Jeanne Cooper spent nearly 40 years playing Katherine Chancellor Murphy on The Young and the Restless, so it’s easy to forget that she spent some time making the guest star rounds. And if you’re at all familiar with her on the soap, then you know that every appearance she made was glorious.
With 136 credits listed on IMDB spanning from 1953 to 2013, Ms. Cooper had plenty of opportunity to pop up on various shows, including as Grace Douglas on Bracken’s World, and multiple appearances on shows like Wagon Train and Perry Mason.
Quite possibly my favorite guest role of hers is as Heath’s villainous aunt on The Big Valley in the Season 1 episode “Boots with My Father’s Name”. As the rest of the Barkley’s prepare to unveil a statue in the patriarch’s honor, Victoria is obsessed with the woman her husband had an affair with which gave the clan Heath. She heads to Heath’s birthplace to find out more and finds herself in the grip of Martha, who’s had enough of her nothing husband and her nothing life and sees Victoria as a ticket out, by conniving, by threat, by force…whatever works.
It’s an episode filled with scenes between two powerhouse actors: Jeanne Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. It is an understatement to say that those scenes are great. They’re phenomenal. It’s mesmerizing to watch the two women go toe-to-toe.
Which is probably why Ms. Cooper made another appearance on the show as a different character later in the series run. Why wouldn’t you want those two together again?
It doesn’t take much screen time for Jeanne Cooper to make an impression.
One of my favorite examples of this is the Season 4 episode of Hawaii Five-O, “…And I Want Some Candy and a Gun That Shoots”. Five-O is dealing with a shooter secured in a bunker overlooking a major road. He’s already taken shots at the cops and hit a few. It turns out he’s a mentally unstable vet and once Steve discovers his identity, he tries to bring in people who know him that might be able to talk him down safely. One of these people is his mother as portrayed by Jeanne Cooper.
Let’s just say if she were my mother, I’d probably be up on a hill taking shots at people, too. She’s one cold bitch. She denies that it’s her son up on that hill, calls her son’s wife a tramp, and absolutely refuses to speak to her son. It would be kind to call her a piece of work. And it would be easy for her to be a two-dimensional rendering of an emotionally cold mother. But Ms. Cooper grounds that character and gives it enough depth and spin that you start wondering if the guy on the hill wasn’t made that way…or born that way.
Jeanne Cooper didn’t always play a ruthless bitch, but damn if she wasn’t good at it. And she found her way onto a variety of shows.
She appeared on other Westerns like The Adventures of Kit Carson, Tales of Wells Fargo, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Sugarfoot, Shotgun Slade, Maverick, Cheyenne, Rawhide, Stoney Burke, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Virginian, Branded, Daniel Boone, Death Valley Days, and Lancer; and other cop shows like Highway Patrol, State Trooper, M Squad, The New Breed, Ironside, and McCloud.
She spied on I Led Three Lives and The Man from UNCLE; got strange on The Twilight Zone and Kolchak: the Nightstalker; changed lives on The Millionaire and Touched by an Angel; educated on Mr. Novak; privately investigated on Mike Hammer, Surfside 6, Hawaiian Eye, 77 Sunset Strip, Cannon, Mannix, and Longstreet; went to the hospital on Ben Casey and Emergency!; tangled with the feds on The Untouchables; showed up as herself on Diagnosis Murder and The Nanny; and played son Corbin Bernsen’s on-screen mom on L.A. Law.
Ms. Jeanne Cooper is a force. Whether her role is only a couple of minutes or the main focus, good or bad (and she’s so good bad), you can’t help but be drawn to her. She’s an unbelievable talent and though her guest spot career might not be as robust as some others, she is an absolute treasure every time she appears onscreen.