The dark secrets and somber fates of ‘The Little Rascals’
“Our Gang,” which later became “The Little Rascals” is one of the most beloved comedy series in history. Producer Hal Roach had the brilliant idea to film kids acting like kids, which set “Our Gang” apart from so many films of the era. Audiences found both the silent and sound short films hilarious for decades to come. Sadly, many of the kids on the show did not go on to lead long happy lives. Here are the fates of your favorite characters and some facts you may not have known about the series.
Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer died at 31 years old
Like so many child actors, Switzer had a tough time in Hollywood after his tenure at The Little Rascals ended. He’d have small parts in big films like It’s a Wonderful Life and television shows such as the Roy Rogers Show, but he was forced to take odd-jobs between acting roles to support himself.
Switzer was shot and killed fighting with a man over $50 (considerably more money in 1959, but not a fortune by any means). The man was ruled to have acted in self-defense when witnesses came forward saying Switzer had threatened him with a knife. The ruling would become the subject of much controversy.
You’ll never guess who failed their auditions
Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple both scored auditions for Our Gang, though neither was chosen to act in the series. Hal Roach says he remembered Rooney’s audition, saying he didn’t think the young actor would fit in with the gang. Temple also didn’t make it past the audition.
Both child stars would go on to have long, lucrative careers, so it’s doubtful they suffered as a result of being turned down for Our Gang. Rooney starred in television, radio and comedic roles until the end of his life. Though Temple retired from acting at 22, she’d later become a politician and the 27th U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia. Both Rooney and Temple died in 2014, at 93 and 85, respectively.
Matthew ‘Stymie’ Beard had a rough life
After Our Gang ended, Stymie grappled with the law on multiple occasions. The young actor played a cunning young con artist on The Little Rascals, always quick with a clever scheme to get the gang out of (or into) trouble.
Even after his tenure on Our Gang ended, Beard found work as an actor, landing minor roles in a few films and television shows alongside stars like Bette Davis and Henry Fonda. But street life would grab hold of him, and the actor wound up spending his early adulthood in and out of jail. He eventually beat his demons and returned to acting. Frequently he’d travel and give lectures to kids about the importance of staying on the straight and narrow. He died from complications following a stroke in 1981 at 56 years old. He was buried wearing his trademark derby hat.
Norman ‘Chubby’ Chaney
“Chubby” appeared in several films from the Our Gang series between 1929 and 1931. Known for his big personality as much as his big body, Chaney quickly became a favorite. Chaney and his family decided he would not pursue an acting career after leaving the show. He returned to Baltimore where he attended public school and excelled at studies.
Unfortunately, Chubby’s weight was a serious health issue. The result of a glandular problem, Chaney’s weight continued to increase. Before surgery, he weighed 300 pounds while standing only 4 feet, 7 inches tall. The surgery caused him to lose 160 pounds, but sadly, he died from myocarditis shortly after. He was only 21 years old.
Pete the pup
The curse was not limited to human actors, it seems. The first dog to play “Pete” died after allegedly being poisoned by an unknown perpetrator in 1930. The first Pete’s real name was Pal, and he’d appeared in several films before Our Gang. The cast of kids was devastated by the news of the beloved dog’s untimely passing.
Pal’s son, Luecenay Peter or “Petey”, wound up replacing him on the show. You can easily spot the difference between the pit bulls — Pal has a circle drawn around his right eye, while Petey has the circle drawn around his left. When Harry Luecenay who owned Petey was fired from the show, he took the pup with him and many different dogs would take his place. Petey lived a long, happy life, appearing in many other films. Both Petey and Pal were the second-highest paid actors on the show — pulling in $125 per week.
Billy ‘Froggy’ Laughlin died at 16
“Froggy” was given his name because of his strange, gravelly voice, which many said resembled a frog’s croak. His voice was so distinctive that people were convinced it had been overdubbed by another actor. But Froggy’s voice was completely natural.
After production of Our Gang ceased in 1944, Laughlin would go on to appear in the film Johnny Doesn’t Live Here Anymore before retiring from the entertainment business altogether. While delivering newspapers on a motor scooter, the young teen was struck and killed by a speeding truck. His parents had gifted him the scooter just two weeks before the accident.
Chubby, Stymie and Buckwheat joined the cast after winning contests
In order to fill vacancies on the series, producers held national talent contests to find suitable actors. Several of Our Gang’s most iconic characters came as a result. Chubby, Stymie, Buckwheat, and Farina all got their start on Our Gang by winning large-scale talent scouting contests.
