When The Little Rascals debuted on television in 1955, we were introduced to a ragtag band of children. These characters actually went back to the 1920s, when MGM ran a series of shorts called Our Gang. Running from 1922 to 1938, they were re-bundled together by producer/creator Hal Roach in the 1950s to make the TV series which continues to air in reruns to this day.
Every one of The Little Rascals had their own unique personality and a nickname to go along with it. The distinctive characters included Alfalfa, known for his freckles and unruly locks of hair, as well as Spanky, Buckwheat, Stymie, Petey the dog, and many more. Did you ever wonder what happened to the young actors who portrayed these great characters? They were part of TV history and many went on to live interesting and, in some cases, tragic lives. You won’t believe what happened to these child stars later in life as we take a look at The Little Rascals then and now.
The “Buckwheat” character was originally a girl, played by Carlena Beard. Beard was the younger sister of Matthew who played “Stymie”. However, the character slowly morphed into a boy after being taken on by William (Billie) Thomas Jr. Born March 12, 1931 in Los Angeles, Thomas first appeared in the Our Gang shorts in 1934 as a background player.
He first played Buckwheat dressed as a girl, with bowed pigtails, an over-sized sweater and large boots. The characterization was based on the stereotypical African-American “pickaninny” and included the distinctive Buckwheat speech impediment. Over time, the character gradually morphed into a boy.
As an adult, Thomas followed a military career, enlisting in the U.S. Army at 23 years of age. He was later honorably discharged from active duty, his valuable service recognized with a National Defense Service Medal and a Good Conduct Medal.
Following military service, Thomas had the option to return to acting, being offered film and stage roles. Instead, he took a job as a film lab technician with Technicolor, continuing his work with the film industry on the other side of the lens. On October 10, 1980, exactly 46 years after he auditioned at Hal Roach Studios, he died of a heart attack in his Los Angeles apartment.
George Robert Philips McFarland played Spanky in the Our Gang shorts, but this was not is the first time in front of the camera. Born on October 2, 1928, before appearing on the big screen he had worked as a child model. This included modelling children’s clothing for a Dallas department store. He was even featured in print advertisements for Wonder Bread which were seen on highway billboards all over Dallas.
McFarland secured the role in Our Gang after his aunt responded to an ad from Hal Roach Studios calling for photos of “cute kids”. His character’s name is said to come from McFarland himself when his mother warned him not to misbehave and touch things in Roach’s office. She told him “Spanky, mustn’t touch” and the nickname took hold. He was affectionately called “Spank” for years to come. Spanky was also known as the president of the “He-Man Women Hater’s Club” in the series.
Following The Little Rascals, McFarland struggled to shake the Spanky stereotype and left showbiz at age 24 to join the United States Air Force. Throughout his life, he worked various blue-collar jobs including at a soft drink factory, a hamburger stand, and a popsicle factory.
Later on, he often gave talks about his experiences on the series. He didn’t give up show business altogether, with his final TV performance being an appearance on Cheers in 1993, in which he played himself. Not long after filming that episode he died of a heart attack, aged 64. In January 1994, he was posthumously given a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
Like many others in The Little Rascals, Matthew Beard Jr. began acting at an early age. Born on January 1, 1925, in Los Angeles, Beard appeared in a number of films as a baby. He then signed a five-year contract with Our Gang to play the character “Hercules”. However, this character soon became “Stymie” as Robert McGowan joked that he was always “stymied” by young Beard wandering around the studio.
Stymie’s classic look consisted of an oversized derby hat on a bald head. Comedian Stan Laurel, who had previously worked with Our Gang creator Hal Roach, gave Beard his trademark hat. Beard was just 10 years old when he left the show. He then featured in a number of films in minor roles, including Captain Blood (1935) and The Return of Frank James (1940) with his old Our Gang costar Jackie Cooper. However, Beard’s later life would take a dark turn.
