Frank Coghlan Jr., who was a child actor in the silent film era passed away quietly last month (September 2009) of natural causes at the ripe old age of 93. He was the actor who brought the phrase “Shazam!” into the American consciousness and played Billy Batson in a serial, the pre-transformation Captain Marvel.
He started at the age of three appearing in a Western serial called Daredevil Jack. He was typically credited as Junior Coghlan and left his mark indelibly in The Adventures of Captain Marvel. Bruce Goldstein, Director of Repertory Programming at New York’s world famous Film Forum lauds it “It’s considered by many aficionados as the best cliffhanger serial of all time,” and continues saying “What a great fantasy for kids: a kid who turns into a superhero.”
Leonard Maltin puts Coghlan’s place in history further in perspective by saying “If you went to the movies in those days, you couldn’t help but know him, even though he was never a major star,” which, of course, indicates his importance in as much as he made up the tapestry of cinema when films and movie stars, whether A-List or not, were a part of American culture and something everyone was well-versed in.
In 1925 legendary director/producer Cecil B. DeMille signed him to a five-year deal on the strength of his publicity stills. Another small yet important role he had was as the young James Cagney in The Public Enemy.
Yet it is Captain Marvel and “Shazam!” for which he is most remembered. For many who toil and seek a serious dramatic career a singular, ubiquitous role, one to which they are always associated can be a burden and later on even a regret and something they seek to forget. Coghlan frequented conventions and seminars in his later years and was always pleased when people recognized him or came to see him. So appreciative was he that according to Leonard Maltin he even personalized his license plate to read “SHAZAM.”
Some people in entertainment don’t realize their good fortune and look a gift horse in the mouth. Frank Coghlan, Jr. was not one of those people and now left with only memories of classic film moments it is we, the film fans, who didn’t know how lucky we were.