I am so blessed to of gotten to know the daughter of one of the all-time great movie stars. Her name is Maria Cooper Janis and her dad was three-time Academy Award-winning actor Gary Cooper.
As a little boy, I got to see a western film called High Noon. As most Latin kids in the Bronx and Brooklyn in the era of the 60s, we just loved western shows and movies. The star of that film was Gary Cooper.
The courage that Cooper showed as the marshal was something that was a big deal for me and my friends in the neighborhood. We use to play through the abandoned buildings and made believe that we were the different characters in High Noon.
Several years later I would see an incredible film about the life of Lou Gehrig. It was called The Pride of the Yankees. It was actually the first time that I would cry while watching a film. That film made me fall in love with the Bronx Bombers. Again the star was the incredible Gary Cooper. After that, I couldn’t help but want to see any film with Cooper in it.
I had an uncle that lived in Los Angeles and worked at a Dry cleaners as a delivery boy. When he use to come to New York he use to tell the family about the famous people that he would meet. I was just amazed when one of the stars he met was Gary Cooper.
I once asked my uncle if he was sad when Cooper died and he said ‘ kid when Gary Cooper died, the whole world was sad. That’s how respected Cooper was. He may of been the most respected actor ever!
Years later when I went to work for George Steinbrenner, he would tell me that his all-time favorite actor was Gary Cooper and naturally his favorite films were High Noon and the Pride of the Yankees.
On the Boss’s 75th birthday I actually gave him a portrait of Gary Cooper as Will Kane the marshal in High Noon and Lou Gehrig with an autograph of Gary Cooper. We use to stare at the picture and talk about the greatness of the two films. I really loved this because it was the one true thing that The Boss and I had in common.
Last week I was telling the Yanks team President Randy Levine about my friends Maria Cooper and her husband Byron Janis who is probably the world’s greatest classical pianist.
To say that Randy was excited to hear this was an understatement because like the Boss, anything short of a world championship rarely excites him. Randy started talking about the greatness of Gary Cooper and how incredible he was in all his films. Naturally, he had an affection for The Pride of the Yankees.
The thing that made me very happy was when Randy suggested that we shoot an episode of Yankees Magazine with Maria and Byron. He asked me to call the host of the show Nancy Newman and get the ball rolling. When I called Maria and Byron about the show they loved it.
A week later we were at the home of these two incredible people. When you walk into the living room you notice the piano that has been in Maria’s life for decades. You see family pictures on top of the piano and I have to admit that I spiritually felt Gary Cooper there. At one point I literally had tears come to my eyes. It was more out of happiness and excitement than anything else. To sit with Maria and Byron and talk about their incredible careers and about the wonderful parents that Maria had was mind-boggling. To see the Academy Awards that her father Gary Cooper won for High Noon and Sergeant York was totally amazing. When Maria realized how badly I wanted to touch them, she told me to hold them. I was so afraid to drop them that I almost said no.
However, I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime situation, and to say that I held Gary Coopers Academy Awards would be a wonderful honor.
I have to thank my friend and the great longtime Yankee marketing executive Howard Grosworth for giving me a 1977 replica World Championship ring to give Byron because he is a big Yankee fan and the 77 ring represents George Steinbrenner’s first World Championship. It also represents the big World Series for Reggie Jackson. Reggie once sat at the piano with Byron at Carnegie Hall. This was during the period when Byron and Reggie were the greatest in their field. Even though the ring was a replica Byron loved it and would not stop staring at it during the whole time we were there. He wore it with great pride. It made me so very happy.
How big a Yankee fan is Byron you might ask? Let me put it this way, You can’t call there after 7pm because that’s when the Yankee games usually start.
Nancy Newman was a total professional in how she handled the interview and her line of questions were dead on. Maria, I must add is a seasoned pro in handling interviews and at the same time is not shy in giving the world of Hollywood what they may want to know about her incredible family, especially the truly iconic and incredible Gary Cooper.
I have been blessed in my life to of gone through some incredible moments and I have had some great memories that stay with me forever. To spend an afternoon with this wonderful couple has literally changed my life for the better. This day will rank right up there with the day Mr. October hit three home runs in 1977.
Special thanks to Rocky Cooper, the wife of Gary and mother of Maria, I do understand your soul. The incredible Byron Janis for sharing your home and heart and Maria Cooper Janis for understanding and sharing the love I have for her daddy Gary Cooper.