English melodramas of the early 19th century, Cooke was a former sailor who also excelled at playing sailors on the stage. According to his entry in The Biography of the British Stage, young Cooke attended a nautical spectacle when he was only around 10 years old and became fascinated by the sea. In 1796, he became a member of the Royal Navy and sailed on the H.M.S. Raven to Gibraltar, Toulon, and the Mediterranean.
It was on board the Raven that Cooke experienced an infamous shipwreck. Sailors spent two days and nights clinging to the remains of the ship. Though many of his fellow mariners died, Cooke managed to reach shore. After a long fever, it was deemed he was not fit to return to service, and he left the navy. So enthusiastic was he for the sea, however, that after he recovered, he set sail again, this time on board the H.M.S. Prince of Wales. He continued to serve on that vessel until the Treaty of Amiens temporarily ended hostilities in 1802.
Though the agreement at Amiens ended up being only a brief intermission rather than the end of the Napoleonic wars, Cooke this time gave up the sea, and in 1804 he made his debut as an actor at the Royalty Theatre in Whitechapel. Cooke then accepted a position at Astley's Amphitheatre "upon liberal terms" according to The Biography of the British Stage. Two years later, he moved to the Lyceum Theatre, but ultimately he left London for Dublin, appearing at an amphitheatre on Peter Street. He returned to England in 1809, and Robert William Elliston got him to help run the Surrey Theatre.
Minor and provincial theatres were all well and fine, but in the early 19th century, serious actors were supposed to perform at one of the two patent theatres at Covent Garden or Drury Lane. Beginning in 1816, Cooke did appear in a series of melodramas at Drury Lane, as well as at Covent Garden, the Royal Opera House, and the Royal Coburg. Cooke had the honor of originating some of the most famous Gothic roles of all time, appearing as the title role in The Vampyre, based on the novel by John Polidori, as well as the creature in Presumption, the first stage adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein.
It was for his appearances in nautical melodramas that Cooke was most famous, though. He appeared as a sailor in Edward Fitzball's The Pilot, Douglas Jerrold's Black-Eyed Susan, and John Thomas Haines's My Poll and My Partner Joe, among other plays. No doubt his experience as an actual sailor aided him in providing verisimilitude.