[This story is adapted from my 2013 book, And Then I Met….]
For five generations, audiences have laughed at the antics of those irrepressible kids from producer Hal Roach's Our Gang comedy films made in the 1920s–1940s (later dubbed The Little Rascals for television syndication). Of the many child actors who came and went during the life of the classic series, perhaps the best known and most beloved was George "Spanky" McFarland, the chubby leader of the gang. Along with pals Alfalfa, Buckwheat, Darla, Butch, and others, the Gang stumbled from one hilarious childhood circumstance to another. After a decade of starring in these comedy short subjects, Spanky became a Hollywood has-been at age 14 in 1942. He and his family moved back to Texas, and for the next 50 years he worked in various sales jobs while making occasional guest appearances on television and at Hollywood memorabilia shows.
When executing his 1930s movie contracts with the Hal Roach Studios, Spanky's parents signed away the rights to his name and image forever. Decades later, Spanky filed strings of lawsuits against people and companies using his childhood image. It galled him that these legal efforts hit repeated brick walls. That was how we first met: I did some legal work for him as a young lawyer in the early 1980s, and we kept in touch afterward.
• • •
Movie producer Hal E. Roach created the Our Gang–Little Rascals film treasury. Nicknamed "The Boss" by the actors and crew who worked on Roach's "Lot of Fun," he began his film career in 1912 when he did extra work in silent films. Within a couple of years he started his own production company that became the premiere comedy factory in Hollywood. Harold Lloyd, Will Rogers, Jean Harlow, and Charley Chase were some of the actors in his stable. Aside from discovering them and creating the Our Gang comedies, he also paired as a team two of his minor contract players. This union gave the world perhaps the best-loved comedy duo in film history: Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
Hal Roach remained the last living witness to Hollywood's transition from fruit orchards to entertainment Mecca. In 1990 I traveled to Catalina Island for a celebration of Stan Laurel's centenary. While attending a special showing of Stan and Ollie movies at the Avalon Theatre, an elderly man seated in front of me laughed heartily at the comedy antics on-screen. At the end of the showing, the house lights came up and the emcee announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, all these films will live forever because of the vision and foresight of the movie pioneering genius who created and produced these classic treasures, Hal Roach. Mr. Roach will celebrate his 100th birthday next year and we are honored to have him with us tonight. Please welcome Mr. Hal Roach." The audience rose in an ovation, and the old man seated in front of me who had laughed throughout the films stood and waved.
Later that evening, Roach attended Laurel's celebratory birthday banquet in the Carno Ballroom. He invited me to join him at his table for coffee and cigars. He introduced me to Eddie Quillan, a character actor from the 1930s and 1940s most noted for his role in the classic film The Grapes of Wrath. During our visit Quillen appeared drawn and fatigued; two weeks later he suffered a fatal heart attack.
The party remained in full swing long past dinner. When I bid Roach goodnight around midnight, he was still holding court at his table, smoking thin cigars, signing autographs for fans, and greeting well-wishers. I later learned that The Boss stayed until the celebration ended after 2:00 a.m.
• • •
In the fall of 1992, Spanky called and said he planned to visit Los Angeles to meet with his onetime boss Hal Roach (now almost 101). "I've only seen the old man once in 50 years," he told me, "and that was when I presented him his honorary Academy Award in 1984. I've never had the chance to sit and talk to him one-on-one as an adult, so this could be an interesting meeting. I want you to come with me."
As it turned out, the desired reunion with his former employer had a motivation beyond nostalgia. He wanted Roach to sign an affidavit regarding the interpretation of a 1936 contract between Roach Studios and Spanky's parents. Spanky felt the document would help in his pending lawsuit against yet another business using his name. "Some bastards in New Jersey have opened a bar called 'Spanky McFarland's,'" he griped. "They're using my name and likeness, and a statement from Roach might help me in the lawsuit." Although I doubted a contemporaneous affidavit regarding a half-century-old contract would have much legal heft, especially since Roach had disposed of his rights to the Our Gang films decades earlier, any excuse to visit Roach was good enough for me.
On the appointed day, I picked up Spanky and his wife Doris at the Beverly Hilton Hotel where they were staying for the weekend. As we exited, we encountered about a hundred movie fans awaiting the celebrity arrivals for the American Cinema Awards being held at the hotel that evening. Someone behind the rope line outside the entrance recognized Spanky and asked him to come over and sign autographs. He waved them off and grumbled to me that these "autograph hounds" would pester him throughout his stay.
