From the time he was 8, Jeff Coopwood knew he wanted to be an actor. He not only reached that goal but in the nearly five decades since, the California State University, Dominguez Hills alumnus (M.A., Class of ’08, Humanities; HUX) has played scores of characters for film, television, stage and commercials, including roles on “Seinfeld,” “The Client,” “The Bold and the Beautiful,” “Family Matters,” “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” and “Beverly Hills, 90210.”
In addition to his prolific front-of-the-camera work, Coopwood has a large body of voiceover work, including for “The Green Mile,” “The Rock,” “The Fugitive,” “Spider-Man 2,” “Beethoven’s 4th,” “The Rugrats Movie,” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
He is one of the few artists to have worked on both the “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” franchises, providing the voice of “Captain Panaka” in several “Star Wars” videogames and the ominous voice of the “Borg” in the film “Star Trek: First Contact,” delivering the now iconic movie line, “Resistance is Futile.”
Also a television broadcaster, he was an on-air host for former Los Angeles PBS affiliate KCET for five years. In his native Chicago he was the Emmy-nominated host of the Illinois State Lottery’s TV game show and the host of the syndicated TV game show “Know Your Heritage.”
Beyond acting and broadcasting, Coopwood has also been an opera singer and a writer, his work having appeared in the Chicago Post, Backstage West, the Chicago Sun-Times, and others.
Those who held influential roles in his life set the stage for such an eclectic and fruitful career. Coopwood credits several of his former teachers with keeping him on course.
“From elementary school all through college… whenever I reached a crossroad, there always seemed to be a phenomenal, extraordinary educator who was right there at that fork in the road, ensuring that I made the right choice,” he recalled.
As early as third grade, Coopwood experienced the first of several life-altering academic interventions, when his teacher, a nun at the Catholic school he attended in Miami, noticed his boredom and impatience in class and rather than disciplining him, challenged him to do fourth grade-level work. Instead of plodding through third grade, he excelled and advanced to fifth grade.
More than 40 years later, at CSU Dominguez Hills, the late emeritus professor of English Hal Marienthal was highly influential during Coopwood’s studies of theatre, film, and music and served as Coopwood’s graduate thesis advisor. Marienthal was also enormously supportive when Coopwood took an academic leave following the sudden loss of his mother in an automobile accident.
“He wasn’t just an educator, he was a coach, cheerleader, trusted advisor, friend, mentor, champion, and support system. My take away from the HUX program, and my fondest memory of this university was, without a doubt, Dr. Marienthal,” Coopwood remarked.
The son of radio broadcasters, Coopwood grew up around celebrity. His childhood is peppered with such memories as watching backstage as Ike and Tina Turner performed “Proud Mary,” Ray Charles feeling his face to “see what I looked like,” greeting Mahalia Jackson, Leontyne Price calling him “beautiful face,” B.B. King recalling he grew up with Coopwood’s step-grandfather, sharing breakfast with Gladys Knight, and Muhammad Ali wanting him to become the face of Ali’s burger chain called “Champburger.”
His own calling to the theatrical stage came as young as 8. He remembers it started from watching soap operas with his grandmother and seeing a child actor “laughing, joking and having a ball on this TV show.”
So after a “two-year campaign” to persuade his mother to let him take acting classes, the young Coopwood began attending a Saturday acting institute for elementary school children held at Barry College (now Barry University) in Florida.
In high school he would become a three-time state speech and debate champion and two-time national finalist. During his senior year at Miami Senior High School, Coopwood was named Best Actor in the State of Florida by the International Thespian Society. A performance by a local opera company at his school led him on a whim to audition with the company as a singer; he was selected and sang with them for four seasons.
He went to the University of Miami on a full academic scholarship, but at the time he thought toiling away at school seemed unnecessary. After a year and half, he left college to pursue his career and “find” himself.
“But I soon realized that ‘finding yourself’ at 18 years old without an education meant that you were kind of lost. Nobody wants an 18-year-old kid with no education; certainly not in terms of employing you,” he said.
A stint coaching a high school speech and debate team during that time off spurred his return to university.
“Those kids won state that year. It was at that moment, being on the other side of the lectern, so to speak—in the classroom—that I rediscovered my passion for education,” Coopwood recalled. “I had to teach to appreciate what it was like to be a student.”
Coopwood, despite his year and a half away, graduated on time from UM with the class he matriculated with, completing 72 semester credits in a single academic year to major in drama with five minors: broadcasting, journalism, applied music (voice), speech and English.
“To me, college was an academic buffet,” he said.
Coopwood began his full-time professional career immediately. Just five days after graduating he was under contract understudying the male lead in the Broadway national touring production of the musical “Timbuktu!,” an all-black version of “Kismet” starring the legendary Eartha Kitt. From there, Coopwood appeared in two consecutive productions at the famed Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre in Jupiter, Florida.
He also continued to teach and coach speech and debate at high schools and universities across the country including Harvard, Northwestern, Georgetown, Marquette, and Emory universities, the University of Pennsylvania, as well as his alma mater, UM.
For the past 20 years, he has lived in Los Angeles, enjoying the rarified air of the working actor in film, television, theatre, commercials and even videogames. For the last two years he has continued to feed his passion for education by being an artist on call for students in the Master of Fine Arts screenwriting program at University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts in a class taught by fellow UM alumnus and veteran TV sitcom writer and producer David Isaacs.
More recently, again in front of the classroom, Coopwood served up a lesson to the newest generation of Toros during the inaugural CSU Dominguez Hills Professor for a Day event hosted by the university’s Alumni and Family Programs in November 2013, leading a session of Television, Film, and Theatre (THE100), a course taught by Sharrell Luckett, assistant professor of theatre arts.
Although he has enjoyed a long, varied, and prolific career there are still many roles that Coopwood hopes to play. On the big and small screen, but also in front of the classroom. He said he’s able to repay the debt he owes to those who gave him so much by passing on that knowledge to the next generation.