Though he joined Hal Roach's "Our Gang" comedies 10 years into the series' two-decade run, three-year-old Spanky McFarland grew up to become the face of The Little Rascals, a gaggle of New Deal tearaways chasing fun and dredging up trouble in an idealized American hometown. Pudgy-cheeked and precocious in such early outings as "Free Eats" (1932) and "Spanky" (1932), McFarland matured into a stocky, authoritative youth, making him the born leader of co-stars George "Alfalfa" Switzer, Darla Hood, Matthew "Stymie" Beard, and Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas. Though he branched out to features - most memorably as an irksome Boy Scout who plagues passion killer Edward G. Robinson in Fritz Lang's "Woman in the Window" (1944) - McFarland was washed up by age 20. After a stint in the military and a failed bid to host a TV variety show for kids, he worked as a salesman for the Ford-Philco Corporation and eventually found his way to the fan convention circuit. Avoiding the late-life problems that plagued his pint-sized co-stars in their adult years, McFarland remained a cheerful public presence up until his death in 1993 at age 64. Immortalized in nearly 100 Hal Roach and MGM two-reelers that helped Americans laugh their way out of the Great Depression, Spanky McFarland carved for himself a unique niche in Hollywood, where he stood toe to toe if not quite eye to eye with such beloved movie funnymen as Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers.
George Robert Phillips McFarland was born on Oct. 21, 1928, in Dallas, TX. One of four children of Robert Emmett McFarland and his wife, the former Virginia Phillips, "Sonny" (as his family dubbed him) began his career in show business as a toddler, modeling children's apparel for the Sam Dysterbach Clothing Company, where his father was credit manager. The chubby-cheeked child also became the public face of Wonder Bread, in print ads and on billboards seen throughout the Dallas Metro-Plex. When he was three years old, McFarland's maternal aunt sent his picture to Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, CA, in answer to a nationwide search for children to appear in Roach's "Our Gang" comedy shorts. The series had been initiated in 1922, during the silent epoch, and was in its 10th year by the time McFarland received an invitation to come to Hollywood for a screen test. Despite an apparent lack of physical grace and the inability to carry a tune, McFarland was cast in the two-reeler "Free Eats" (1932), one of 95 short subjects he would make over the next decade.
Various origins were offered over the course of his Hollywood career as to the provenance of the stage name 'Spanky' - with the likeliest explanation being that it stemmed from a once popular expression for a clever, precocious child. Before he was old enough to comprehend what he was being asked to do for Hal Roach Studios, McFarland became one of the most popular members of Roach's "Our Gang." His original screen test was recycled for "Spanky" (1932), in which his endearingly clueless rug rat uncovers and absconds with the family fortune. McFarland would prove to be the only "Our Gang" member to receive onscreen billing, as he did in "Choo-Choo" (1932) and "The Pooch" (1932). In his early years on the back lot, McFarland befriended silent film comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, who taught him many of the mannerisms and physical reactions that would become his stock-in-trade. In 1935, McFarland was paired for the first time with Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, later his frequent co-star and rival for pay raises and screen time.
Protected by child labor laws, which ensured that he received three hours of schooling per work day, McFarland grew up on the lot in the company of Switzer and series regulars Darla Hood, Matthew "Stymie" Beard, Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas, Eugene "Porky" Lee, Scotty Beckett, Tommy Bond, Dickie Moore, and a bull terrier dubbed Pete the Pup. The antics of the gang, who made their own fun with imagination and trash heap scraps, were a hit with Depression era moviegoers but McFarland's fan mail was withheld by Roach in a bid to keep him clueless to the fact that he was acting. He appeared in a scattering of feature films as well, among them "Day of Reckoning" (1933), "Miss Fane's Baby is Stolen" (1934), "O'Shaughnessy's Boy" (1935), and "General Spanky" (1936), an unsuccessful feature length "Our Gang" comedy. After the series was sold to MGM, the 14-year-old McFarland bowed out with "Unexpected Riches" (1942). He went on to play bits in "I Escaped from the Gestapo" (1943) and Fritz Lang's "The Woman in the Window" (1944), as a Boy Scout who unwittingly thwarts novice killer Edward G. Robinson.
Returning to his native Texas, McFarland enlisted in the Air Force in 1952. Upon his discharge, he hosted a daily television show for children, "The Spanky Show," which ran from 1955 until 1960 on the Tulsa, OK, CBS affiliate KOTV. McFarland's subsequent employment was scattershot, including stints as a wine vendor and a restaurateur. Work as a salesman with the Ford-Philco Corporation led to promotions, first to national sales training manager and later general manager. While a Ford-Philco executive, McFarland helped launch cable television's Nostalgia Channel, a showcase for classic films. After his professional retirement, McFarland became active on the convention circuit, promoted the release of "Our Gang" shorts on video cassette, and supported various charities. An avid golfer, he gave the loan of his name to the Spanky McFarland Celebrity Golf Tournament, and toured with a one-man show, "An Evening with Spanky."
After an absence of 40 years, he returned to feature film as the Governor of Texas in "The Aurora Encounter" (1986), a low-budget science fiction film set in the Old West. By 1990, McFarland had outlived the majority of his "Our Gang" co-stars, some of whom declined as adults into substance abuse (Matthew Beard, Scotty Beckett), fell victim to bad luck (William "Froggy Laughlin, Robert "Wheezer" Hutchins) or homicide (both Carl Switzer and his brother Harold), or died much too young (Darla Hood, William Thomas). In 1993, McFarland popped up in a cameo as himself in an episode of the popular sitcom "Cheers" (NBC, 1982-1993), in which he buffeted the fannish excesses of series regular John Ratzenberger. On June 30, 1993, the 64-year-old McFarland suffered a massive coronary at his Grapevine, TX home and died in the emergency room of Baylor University Medical Center. The following year, Spanky McFarland received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
by Richard Harland Smith