We drove through the winding roads leading to Roach's Beverly Hills home and parked in front of the single-story ranch-style house overlooking a hilltop at 1183 Stradella Lane. Roach's nurse, Don Aho, greeted us at the front door and led us into the living room, which was decorated unpretentiously with worn furniture. Stacks of magazines and inexpensive photo albums lay in piles on tabletops. In the midst of this clutter stood Roach's special Oscar, bookended by photographs of Roach with President Reagan.
Aho escorted Roach into the living room. Leaning on his metal cane and moving slowly, Roach wore hearing aids in each ear. When he saw Spanky, his face brightened and he shuffled quickly toward his portly discovery. Embracing him warmly, he patted Spanky's girth and chuckled, "You haven't slimmed down since you were five years old!"
"The Boss" settled into his chair and told Aho to serve us drinks. A few minutes later, Aho returned with a tray of Diet Cokes. "Spike mine with some vodka," Roach instructed his nurse. Then he turned and said to me with a grin, "I'm almost 101 years old. At this age, I'll have some vodka when I want it!" Spanky asked for his the same way.
Roach said he wanted some photographs taken with his guests and produced two cameras, but one was broken and the other had no film. Fortunately, I had brought mine to record the reunion. Roach liked my suggestion that he and Spanky pose with Roach's Academy Award; I handed the heavy Oscar to Spanky and he held it aloft as my shutter clicked.
Roach pointed to actor Roddy McDowall's oversized book on the coffee table that compiled celebrity photographs coupled with tributes from other stars who knew them. Printed next to the photograph McDowall took of Roach was Spanky's testimonial. Roach handed the book to Spanky and asked him to read it aloud. As Spanky recited his homage to "the man who gave me my first job when I was five years old," his voice broke and both men wept.
Once Aho served the drinks, Roach lit a cigar and spoke generally about the old days of filmmaking. He said people had often tried to buy or borrow his film rights. He joked about taking a trip years earlier to Germany where a film producer had given him an envelope stuffed with cash while requesting the rights to exhibit his films. Roach turned to Spanky and said, "Never sign away your likeness or film rights. They are worth a fortune now." This comment served as an introduction to the business purpose of the meeting.
Spanky told Roach about his pending New Jersey lawsuit, and then he handed Roach the affidavit that he wanted signed. As Roach took the document, he smiled and said, "I'll sign it without even reading it!" Despite this comment, he reviewed the document carefully before scratching his signature on it. "I hope this will help you," he said as he handed it back.
Spanky produced several photographs of the Boss and asked Roach to sign them for family members. Roach obliged and penned his name slowly on the pictures. While he signed, he invited me to tour his trophy room and den. There I saw memorabilia and dozens of inscribed photographs framed on the wall: Bette Davis, Cary Grant, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Walt Disney, and Lucille Ball were there alongside pictures of Roach dining with Laurel and Hardy and playing polo with Will Rogers. A presidential commission signed by Harry Truman was displayed amid countless plaques and awards. In the midst of all was a framed poster depicting the Our Gang children.
Over in a corner, Aho showed me boxes on the floor filled with stacks of photographs of Roach. He invited me to select a couple to have The Boss sign for me. When I asked where all the pictures came from, he pointed to a separate four-foot-high stack of envelopes: "This is fan mail that's come in," he said. "The old man signs maybe two or three things a day. The rest go in this pile and are never returned. He just can't do much of this anymore."
Using his cane, Roach joined me in the den and gave me a guided tour of his mementos. I pointed to an oversized photograph of a scowling, bald man in a tuxedo and with his arms folded across his chest. The photo bore a lengthy but undecipherable inscription in white ink. "Mr. Roach," I said as I pointed to the picture, "I recognize this man, but I can't place him. Is this [pioneer film director and actor] Erich von Stroheim?"
Roach bent over and studied the photograph closely. Suddenly, his eyes welled with tears. He looked at me and said, "That was my dear friend—Mussolini! He was a very great man and a dear friend." The Italian Fascist dictator America had battled in World War II was Roach's dear friend? He caught me off guard with his warm feelings for a man whose countrymen so despised him that they hung him from his ankles in the middle of the town square and desecrated his corpse after they had killed him. "Mr. Roach," I said with a grin, "you are probably the only man alive today who not only can say you knew Mussolini as a friend, but who would admit to it!"
Roach shrugged off my comment and shared some insights into his relationship with Il Duce:
"During my visit to Italy in the 1930s, I was summoned to meet Mussolini. I had only seen him in the newsreels, which depicted him as a ranting tyrant who would puff himself up like a big blowfish during his speeches. When I walked into his office, I entered a long room with only a desk and chair at the far end. He sat scowling at me as I approached. But he was full of crap and I knew it! He was acting for me, and I can always spot an actor. As I drew closer, my smile grew larger as his scowl grew deeper. Finally we were face-to-face. I had such a huge broad smile, and he had such a mean scowl! I knew he was a faker, and he knew I knew it. So he finally smiled and shook my hand, and from then on we were friends.
