and walk toward the subway, and all of a sudden out of nowhere there’d be two or three guys walking alongside of me. Sometimes they talked among themselves, keeping in perfect step with me. And sometimes they didn’t say a word. That was worse. Those kids have a natural feeling for the horror of the unspoken threat, and they played it for all it was worth. And suddenly I didn’t feel tough any more. Because no matter how tough you are, if that’s the way you want to play, there’s always somebody around who’s just a little bit tougher. And if you start tangling it up, you’re going to have to take all comers. I don’t think I was a coward. I knew they carried knives and I thought it would be a dandy idea if I carried one. My father stuck to his point though.

“If you whip out a knife too,” he told me, “they’re going to want to find out if you can also fight with that knife.”

This sounded reasonable, and besides I had to remember that those kids are proud of sears they carry, while I still had to keep my face clean if I was going to earn my living.

At noon I used to eat at a lunch counter in the neighborhood that was patronized by the toughest kids of the area. I was told not to, by paternal-type producers of the shows, but somehow these kids held a fascination for me. There was something dramatic and intensely exciting about the way they lived—I thought. I used to sit there hunched over my hamburger, hoping I was hunching like they were, but I must have looked pretty silly. They used to hunch and munch and give me the eye, and I felt I was sitting on a powder keg instead of a lunch counter. But I couldn’t resist it.

One day, when I’d had a morning rehearsal for a show about a young punk in trouble with the law, I was still thinking about my lines while eating lunch. In the script I was supposed to say to a juvenile authority, “Look, I’m not trying to tell you a story, mister. This is the truth.” Having heard these guys talk, I knew the line didn’t sound right, so one day at lunch I pumped up some courage and asked them about it.

Accepted by the crowd

“Is that the way you’d say it?” I asked. They didn’t hear me because they were holding their sides and falling off the stools. When they recovered they looked at me in abject pity.

“Man,” said one of them, “that ain’t the way you’d say it.” He guffawed again and then told me the thing to say would be, “Man, I’m not tryin’ to cop a plea.”

“What?” I asked brightly. And they had to explain it to me.

Which is about when they began considering me their buddy. A weird kind of buddy, to be sure, with the hat I had to wear because of my sinus trouble and the tie and the white shirt. But just the same, I’d been accepted. I should have known then it was no big deal.

Their hangout was in the rotted interior of a condemned apartment house. Every day they told me about it and every day they tried to get me to go there with them. I couldn’t figure whether their motive was to work me over in the solitude of the building, or whether they really liked me. I felt honestly flattered that they even asked me, but just the same I wasn’t quite brave enough to accept. I thought about what it would be like to be a member of the gang. Lots of them were runners for bookies or in the numbers racket, and they thought nothing of it because everybody they knew was in the same boat. I could see myself joining up, and with my manners and polished shoes becoming the brains of the whole outfit.

But it was just daydreaming. At heart I knew too well that my conscience wasn’t cut out for such a life. In radio jobs I had met countless prison wardens and men who worked with these kids, trying to straighten them out. I’d had it pounded and pounded into me that the crooked life just doesn’t pay. The message drove home to stay, and I never did go to the hangout. And to tell the truth, I’m not sorry I didn’t.

We like each other”

There were two things that helped me resist the temptation of being a tough guy. One was my work; I was just too busy. I remember one Christmas week that I worked on sixteen shows, and over the years my parents turned down hundreds: of offers because they thought I was already working too hard.

The other reason was my family. Aside from the love that one member of a family feels for another—just because you’re all part of the family—in ours there was genuine friendship. We liked each other. My parents never broke their word; if they promised something to my sister or to me, they saw to it the promise was kept. Lucky kids grow up with a respect for their parents that won’t allow any straying from the straight and narrow.

I was tempted, too, where language was concerned. In show business you hear every conceivable word, and I started off in show business when I was still eight years old. In the play Louis Calhern, who played Father,says, “Oh damn, I forgot!” Opening night my family sat in the audience and afterward took Bunny and me for a sundae, to celebrate. Reaching a corner I turned it by mistake, and when my father called me back I grinned and said, “Oh damn, I forgot!” Right then and there, Dad called me for it.

“It’s fine for the father in the play, but it isn’t funny when a little boy says it.”

I remember one actress who began telling a joke and then, spotting me within earshot, said “Never mind. Later on I’ll finish the joke.”

