Our Gang, also known as The Little Rascals, was a series of film shorts produced from 1922 to 1944. The shorts centered on the adventures of a group of black and white children. The program was groundbreaking because it featured both races connecting as equals.
The Little Rascals featured a total of 41 child actors. Those who aged out were simply replaced by new actors. Many of the stars wound up quitting show business early on while a few went on to have successful acting careers.
The Idea For Our Gang Came From An Unexpected Place
Producer/creator Hal Roach reportedly developed the Our Gang shorts in the early 1920s. He had just finished a terrible audition with a child actress when he noticed some kids arguing in a lumberyard next door. The children were fighting over a large stick, which was in possession of the smallest kid.
The other kids were trying to coax the boy to give the stick to the biggest child. Roach observed the action for about 15 minutes and then came up with an idea to create short films about kids just being kids.
Some Believe The Cast Was Cursed
While Our Gang was produced nearly a century ago, characters such as Alfalfa, Spanky, and Buckwheat are still household names. Despite their huge success as children, the majority of the actors struggled to find acting jobs as they got older due to typecasting. In later years, there were even rumors of a curse spurred by an E! True Hollywood Story.
Many of the stars died before the age of 65 and some were even significantly younger than that. While a select few of their lives ended ominously, there’s no evidence that their shared experiences led to early deaths.
Read more to see what we mean.
Ernie Morrison Was Supposed To Be The Top Star
Initially, Roach planned his shorts to center around Ernie Morrison’s character, Sunshine Sammy. However, his ethnicity was a problem for theater owners who feared people wouldn’t be happy with a series featuring an African-American star. Roach decided to open up his concept and include other children.
Morrison was the first African-American actor to be signed to a long-term contract. He left the series in 1924 to work in vaudeville, where his skills were featured alongside up-and-coming acts as Abbott and Costello and Jack Benny. Morrison served in World War II and left show business to make parts for aircraft. He died of cancer in 1989 at age 77.
Billy “Buckwheat Tomas” Was Still A Toddler When He Landed The Role
Born in 1931, William Thomas Jr. played Buckwheat and was a background actor in the Our Gang shorts starting at age three in 1934. Initially, Buckwheat was a girl who was played by Matthew “Stymie” Beard’s little sister, Carlena.
At first, Thomas also dressed as a girl with pigtails, a giant sweater, and big boots. He also had a speech impediment. In later years, the portrayal was seen as offensive towards African-Americans. After The Little Rascals, Thomas joined the Army and worked behind the scenes on film sets. He died of a heart attack in 1980. He was 49.
George “Spanky” McFarland Appeared In A Cheers Episode
George Robert Phillips McFarland was reportedly nicknamed Spanky by his mom because he had a penchant for putting his hands on things he wasn’t supposed to touch. He was born in 1928 in Dallas, and in The Little Rascals was the president of the “He-Man Women Hater’s Club.”
He joined the Air Force and later worked at a Popsicle factory, hamburger joint, and soft drink plant. His last appearance on TV was during a 1993 episode of Cheers. He died of a heart attack that same year at age 64. The following year he was granted a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
One of the show’s most popular characters had some trouble later in life.
Allen “Farina” Hoskins Was Blacklisted After Leaving The Series & Serving in WW2
Allen Hoskins played Farina in the series and was the show’s most popular character. He’s one of history’s first African-American child stars, and he made $350 a week working on the series, more than any of his costars. Still, there was some criticism for his character’s stereotypical portrayal of black people.
Hoskins later served in World War II and abandoned acting shortly afterward. He was later blacklisted because as a teen, he attended dances sponsored by the Young Communist League and the Socialist Workers Party. He then helped handicapped workers find jobs. He died of cancer in 1980 at age 60.
Matthew “Stymie” Beard Beat A Drug Addiction & Died After A Tragic Fall
Matthew Beard Jr. played a character named Hercules until he was renamed Stymie because he “stymied” the show’s director with his curiosity. Stymie was bald and wore a large derby hat gifted to him by comedian Stan Laurel. He left the show at age 10 and retired from show business a few years later.