"One night at dinner I sat next to Mussolini's wife. Mussolini sat across from me and next to his mistress. He kept fondling and groping his mistress during dinner. Mrs. Mussolini seemed oblivious to all this and showed no concern for her husband's behavior. Finally, I leaned over and said to Mrs. Mussolini, "Look, I don't mean to pry, but doesn't it bother you that your husband is so intimate with this woman?"
"Mrs. Mussolini appeared confused that I would even ask such a question and replied in great seriousness, 'I am but a mere woman; he is Mussolini! How can one woman ever hope to please the great Mussolini? It is an honor just to be married to him.'"
When I told Roach that Mussolini obviously had his wife trained better than I could ever train mine, he laughed at my joke and slapped his knee. (Later that night I recounted this story to my wife Christine. Without missing a beat, she looked me up and down, and then she replied dryly, "You're no Mussolini.")
Roach invited me to sit with him in the den. We settled into cozy armchairs as he reminisced about my favorite comedians, Laurel and Hardy. I asked him when he stopped making their films. He replied blandly, "When it wasn't worth it anymore."
Trying to interpret his comment and draw him out further, I suggested, "Oh, you mean their style of comedy had become passé after a while and was no longer marketable at the box office?" He leaned toward me, puffed his slender cigar, and then he corrected my misinterpretation:
"No, that's not what I mean at all. I mean that when those two dumb bastards decided they knew more about making comedies than I did, that's when it wasn't worth it anymore, and that's when I stopped making their pictures! Neither one of them was any great brain. All Hardy liked to do was golf, and all Laurel liked to do was fish."
Spanky joined us and asked him why the Laurel and Hardy films have endured. "That one's easy," Roach chuckled:
"Most producers who put together a comedy team had one funny guy and one straight man. With Laurel and Hardy, we had two comedians and no straight man. When Stan did something funny, we got a laugh. Then I had the camera cut to Babe [Hardy's nickname], and we got a laugh from his reaction. Then we cut back to Stan and got another laugh from his reaction to Babe. So you got three laughs for the price of one."
Roach told a story of taking a Catalina fishing trip with Stan on Laurel's yacht during their heyday: "This one's a little dirty. We were on the ship and Stan introduced me to a beautiful young woman. He said, 'She's the nicest woman I ever met. I met her at 6 p.m. and we were in bed having sex by 7 p.m.' Stan later married her. He married many times. Women were crazy about him for some reason. I never understood it. On screen he was such a little crybaby. Yet when Laurel and Hardy went on tour, the women went mad over him."
Switching subjects, Roach nodded toward Spanky and told me how he came up with the idea of making the Our Gang films:
"One day I was listening to this awful audition of a little girl. She was heavily made up, and I only tolerated her because she was the daughter of a friend. When the audition was done, I told her the usual answer we gave people back then: "Don't call us; we'll call you." After she left my office, I wandered over to the window and looked out at the lumberyard across the street where a bunch of kids played. Two of them were having a life-and-death argument over a scrap of wood.
"Later, I looked down at my watch and realized that I had been watching them for 20 minutes! I couldn't understand why I would be so interested in just watching a bunch of kids do what kids do. Then I started to think that maybe a film audience would like to watch kids just be kids. I told my employees to round up a bunch of kids and test them. We made the first film, Our Gang, and it was a huge success. The rest is history.
"I did the same thing with Laurel and Hardy. People liked the Our Gang films because they got to watch kids being kids. They liked Laurel and Hardy because they got to watch adults be kids. It was the same formula."
"The funny thing about my career," he added, "is that everyone remembers me for the comedy shorts. Nobody remembers that I did some serious and great feature films too, like Of Mice and Men, Topper, Captain Fury, and One Million Years BC."
While we visited, the teenage son of Roach's cook played with a basketball in the rear yard. Roach urged me to go out and shoot baskets with the boy. He positioned his chair so he could watch our brief pickup game from the window. After ten minutes he called me back inside. "I'm tired today," he said, and then he pointed to his swimming pool. "I usually swim twice a day in the pool for exercise, but not today. I'm too damned tired."
Roach's nurse whispered to me, "The old man had been in pretty good shape until recently. He really did swim twice a day for exercise, but no more."
Our visit with Roach lasted over two hours. The conversation was fascinating, but I saw his energy fading. We returned with him to the living room when the time came to leave. Spanky kissed the old man on the forehead and said goodbye. They held hands and lingered for a couple of minutes and became teary-eyed at what both knew was a last farewell.