The fact that the show featured almost all child actors made replacing cast members frequently a necessity as they quickly grew out of their roles. Parents would constantly try to get their kids on the show, even when no talent contest was taking place. Sometimes, producers would give the kids a chance to audition.
Darla first appeared on Our Gang when she was four years old. She typically played the love interest of Butch and Alfalfa. Her mother recognized her talent and got her singing and dancing lessons at a young age. Casting director Joe Rivkin arranged her audition, and Hood appeared on her first Our Gang short film in 1935.
After leaving the show, she appeared in a few more films and began a semi-successful musical career as part of a quartet called the Enchanters and later went solo. She passed away after receiving an appendectomy while preparing for an Our Gang reunion in 1980. She was 47 years old.
Bobby ‘Wheezer’ Hutchins
The young tag-along, eager to be accepted by the older children, “Wheezer” appeared in 58 Our Gang short films between 1927 and 1933. Other kids on set said that Hutchins’ parents were overbearing and would pull him away whenever he would start playing with the rest of the children.
Hutchins never appeared in any more films after leaving Our Gang. Instead, he returned to public school before joining the Army Air Forces in 1943. Sadly, Hutchins’ plane collided with another during a training exercise. Bobby Hutchins died at 20 years old, one week before his graduation from Aviation Cadet Program.
Richard ‘Mickey’ Daniels
The freckly-faced actor who played a leading part in the early Our Gang films had a sad fate after he left the show. On Our Gang, he would often play Davis’ rival when competing for the attention of Mary Kornman.
Daniels would continue an acting career after Our Gang, acting in Vaudeville productions, television shows, and feature films up until 1941. After becoming disillusioned with the film industry, he’d pursue a job in construction and later as a taxi driver. Suffering from a lifetime of alcoholism, he died tragically from cirrhosis of the liver in a rundown hotel in San Diego in 1970. He was 55.
Bobby Blake was charged with murder
Mickey Gubitosi (stage name Robert Blake), who used his real name in many of the original Our Gang films, still lives, unlike so many of his peers. However, his story isn’t exactly happy. He appeared in 40 of Our Gang films after replacing Eugene “Porky” Lee who had aged out of the role.
Blake didn’t have a tough time finding roles after Our Gang, appearing in dozens of shows and films, even in adulthood. In 1999, he’d marry his second wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley. Bakley was said to have scammed multiple rich celebrities through various schemes. She was killed in Blake’s car outside a restaurant, and Robert was charged with the murder. He beat the rap, but his reputation never recovered. Plagued by financial hardships, he filed for bankruptcy in 2006.
Spanky may have escaped the curse
George Robert Phillips McFarland began his acting career when his mother answered an ad looking for cute kids — before that he’d been modeling for children’s clothing for a department store in Dallas and had appeared on Wonder Bread billboards. He was given the name “Spanky,” because he was constantly being reprimanded by his mother for grabbing things. “Spanky, don’t touch,” she’d say.
When the show ended, George had difficulty finding work in show business after being typecast as Spanky. He joined the Air Force, where he served for many years. He’d eventually become a successful businessman in Dallas. One of the few cast members to perish naturally, McFarland died from a heart attack on June 30, 1993. He was 64.
Billie ‘Buckwheat’ Thomas died of a heart attack
While Buckwheat’s death may have been natural, he perished fairly young. Thomas first appeared as a background character in Our Gang in 1934. His first appearance as Buckwheat had the young actor dressed as a female character. He had one of the longest tenures of any of the Our Gang actors, staying on the show for a decade.
After leaving the show, Thomas joined the army before returning to show business, though most of his work was done off-camera as a lab film technician. He died of a heart attack in his Los Angeles apartment on Oct. 10, 1980, exactly 46 he first auditioned at Hal Roach Studios. He was 49 years old.
George ‘Spanky’ McFarland’s appeared on Cheers in 1993
Despite essentially retiring from acting shortly after Our Gang, Spanky did return to the screen before he passed, albeit in a small role. At the end of the episode “George Gets an Election,” Spanky is spotted by Cliff and Norm drinking alone at the bar.
Cliff approaches McFarland, whistling the theme song from The Little Rascals, before telling him he bears an uncanny resemblance to the character. Before McFarland can tell him that he is indeed Spanky, Cliff cuts him off ranting about how he’s such a big fan of the series. After Cliff leaves, Norm asks George if he really is Spanky. McFarland says “Oh yes,” and gives Spanky’s signature nod.
Jay ‘Pinky’ Smith
Jay Smith replaced Mickey Daniels as the freckle-faced kid after Daniels aged out of the role. “Pinky” first appeared in Boys Will Be Joys. The young actor didn’t adapt well to the “talkie” (non-silent) film and left acting immediately after his stint on Our Gang.