He developed a heroin addiction but got clean and appeared on shows such as The Jeffersons and Good Times. He also starred in The Buddy Holly Story and stayed sober for the rest of his life. He died at age 56 in 1981 after falling down some stairs, having a stroke, and contracting pneumonia.
Billy “Froggy” Laughlin Was Just A Teen When He Was Hit By A Truck
William Robert Laughlin joined Our Gang at the age of eight in 1940. His character, Froggy, had an odd voice that sounded just like a frog’s croak. When the show ended, Laughlin quit acting so he could enjoy being a kid for a little while.
In 1948, he was delivering newspapers on the back of a scooter near his home in La Puente, California when he was hit by a truck. His friend was driving the scooter, which Laughlin’s parents had given to Billy just two weeks prior. He was only 16 when he died, much younger than his fellow Our Gang costars.
Eugene “Porky” Lee Changed His Name After Leaving The Series
Texas-native Eugene Lee was nicknamed “Porky” and played Spanky’s younger brother on the series. Unfortunately, at the age of five he grew really fast and taller than McFarland, who was five years older. Lee was replaced by Robert Blake. Lee then left show business to become a teacher in Colorado.
Lee changed his name to Gordon Lee (in honor of Our Gang director Gordon Douglas) in order to have a more private life. He was 71-years-old when he died in 2005 after battling lung and brain cancer.
This actor became quite famous and then he was accused of something horrible.
Mickey Gubitosi, AKA Robert Blake, Became Infamous Later In Life
Michael James Gubitosi, aka Robert Blake, started playing Mickey in The Little Rascals after replacing Porky. He was Spanky’s best friend and eventual leader of the gang. His early career also involved a role in the Red Ryder films. When he got older he played various Native American and Latino characters, despite being Italian.
Blake spent some time in the Army before returning to show business. He’s most known for his Emmy Award-winning role of undercover cop Tony Baretta in the show Baretta from 1975 to 1978.
Then Blake gained some notoriety for something that happened with his wife in 2005.
Robert Blake Went On Trial For Killing His Second Wife
Blake met his second wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley, in 1999. He was her tenth husband, and she famously dated Marlon Brando’s son while she was in a relationship with Blake. In 2001, she was shot in Blake’s vehicle outside of a restaurant. Blake claimed he was not present when the shooting took place.
In 2005, Blake was found not guilty of murder. However, he was found liable in civil court for her wrongful death and ordered to pay $30 million. He wound up filing for bankruptcy and has stayed largely out of the spotlight for the last several years.
Petey The Dog Met A Gruesome End
Petey’s real name was Pal the Wonder Dog. He was an American Pit Bull Terrier who got his start in the Buster Brown series playing Tige during the ’20s. Maksymilian Faktorowicz, the founder of cosmetics company Max Factor in Los Angeles, initially put the famous circle around Pal’s right eye.
When Pal was hired for Our Gang, producer Hal Roach made the decision to leave the circle, creating one of TV’s most iconic dogs in the process. Unfortunately, Pal died of poisoning in 1930. Pal’s offspring took over the role, but the eye circle was placed over the left eye instead. The pup lived until the age of 16.
Mary Ann Jackson Despised Her Hairstyle
Mary Ann Jackson (pictured on the far right) appeared in Our Gang from 1928 to 1931. She was known for her signature bob and tomboyish attitude. She often played Wheezer’s older sister. After leaving the show at age eight (and cutting off her loathsome bangs), she did very little acting, got married twice, and had two children.
Jackson enjoyed her time with the gang and was amused to learn later in life that costar Jackie Cooper had a major crush on her. She recalled having “fun and fun and fun” on set. She died in 2003 of a heart attack. She was 80.