I took my cue. “Could I go out and get a drink of water?” I said. And just before I disappeared behind the wing I winked and said, “Call me when you want me.” Maybe because I was so YMCA most of them were considerate enough to spare me a lot of things. But that doesn’t mean that there weren’t plenty of bad examples that I could have followed. There were always characters in and around the theatre, and I learned early.

All this may sound like kid stuff, but it’s the kind of thing that can lead to the big time—the big time in jail! 

By the time I was sixteen I could spot a hood a mile away. They have a peculiar way of jiggling while they’re standing still. By the time I was seventeen I noticed the type who’s always checking the entrance with nervous eyes. By eighteen I knew that most hoods are a suave, manicured set, a style started by Capone. And a year later I could tab a bookie, and learned to spot a gun carried beneath a coat.

Something to do

I knew one guy who was a runner for a bookie, but by this time there was only one thing I admired him for—for learning a lesson. He was about to get into his car when he was approached by the cops, and without flicking an eyelash he dropped his bookie slips into the gutter. There the papers stayed while the cops frisked every inch of both Eddie and his car. Sure he wasn’t caught, but it was so close that he decided it wasn’t worth it, and I understand that Eddie never took another job that wasn’t on the level.

Sure I feel sorry for the boys who get caught up in the underworld. Every time they got away with something, they thought they were that much smarter—until they didn’t get away. That’s where Eddie was different, and me too, I suppose. But with me it was because I had something else to do. I guess that’s the secret of it, having something to do. And knowing you’re strong enough to do it.

Once Dad and I were talking about a man who had become an incurable alcoholic, and I asked him how this man ever started out to be like that. “Nobody ever starts out to be a drunk,” Dad said.

I not only had my dad for advice; I could see things happening all around me. Little kids carried home-made zip guns, carved out of curtain rods, rubber bands and floating firing pins, and more than one boy had his hand blown off. Bigger kids tangled with the law and spent their youth in assorted jails, and still bigger ones, lots of actors I’ve known, ruined their careers by drinking. Having the chance to observe all this stuff, you stay away from it. I remember when somebody in show business offered me a drink when I was fifteen. “No thanks,” I said, “I don’t need it.” Maybe it was a barbed answer, but I meant it. A drink now and then is enjoyable, but I’ve never thought I needed one in order to have a good time.

A lesson in how to say no

Worse yet was dope. I had done several shows that centered around drug addiction, and knew a little bit about it—as most everybody does these days. I knew enough to recognize it one night in Hollywood, when I was only nineteen.

As a favor to a friend, I offered to drive his girl friend to a party where she was expected. The house was one of those big ones in the hills above Hollywood, and when the host asked me to come in I said I would for a few minutes. The place was jammed with people, the girls expensively dressed, the guys wearing $300 suits, and while I didn’t think about it at the moment, it was a pretty crazy party. It was so noisy and close that I stepped out on the veranda for a breath of fresh air, and lighted a cigarette.

Then I heard it, next to me—the deep, rasping inhale of the marijuana smoker. A man and a girl were out there and after a few minutes the man walked over to where I was standing.

“Hey, pop, why don’t you turn on?”

I held up my own cigarette. “Thanks, I have one.”

“Come on, man, I’ll give you a stick. I don’t want to sell it to you—I’ll give it to you.”

I knew this was danger valley. I’d played it so many times on radio and television. “No, thanks,” I said.

“Come on, daddy,” he said. “It’s not habit forming.”

“How many have you had?” I said.

“Three. But one’ll do it for you. I used to get this way on only one. Come on, man, it’s crazy.”

He had said it wasn’t habit forming, the poor jerk. He kept it up for five minutes, all the while drawing deeply on his cigarette. I left the party, not because I was afraid, but because it isn’t pleasant to watch people who have begun the ruin of their lives.

I was lucky, because I knew enough about it, had known for a long time that such things aren’t smart, they’re just plain suicide.

I pity the kids who are drawn into bad circles and bad habits. I could have been a juvenile delinquent myself—I had every opportunity—but I turned away from it because I had a job, because of the trust my family put in me, and because we all have a certain responsibility to ourselves.

I’m sure some of the hoods I’ve known regard me as a clunk.

I for one am happy with the whole deal, just like it is.



Ben Cooper will soon be seen in the U.A. film, His Father’s Gun.



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