Two-time Oscar winner Gary Cooper was one of the biggest celebrities in the world in his heyday, with glittery costars like Audrey Hepburn and famous friends such as Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway. But he was also a protective dad. “My father taught me boxing,” his daughter, Maria Cooper Janis, exclusively shared with Closer at a recent screening of her father’s most celebrated film, High Noon. “He said, ‘Look, not every man is going to be a gentleman, and you’re going to be an attractive woman. Let me give you a few pointers.’ He taught me the graceful art of self-defense!”

That straightforward yet understated offer was fitting coming from an actor who often played reluctant heroes that epitomized an American ideal. Gary’s inner sensitivity shone through in his roles, from his first talking part as a good-natured cowboy in The Virginian to his turn as dying ballplayer Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees. His subtle emotional depth grew out of his artist’s eye for the natural world — and for human nature. “He was very nonjudgmental,” Maria says, and he “would try to understand where a person was coming from.”

As his only child with wife Veronica “Rocky” Balfe, Maria was at the center of her father’s world, visiting him on sets and seeing a side of the actor that few others did. As she recalls, “We had a hell of a lot of fun as a family.”

Growing up in Helena, Montana — his father was a rancher and a state supreme court judge — Gary didn’t just play cowboys: He was a real one in his early life. Still, he studied art in college and had thought to become an artist. “He loved nature, and he was observant,” Maria explains. “He observed animals, how they moved and then he would translate that into sketches. He showed me how a bird’s wing worked.”

Though “he was never one for doling out advice,” Maria shares, she learned important lessons from him, as when her parents went through a three-year separation due to his roving eye. He’d had affairs with his costars Ingrid Bergman and Patricia Neal, causing a rift in his ordinarily peaceful home life. Even so, “I never heard them fight,” Maria says. When her parents reconciled, “he would say, ‘Don’t do as I do, do as I say.’”

Gary Cooper playing in the snow with daughter Maria
Lloyd Arnold/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The family remained tight-knit. “As a hobby, we had taken up scuba diving,” Maria remembers. But when using his new scuba skills while filming 1959’s The Wreck of the Mary Deare, about a sinking cargo ship, Gary got frustrated. “[He was] furious with himself because he was breathing a one hour tank of air in 30 minutes — really hyperventilating,” Maria says. “It annoyed him that he was nervous!”

But usually, ever sensitive to his family’s feelings, “he preferred to keep the acting part of his life separate,” she says. “He would never drag the mood home and go stomping around the house.” Instead, he focused on showing his daughter how to “respect the work and respect other people.”

Gary Cooper’s many films still resonate today, no doubt because his characters were often so similar to who he was in real life. Strong, upstanding and respectful of others’ foibles and strengths. As Maria tells Closer, when he once was asked how he chose his roles, “he said, ‘I want to try to portray the best a man can be.’ That was probably his touchstone.” For more, visit