Despite appearing in a range of films, Beard retired from acting when he reached high school. Later, his life took a turn for the worse when he became addicted to heroin. He went to rehab, recovered from his addiction and returned to show business. He appeared on Sanford and Son and The Jeffersons in guest roles and landed a regular role as “Monty” on the show Good Times. In his appearance in 1978’s The Buddy Holly Story, he wore his trademark bowler hat.
Beard continued to be sober throughout the rest of his life, using his own experiences to raise awareness about substance abuse through lectures. He passed away in January 1981, aged 56, after suffering a stroke and sustaining head injuries from falling down a flight of stairs. He was buried with his famous derby hat which he’d worn since his days playing Stymie on The Little Rascals.
William Robert Laughlin joined Our Gang in 1940, at age 8. His character was known for his strange, guttural voice which Laughlin did himself. Because the voice sounded like a frog’s croak, the character became known as “Froggy”.
Laughlin was born in San Gabriel, California, on July 5, 1932. He played the character of Froggy until Our Gang finished up production in 1944. He appeared in the film Johnny Doesn’t Live Here Any More that same year, before retiring from acting to focus on being a teenager. He didn’t know that a cruel twist of fate was just around the corner.
On August 31, 1948, when Laughlin was just 16 years old, he was involved in a fatal road accident. The teenager had been delivering newspapers on the back of a friend’s scooter in his neighborhood of La Puente, California.
He was hit by a speeding truck on his delivery round and didn't survive the accident. This tragic incident made Laughlin the youngest to die of any of the Our Gang actors.
Born on October 25, 1933, in Fort Worth, Texas, Eugene Lee’s family relocated to Culver City, California when he was a baby. Because of his physical resemblance to Our Gang star Spanky McFarland, Hal Roach cast 18-month-old Lee in the role of Spanky’s younger brother.
He was nicknamed “Porky” by studio executives which became the name of his character. However, he has replaced in the role by another actor, Mickey Gubitosi, also known as Robert Blake, in 1939. Blake took over the role because Lee had outgrown 10-year-old McFarland following a growth spurt, even though he was only five years old at the time.
Lee retired from acting after leaving The Little Rascals. Later, he even changed his name to escape from his show business persona.
For his new name, he chose Gordon Lee after Gordon Douglas, his favorite Our Gang director. He died on October 16, 2005, aged 71, after a battle with lung and brain cancer.
Born on September 18, 1933, Michael James Gubitosi was better known as Robert Blake. His parents were keen for their children to enter show business from an early age, setting up a song-and-dance act with Blake and his two siblings, which they called “The Three Little Hillbillies”. In 1938, the family moved to Los Angeles and the children began working as movie extras.
Blake took over from Porky in The Little Rascals when he was 9 years old, in the character of Mickey. This was his big break. He later became Spanky’s best friend and eventually the leader of the group. As a child actor, he also appeared in the Red Ryder films.
Blake continued with his acting career long after The Little Rascals, with a brief break to serve in the U.S. Army. Although he was an Italian-American from New Jersey, as an adult he was often cast as a Native American or Latino character. He did, however, make a name for himself playing the role of an undercover police officer in the TV series Baretta. Although he found fame in Little Rascals and later roles on TV, he became most well-known for his life off-screen.
Blake became caught up in a scandal when his second wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley cheated on him with Christian Brando, son of movie legend Marlon Brando, before being found dead in 2001. Blake was tried for her murder but was found not guilty. He was, however, found liable for her wrongful death by a California civil court in 2005. Since his appearances in the courts, Blake has kept a low profile, and thanks to $3 million in unpaid legal fees and taxes filed for bankruptcy.
Mickey Daniels made around 70 to 80 appearances in the Our Gang shorts between 1932 and 1935. This made him one of the most frequently appearing characters on The Little Rascals.
Daniels did very well out of the show. According to reports on IMDB, his salary rose from $37 to a hefty $175 per week during his time making the Our Gang shorts. This may not sound like much, but it is the equivalent of around $2,500 in today’s dollars.
Despite being so successful on The Little Rascals, unfortunately for Daniels, his career never took off after he left the show.
He married and had one daughter, but the marriage ended in divorce. He was working as a taxi driver when he died alone in a hotel room in 1970.