Darla Hood Created A Nightclub Act And Was Also Young When She Passed
Darla Hood traveled from Oklahoma to New York City to earn the role of Darla. Her character was very spirited, and Alfalfa, Butch, and Waldo swooned over her. After leaving Our Gang, she joined a vocal group and acted a few more years. She created a nightclub act at the Coconut Grove in LA, the Copacabana in New York, and the Sahara Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
In 1980 she was putting together a Little Rascals reunion in Los Angeles when she was hospitalized for an appendectomy. She died of heart failure after the procedure in 1979 at the age of 47.
One of the show’s most recognizable stars died tragically.
Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer Was Fatally Shot
Carl Dean Switzer was on a tour of Hal Roach Studios in California where The Little Rascals was filmed when he and his brother Harold’s antics impressed Roach, who decided to hire them then and there. Carl, nicknamed Alfalfa, left the show in 1940 and had difficulty finding acting jobs because he was typecast.
As an adult, he was a dog breeder and a hunting guide. In 1959, Switzer, 32, was shot to death over a financial dispute. The shooting was ruled to be an act of self-defense. He died the same day as filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille, and his death was just a footnote in the newspapers as a result.
Dorothy DeBorba, Known For Her Ringlets, Loved Working On The Show
Dorothy DeBorba, known for her curls and hair bows made by her mother, made an impression on Hal Roach for being able to cry on cue. She played Jackie Cooper’s younger sister and had a penchant for mimicking other character’s lines. She was mischievous and later recalled having a great time working on the series.
After leaving the show, she got her high school diploma and became a senior clerk in the School of Journalism at UC-Berkeley. She wed twice, had two children, and died of emphysema in 2010. She was 85.
Jackie Cooper Was Very Successful On Screen After He Left Our Gang
Jackie Cooper’s most notable shorts centered on his crush on his teacher Miss Crabtree. He was one of the few child stars who successfully transitioned to an adult star. At nine, he was the youngest performer to be nominated for an Academy Award for the film Skippy.
He played Perry White in the Superman movies and directed several TV shows, including MASH. He served in the Navy during World War II and enjoyed racing cars in his free time. He retired from show business in 1989 and died in 2011 from natural causes.
Scotty Beckett’s Life Took A Downward Spiral After His Acting Gigs Dried Up
Scotty Beckett played Spanky’s best friend and partner in crime. He wore a crooked baseball cap and an oversized sweater. After a short stint, he left the series for movie roles, making a brief return in 1939, as Alfalfa’s cousin, Wilbur. He ended up appearing in films alongside many stars, including Spencer Tracy, Errol Flynn, and Greta Garbo.
In the ’50s he joined Rocky Jones, Space Ranger but was fired after he was arrested on a concealed weapons charge and for writing a bad check. He was later arrested for various other crimes, including drunk driving and drug possession. He died at age 38, the cause presumed to be an overdose.
Our Gang Ended After Profits Dropped
While Our Gang was initially very popular, by 1938 profits for the program started to drop, and Hal Roach was forced to sell the rights to MGM. The studio kept making the shorts, but critics and fans weren’t impressed by the quality of the program, believing it wasn’t as good as the original.
Eventually, it was no longer financially worthwhile to continue making the shorts. The last one, “Dancing Romeo,” was released in 1944. None of the children received residuals or royalties from reruns of the shorts or licensed products that featured their likenesses.
A 1994 Movie Reboot Featured Future President Donald Trump
Movie executives tapped into people’s nostalgia by releasing a big-budget version of the program in 1994 in a film by Amblin Entertainment and Universal Studios. The characters were set in the modern day, but the storyline featured several Our Gang shorts, such as “Hearts Are Thumps,” “Rushin’ Ballet,” and “Hi’-Neighbor!”
Real estate mogul Donald Trump made a cameo in the film, playing Waldo’s rich father. Critics largely slammed the film, and it has a 23 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Another movie based on the shorts, The Little Rascals Save the Day, was released directly on video in 2014.