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George McFarland

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George "Spanky" McFarland

Biography

Character: Spanky McFarland
Birthday: October 2, 1928
Place of Birth: Dallas, Texas
Date of Death: June 30, 1993
Place of Death: Grapevine, Texas
First Short: Free Eats
Last Short: Unexpected Riches
Number of Shorts: 95
History: His face as a young boy shaped and stood as the symbol for an American comedy series that began over five years before he was born. He became the first "big" star of the entire series over that of his co-stars who starred in many more shorts than him. When one mentions Our Gang or The Little Rascals, it is his adventures as Spanky with his pal Alfalfa that most often come to mind. Just how did this cherubic boy from the city built around J.R. Ewing become the favored icon of a much loved American comedy film series out of over two hundred child actors?
George Robert Phillips McFarland started out as a child model in Dallas, Texas at all of three years old, but his aunt obviously saw something special in him to send his photo to Hal Roach, who immediately arranged for a screen test done by James Horne. This footage so captivated advance audiences that it was inserted into the next available short, Spanky, completely stealing the limelight from Kendall McComas at the center of the plot. His nickname is sometime said to have come from George's mother, who often warned him, "Spankee, Spankee, mustn't touch," in order to curb his exuberance. However, McFarland claimed in interviews that this folksy tale was not true. His nickname actually derived from an early news report which described him as a "spanky child," a term that was used in the early part of the 20th century to refer to precocious children.
If anything, Hal Roach did nothing but release all that exuberance though almost a hundred shorts, breathing new life into the series which was starting to grow stale in the absence of Allen Hoskins playing Farina. In the beginning, Spanky barely uttered a few words, but he so enchanted the crew and was often turning into a bit of a scene stealer from the older more accomplished stars. He was a perfect natural, appearing in his first shorts with a lopsided Tam-o-shanter, just one of the outfits his mother would save for him well into his adult years. His own brother, Tommy McFarland, even followed him into the series.
Through the series, George was lent out to several other studios to star in other movies. In 1933, he picked up whooping cough and inadvertantly spread it to another child star, Baby LeRoy, while on loan to Paramount Pictures to make "Fane's Baby Is Stolen." His parents were blamed for allowing him to work while ill, and the Board of Education suspended his work permit for ninety days as a result. Without George as Spanky, Hal Roach Studios were only able to deliver six instead of the usual eight Our Gang comedies for the 1933-1934 season.
Spanky soon returned to work once the fine played out, but he very nearly left the series again after Little Sinner was released. Stan Laurel, the partner of Oliver Hardy in the Laurel And Hardy series, had delayed in renewing his contract with the series and the studio was quietly considering spinning off George into a new family comedy with Oliver Hardy called The Hardys. The studio had kept both Laurel and Hardy under separate contracts to better control their careers, but Stan finally negotiated and the new project never reached predevelopment. As Spanky, George frequently adopted most of their mannerisms as Ollie's "slow burn" and Stannie's "double take." He was good friends of "the boys," and the few pictures taken with them together show this appreciation.
George's popularity did not continue after Our Gang. He returned to school in Texas and had a normal life, later joining the Air Force but left on a hardship discharge. He worked in a variety of jobs from a soft drink factory to popsicle-maker, eventually becoming a salesman and later a sales executive. He was also the area manager for the commercial contract division of Philco-Ford Television, but the Fifties ushered him into brand new popularity when the Little Rascals became big stars on TV to whole new kids seeing the shorts for the first time. In 1958, he hosted a show running the shorts while wearing the beanie and shorts again. He never denied his past; he traveled the country on the college circuit, was reunited with his co-stars on talk shows through the Seventies and even exposed a few Spanky imposters over the years. His co-star, Darla Jean Hood had encountered at least five separate men claiming to be Spanky over the years. George himself exposed a man named Bill English from Tempe, Arizona who successfully passed himself as the actor who played Buckwheat on the weekly news broadcast of 20/20 on October 5, 1990.
As a grown man, not many people recognized George. A confessed loner at about five-foot-five, he was described as "personable, engaging and candid" by Leonard Maltin; if one looks into his soulful brown eyes, they might find that Spanky twinkle still there, a stroke of the Hal Roach magic still existing in the man. In 1984, while presenting a special Oscar to Hal Roach, and at the following Governor's Ball, George met pop-legend Michael Jackson, who confessed to being one of his biggest fans. (Michael's family once lived in the exact same Queens Road house that George's family once lived in Los Angeles). While George never became rich from the series, his greatest joy was meeting his fans talk about his love for the shorts. One of his last personal appearances before he passed on was a cameo as himself on the TV-Series "Cheers" against John Ratzenberger as the unbearable postman "Cliff Clavin" on April 22, 1993 (Episode: "Woody Gets An Election"), in a sort of worse case scenario of one of these encounters. It was a true highlight for the week because for one brief instance, the Spanky magic was back! Sadly, George passed away a few months afterward, but George confessed getting the cameo was a major thrill in his life.

List of Shorts

Other Projects

  • One Track Minds (1933) - with Zasu Pitts, Thelma Todd, and Billy Gilbert
  • Day of Reckoning (1933)
  • Miss Fane's Baby Is Stolen (1934)
  • Benny From Panama (1934)
  • The Cracked Ice Man (1934) - with Charley Chase, Billy Gilbert, Matthew Beard, and Tommy Bond
  • Kentucky Kernels (1934) - with Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey
  • Here Comes The Band (1935) - with Ted Lewis and Billy Gilbert
  • O'Shaughnessy's Boy (1935) - with Jackie Cooper and Wallace Beery
  • The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936)
  • Peck's Bad Boy With The Circus (1938) - with Leonard Kibrick, Sidney Kibrick, Billy Gilbert and Edgar Kennedy
  • Johnny Doughboy (1943) - with Carl Switzer
  • I Escaped From The Gestapo (1943)
  • Seeing Hands (1943) - with Pete Smith
  • Cowboy And Senorita (1944) - with Roy Rogers
  • The Woman In The Window (1944) - with Edward G. Robinson
  • Spanky's Clubhouse
  • The George Gobel Show - Episode 30 (1955)
  • The Aurora Encounter (1984)
  • The 56th Annual Academy Awards (1984)
  • When We Were Young...: Growing Up On The Silver Screen (1989)
  • King B: A Life In The Movies (1993)
  • Cheers - Season 11, Episode 21 - Woody Gets An Election (1993)
  • Hal Roach: King Of Laughter (1994)

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