Petey the Dog was as important as any character on The Little Rascals and was originally played by an American Pit Bull Terrier called Pal, the Wonder Dog. Pal was first seen on screen in the 1920s when he appeared as Tige in the Buster Brown series. This was when he first got his trademark circle around his eye, which was drawn by Maksymilian Faktorowicz, the founder of Max Factor & Company.
Pal was then cast in the Our Gang shorts, where Hal Roach decided to leave the circle around his eye. Here Petey became one of the best-known dogs in film history. Pal was unfortunately poisoned in 1930 and he died. The role was passed on to one of his offspring, who kept the circle but for some reason, it moved to the left eye.
The dog’s owner Lucenay was fired from the show and they moved to Atlantic City to enjoy retirement. He died on January 28, 1946, aged 16 years old. This made him the same age as Billy “Froggy” Laughlin when he died.
In 1994 feature-film remake of The Little Rascals we saw the beloved Petey the Dog again. However, this time he is an American Bulldog.
Mary Ann Jackson started appearing in the Our Gang shorts in 1928 and featured in the show until 1931. Her first appearances coincided with the end of the silent era in film.
Jackson was one of the most popular female characters in The Little Rascals. Her character was Wheezer’s older sister and was something of a tomboy, sporting a bobbed haircut.
Jackson had fond memories of her time in The Little Rascals. Despite this, she left acting behind to work in a department store.
She reportedly was something of a social butterfly and loved to go to parties with her sister. Jackson passed away following a heart attack in 2003.
Born on November 8, 1931, in Leedley Oklahoma, Darla Hood was introduced to the performing arts at a young age. Her mother taught her to sing and dance as a small child, and took her to New York when she was just three years old to pursue a career in show business.
She was cast in the role of Darla in the Our Gang shorts by Joe Rivkin, casting director for Hal Roach Studios. Darla was often the object of affection for characters like Alfalfa, Butch and Waldo, and was known for her coquettishness.
Following her time on Our Gang, Hood went to high school, where her interest in the arts continued. She formed a vocal group named The Enchanters and appeared in a film, The Bat, in 1959. She appeared alongside Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead in what was her first and last film role as an adult.
She always remembered her time of The Little Rascals, even as the years went by. In 1979, she was in the midst of organizing a Little Rascals reunion when she went into emergency surgery for an appendectomy. She went into heart failure during the procedure, dying suddenly on June 13, 1979. She was just 47 years old.
Born on August 7, 1927, Carl Dean Switzer had already found fame before he appeared on the Our Gang shorts. Switzer and his older brother Harold were well-known in their hometown of Paris, Illinois for their singing and dancing. He was signed by Hal Roach for the series almost by accident.
Switzer was on holiday in Los Angeles in 1934 with his family when they went for a sightseeing tour of Hal Roach Studios. Carl and his brother decided to do an impromptu performance at the Our Gang café following the tour. Hal Roach caught the performance and, recognizing their talent, signed them both on the spot.
In the Little Rascals, Carl’s character was originally called “Alphalfa” but this later became “Alfalfa”. He left the series in 1940 and tried to find other roles but found he was typecast as Alfalfa. As an adult, he landed some bit parts and B movies but his career never went beyond that.
He left show business perhaps seeking a more peaceful life, but this would turn out not to be the case. In his second career, Switzer became a dog breeder and hunting guide. This would be an unfortunate choice. He got into a fight over $50 and a hunting dog in January 1959, and was fatally shot.
Dorothy DeBorba played the character of “Pups is Pups” on The Little Rascals, known for her elaborate hairstyles, often adorned with large bows.
DeBorba joined the Our Gang cast in 1930. Many fans fondly remember her as a mischievous character. She would often mimic the other characters’ lines in a funny way, earning her the affectionate nickname “Echo”.
DeBorba appeared in 24 pictures in all as part of her work on the series. She left Our Gang in 1933 to focus on her education.
She graduated high school and followed a career as a clerk. DeBorba died of emphysema in 2010, leaving behind two children.