He changed careers and started a retail paint shop in Hawaii, where he lived for many years. He moved to Nevada in the early 1990s. In 2002, he went missing. His body was found after several days. A vagrant that Smith had supposedly befriended was convicted of the murder and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences in prison. Smith was 87 years old.
Dorothy Dandridge’s first on-screen appearance was on Our Gang
Dorothy Dandridge, the famed singer, began her career on a 1935 Our Gang short film. Her role was relatively minor, however, the experience helped build her resume and land more acting jobs. At the time, roles for black actors were very limited and stereotypical. Furthermore, it was against the Motion Picture Code to show interracial dating in films, further limiting the roles available to the young starlet.
However, Dandridge persevered, eventually becoming the first black woman to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. Dandridge also became the first black woman to appear on the cover of Life magazine. She sued the tabloid paper Confidential for libel in 1957, earning an out-of-court settlement of $10,000. Sadly, Dandridge died under mysterious circumstances in 1965 at age 42. Many claim her death was suicide, though the official report said her death was caused by an embolism resulting from a dancing accident.
Mary Ann Jackson
Jackson played one of the most celebrated female characters on the show. Joining the show during the transition from silent to “talkie” films in 1928, Mary Ann played Wheezer’s older sister, the tomboy-ish young girl with the bob haircut. She left the series at age 8 in 1931.
After leaving Our Gang, Mary Ann was unable to find work playing the type of characters she liked. “Girly-girls” were in high demand, and Jackson just didn’t fit the image. Rather than change her style, she begged her mother to let her quit acting. Despite her negative experiences with acting later, Jackson looked back on her time at Our Gang fondly. She outlived many of her castmates, dying of a heart attack in 2003, at the age of 80.
Kendall ‘Breezy’ McComas committed suicide
One of the oldest kids to appear as part of Our Gang, McComas was short enough to appear as a convincing grade-schooler even in his teens. He only worked as part of the series for one full year, though he appeared in eight of the short films.
When Breezy left the show he also left show business. Shortly after, he began working at the U.S. Naval Weapons Center as an electrical engineer. He would eventually become an institutional mortgage-backed bond salesman, taking on the moniker John Mandy. Facing mandatory retirement at age 65, McComas suffered a fit of depression and took his own life.
Eugene ‘Porky’ Lee became a teacher
Porky may also have escaped the curse, or at least he lived a longer life than most of his cast-mates. Despite being one of the most popular characters on Our Gang, Porky’s tenure was cut short by a massive growth spurt. He originated the phrase “O-tay,” though it is most commonly associated with Buckwheat.
Following his departure from the series, Eugene Lee decided to leave acting behind and become an educator. Sick of people recognizing his name, Eugene changed his full name to Eugene Gordon Lee. After some time, he began to accept his relative fame, appearing in Little Rascals reunions and selling “Porky” merchandise. He died at the age of 71, following a battle with lung and brain cancer.
Darwood ‘Waldo’ Kaye was killed in a hit-and-run
Waldo, the studious rich boy with glasses, was Spanky and Alfalfa’s rival when competing for Darla’s attention. He first appeared on Our Gang in the film Glove Taps and appeared as a semi-regular character for the remainder of the series.
After the show, he’d appear in a few more films in minor roles before giving up on acting and joining the army. Later, he’d become a minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, providing minister services in many churches in Southern California. He later moved to Thailand to do missionary work, where he lived for many years. Darwood Kaye was struck and killed by a hit and run driver in 2002. He was 72 years old.
Thanks to a failed Little Rascals reboot, Gary Coleman landed most iconic role
Norman Lear made two pilots in an attempt to reboot the Little Rascals in 1977. These two attempts, “Rascal” and “Souper Nuts” proved fruitless, however, they proved vital to one well-known television actor’s career. One television executive was so taken aback by Gary Coleman’s acting chops that he ended up making him the lead actor on Diff’rent Strokes.
However, Coleman’s time on Diff’rent Strokes wasn’t particularly happy either. Forced to work long hours as a young actor, he felt isolated from his peers. He later successfully sued his parents for misappropriating the funds he had earned on the show. Coleman died in 2010 at the age of 42.
Ernie ‘Sunshine Sammy’ Morrison
You may be aware that The Little Rascals was one of the first film series to portray white and black American children interacting as equals. What you may not know is that Ernie Morrison, who played Sunshine Sammy on Our Gang was the first African-American actor to score a long-term contract in Hollywood.