"Take care of my boy here, Judge!" Roach instructed me. He took my hand in his and patted it with the other. "It means a lot that you both came to see me."
• • •
Before we left, Roach asked me to send him a set of the pictures we had taken that day with my camera. A few weeks later, after I had the film processed and the prints made, I sent them to Don Aho. I asked him to give one set of pictures to Roach, and to ask The Boss to autograph two extras for me.
Aho returned my signed photographs bearing Roach's shaky autograph on them. His signature had deteriorated substantially since he had signed a picture for me during our visit. In his letter, Aho apologized for the poor quality of the autograph, explaining that the old man's health had declined significantly since Spanky's and my visit.
Hal Roach died two weeks later, on November 2, 1992, just short of his 101st birthday. While battling pneumonia, he suffered a fatal heart attack at his Stradella Lane home.
• • •
When I heard the news, I called Spanky to offer condolences. Sounding very down, he said he had been giving interviews to reporters all day, and that he was flying to California the next day for the funeral. He asked me to join him there.
We met for the service on November 4 at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Westwood. While waiting in the parking lot for Spanky, I ran into Don Aho. He told me that the old man had started slipping the very day we came over. Despite his increasing frailties, Roach had told him that morning, "Clean me up and make me look alive for Spanky's visit." Aho said that we were Roach's final visitors. "More important than that," he said, "those photographs you took of Roach during your visit were the last ones ever taken of the old man. He never posed for another picture. Also, the ones he signed for you a couple weeks ago were the last autographs he ever signed. I brought them to him on his sickbed, and he insisted on signing them himself even though he could barely write any longer. He said he had to do it personally—he said that he didn't want the judge to hold him in contempt of court!"
Aho went inside the church with Roach's family. A few minutes later, I connected with Spanky in the crowded parking lot. One of the priests from the church asked me to take his picture with the former child star.
Spanky and I sat together during the service. He reminisced frequently about our meeting with Roach, and his eyes kept filling with tears as he talked about the man who gave him his start in movies. He also pointed out the other mourners with whom he had worked in the Our Gang movies: former child stars Dorothy "Echo" DeBorba, Tommy "Butch" Bond, Eugene "Pineapple" Jackson, and Mary Ann Jackson. One of early television's comedy pioneers, Sid Caesar, sat alongside longtime television talk show host Mike Douglas in the pew in front of us. "I was on Mike Douglas' show 20 years ago with Darla Hood [another Our Gang alumnus]," Spanky noted. "It was the last show she did before she died of a heart attack."
After the service, Spanky gave interviews and signed autographs on the front steps of the church. A slender, bald, elderly man approached us. "Spanky!" he said, "Don't you remember me?"
Spanky registered no recognition. "Uh, no, sorry."
The man smiled broadly: "It's me! Darwood Kaye—I played 'Waldo' in the Gang films with you!"
Spanky gasped. "Waldo! I haven't seen you in 50 years!" They hugged, laughed, and cried together. Waldo told us that he had spent his post-Hollywood decades in ministry as a Seventh-Day Adventist pastor. Their animated conversation grew somber when they noted how few of their costars still lived.
After the service, Spanky and I drove into downtown Westwood for dinner at Hamburger Hamlet. Since he never had the chance to have Roach sign the pictures we took during our meeting, I surprised him with one that I had Roach sign. He wept so much over the gift that I took it out of his hands.
"Geez, Spanky," I chided him, "get a grip on yourself—you're going to smear the autograph."
• • •
The following spring, Spanky came to Los Angeles to film an episode of the long-running television comedy sitcom, Cheers. After the shooting, he drove to my home in Glendale and spent the entire afternoon and evening with us. He said he enjoyed filming his cameo appearance. "They treated me well at the studio," he said. "I've enjoyed being back before the cameras so much that I would like to pick up more studio work." He hoped that word of mouth around Hollywood might let people know he was available, but he rejected my suggestion that he get an agent. "They're all crooks," he snorted.
Christine and I sent him home to Texas with a suitcase filled with fresh avocados from our backyard tree. He said he planned another Southern California visit in the fall, and we put the date on the calendar for his return visit.
It wasn't to be. Three months after our last visit, Spanky suffered a massive heart attack at home and died at age 64 on June 30, 1993. He had survived The Boss by only seven months.
Ironically, a year after Our Gang child star Darwood "Waldo" Smith and I met at Hal Roach's funeral, he served as a juror on one of my criminal trials in Division 3 of the Glendale, California courthouse. He died at age 72 on May 15, 2002 after a hit-and-run driver struck him. The crime remains unsolved.
* * * * *