[10 November 2009]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — They lead wildly dissimilar lives, yet thanks to a movie they are inextricably linked.
She is the daughter of Hollywood royalty, a resident of the Big Apple and married to a world-class concert pianist.
He is the fifth of 10 children and still works on the Tennessee farm that has been his only home, though his job now entails answering questions from tourists.
Maria Cooper Janis is the sole offspring of actor Gary Cooper. Andrew Jackson York is the son of World War I hero Alvin C. York
Their family sagas have been entwined for more than a half century by “Sergeant York,” the celebrated 1941 biopic in which Cooper portrayed Alvin York, winning a best actor Oscar.
Janis, 71, and Andrew Jackson York, 79, have never met. That will change Wednesday when both participate in a special Veterans Day ceremony at the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial in Kansas City.
They’ll share reminiscences of their famous fathers. Janis will formally present Gary Cooper’s Oscar to the museum for display.
They’ve got lots of catching up to do.
Alvin York never spoke of the combat experiences that earned him a Medal of Honor. At least not to his family.
“He never talked about the war at all,” said Andrew Jackson York in a phone call from the Sgt. Alvin C. York Historic Park near Pall Mall, where he’s been employed by the Tennessee parks system for nearly 40 years. “We kids read about what he did. We saw the movie. But he never told any of us about it, as far as I know. I doubt he even told my mom.”
Yet what Alvin York did was extraordinary.
As a young man, he was a drinker and brawler. But the death of a friend in a barroom fight turned his life around; he joined his mother’s pacifist Christian sect and swore off alcohol and violence.
Drafted into the Army, he applied for conscientious objector status. His petition was denied, and after discussing the situation with sympathetic commanding officers, York concluded that some wars needed to be fought.
On Oct. 8, 1918, York’s unit was operating behind German lines in France. They had captured an enemy position and were guarding prisoners when they were raked by machine gun fire that killed or disabled half the Americans. Now in charge of the unit, York single-handedly assaulted the German machine gun position, killing 28 German soldiers and capturing 132 others.
Returning to Tennessee, the war hero was given a 400-acre farm, where he raised hogs, cattle, corn and wheat. Much of time, his siblings (Alvin had 10 brothers and sisters) worked alongside him.
“He was just like any other dad,” his son recalled. “That’s what we thought, anyway. But we did have lots of company. Sometimes 25 or 30 people a day. And he’d be gone for a month at a time speaking. Chicago, California, Illinois ... he spoke in every state.
“I went on some of those trips with him in the early ‘40s to sell war bonds. We’d go to Army camps, and we’d eat in the officers’ mess.”
Back at home, though, Alvin York was just Dad.
“He was a very humble man,” Andrew Jackson York said. “I never did see him mad. I don’t know if he had a temper, but if he did I never saw it. He was real cool-headed. That might have helped him survive.”
Alvin York’s religious faith remained strong.
“We always had family devotion each night, reading the Bible,” recalled Andrew Jackson York, who attends the church his father built in 1923. “He was a strict father. Not mean, but strict. We get visitors here at the park who tell their misbehavin’ kids, ‘Now, don’t make me count to three ...’ Dad never did that. He told you once. No countin’ for him.”
York says one of the best things about his job is the shock of visitors to the park when they learn they’re meeting the son of Alvin York.
“They think all the kids must be dead. After all, if Daddy was still livin’, he’d be 122,” he said.
And York has a special answer for guests who ask if he’s lived on the farm his entire life.
“I tell ‘em, ‘Yeah, so far, but I might have a few more years left.’
“We get a lot of retirees. They’re retired, and I’m still workin’. I tell ‘em there’s something wrong with this picture.”
Almost from the moment he returned to the States, Alvin York was besieged by offers from Hollywood to turn his life into a movie. He steadfastly refused.
Only with the likelihood of a new war with Germany did York relent, thinking his story might provide an inspirational message for his country.
Even then, he made one deal-breaking condition: He had to be portrayed by Gary Cooper.
“I think my father had an affinity for the role in that he was raised on a ranch in Montana and spent a lot of his time tramping around the hills, sitting quietly, watching the animals,” Maria Cooper Janis said in a phone conversation from the New York apartment she shares with her husband, concert pianist Byron Janis.
“Dad started out as an artist, and he’d sit and sketch. His first close friends were American Indian kids. So he spent a lot of time with nature.”
Cooper’s Western roots and laconic nature came through clearly in his screen performances. Half a country away in Tennessee, Alvin York picked up on them from his visits to the movie house in Pall Mall.
Although Henry Fonda, Ronald Reagan and James Stewart had been considered for the role, “Dad picked Gary Cooper,” his son said. “I reckon he felt Cooper was more like him. It was Cooper or nuthin’.”
When Janis describes her famous father, it’s impossible not to see how much he had in common with Alvin York.
“He wasn’t a big talker. But I remember how humbled he was by the opportunity to portray an individual like Sergeant York. I think he loved that role because he identified with York, how he did what he did from a very different place within himself. The heroics weren’t any kind of personal trip for him. Dad admired that.
“In fact, my father chose roles that exemplified what heroism means in terms of the American male. It was never a macho, Rambo type. ... He played the reluctant hero.”
In his personal life, Janis said, her father hated fighting.
“He’d go to great lengths to avoid confrontation,” she said.
“Sergeant York” is widely considered a classic American film. Among its writers were John Huston and Stanley Koch; it was directed by Howard Hawks. Among the supporting cast were Walter Brennan, Ward Bond, Noah Beery Jr., June Lockhart and Howard DaSilva. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won two.
Janis has watched the film dozens of times and thinks it continues to have a message for Americans.
“Everyone has short attention spans nowadays. Anything that happened before 1980 is ancient history. But the accomplishments of Alvin York and those other soldiers who went to fight for our country shouldn’t be forgotten. And sometimes it takes an entertainment like a movie to imbed those ideas in people’s hearts. I discovered a few years ago that most New Yorkers don’t have a clue that York Avenue was named after Alvin York.”
Janis said she was delighted to be invited to the National World War I Museum — though she admitted that before the offer she didn’t know of its existence. In August, she lent her father’s “Sergeant York” Oscar statuette to the museum, which has had it on display since Sept. 1.
“At first, I was kind of reluctant to loan the Oscar because it sits on my husband’s piano. But then I thought of the symbolism bringing these two families together, the symbolism of the Oscar and my father’s pleasure in portraying such an amazing person as Alvin York. And I gather from the museum people that the Oscar itself will be a big draw.”
Gary Cooper died in 1961, just a few weeks after being awarded a third Oscar (an honorary one).
“When my father was ill, he got a very sweet telegram from Alvin York. I wish I’d had the chance to meet him,” Janis said.
York died three years later.
Nearly 50 years later, the two clans will finally come together.