He signed a contract with Hal Roach in 1919, three years before Our Gang began filming. When Roach conceived the idea for the series, Morrison was the first actor recruited. The young actor left the show in 1924, working as a Vaudeville actor. Later, he was drafted into World War II and spent most of his career from then on working on military defense plants. Morrison died of cancer in 1989 at 76 years old.
The iconic theme song wasn’t used until the 101st short film
The infectious tune of “Good Old Days” is one of the most recognizable aspects of the show — the song and series have become forever linked in the public consciousness. However, the song didn’t appear in an Our Gang short until nearly halfway through the run of the series.
Leroy Shield penned the tune, which caught on quickly. The song would later be used on the NBC show Kaltenmeyer’s Kindergarten and in Laurel and Hardy’s Pardon Us. The 101st Our Gang short, titled “Teacher’s Pet,” is also the first appearance of Mrs. Crabtree, one of the series most recognizable adult characters.
Clifton ‘Bonedust’ Young
Robert “Clifton” Young appeared in 19 Our Gang shorts between 1925 and 1931. To avoid confusion with the actor Robert Young, he began going by his mother’s maiden name, Clifton. Young started is career early, appearing in Vaudeville comedies from age five, first appearing on Our Gang at seven years old. He’s featured most prominently in the film School’s Out.
After Our Gang, Young appeared in quite a few films. He had many roles in Joe McDoakes So You Want… comedies. Clifton died in a fire after falling asleep while smoking a cigarette in bed. He was only 33 years old.
There were a total of 220 Our Gang films
The entire run of the Our Gang series lasted for 22 years — transferring from the era of silent films to sound. Over the course of these 220 short films, 41 actors were employed. Alfalfa, Spanky, and Buckwheat may be the most recognizable names from the series, but Our Gang had been running for a decade before they showed up.
The Little Rascals TV show was made when Hal Roach compiled 79 of the 80 films made with sound and bundled them together. The TV series began in 1955, 11 years after Our Gang had ended. It was hugely influential, inspiring many imitations, though none reached the popularity of The Little Rascals.
Only three cast members are still living
Leonard Landy was the most recent member of Our Gang to pass away in 2017. He appeared in many of the films between 1938 and 1941, recognizable by his big ears and freckled features. Jerry Tucker also died fairly recently in 2016 of natural causes.
Mildred Kornman was a regular in the silent film era of Our Gang, appearing in a few of the “talkies,” but always in non-speaking roles. She became a model and later a photographer. She recently celebrated her 94th birthday. Sidney Kibrik, who played “Woim” the sidekick of “Butch” the bully just turned 91. Robert “Mickey” Blake still lives, though his life took a tragic turn as was mentioned earlier.
Hal Roach outlived many of the kids
Roach lived to be 100 years old. Days after turning 100, Roach appeared on the Johnny Carson Show and recounted stories about working with Laurel and Hardy, as well as actress Jean Harlowe. The legendary comedy producer was responsible for hundreds of silent and sound films.
For his part, Hal Roach never believed Our Gang was cursed. He said that “Naturally, some [of the child actors] got into trouble or had bad luck. They’re the ones who made the headlines. But if you took 176 other kids and followed them through their lives, I believe you would find the same percentage of them having trouble later in life.”
‘Scotty’ Beckett died mysteriously
Beckett began his career in show business at only three years old when a casting director just happened to hear him sing. He was entertaining his father in a hospital by singing songs in Pig Latin. The nurses were so impressed that they carried him from room to room brightening patient’s days. He played Spanky’s best friend in many of the Our Gang shorts between 1934 to 1935. After leaving the show, he went on to land many prominent roles in popular films, including Dante’s Inferno, The Blue Bird alongside Shirley Temple, and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.
He was fired from his co-starring role on Rocky Jones, Space Ranger when he was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon and writing a bad check. His downward spiral continued, and he eventually checked in to Los Angeles nursing home to seek treatment from a vicious beating he suffered in 1968. He was found dead in his room two days later. Though he had written a suicide note, it was never clear whether he had died by his own hand or from injuries sustained during the beating.
There was a ridiculous feature film spin-off of Our Gang
The film was called General Spanky and marked the first and only attempt to move Our Gang from shorts into feature films. Mystifyingly, the story takes place during the Civil War. Spanky and the gang form a regiment of kids called “The Royal Protection of Women and Children Regiment Club of the World and Mississippi River.”
Unexpectedly, the crew ends up in the middle of the war, forced to defend themselves against the advancing army. Rather than use real weapons, Spanky and the gang fend off their enemies with comical, childlike distractions. The film was a box office disappointment and Our Gang went back to short films. Predictably, given the subject matter, there are many cringe-inducing moments that are hard to watch in 2019.