The Little Rascals, which debuted on television in 1955, introduced a band of ragtag children to the world. They were born from the 1922-1938 ‘Our Gang’ shorts from MGM. Producer/creator Hal Roach re-bundled 79 of the shorts to make The Little Rascals TV series, which is still broadcast today. The kids from The Little Rascals each had their own distinct personality and image that earned them their nicknames.
Who doesn’t remember the shock of freckles on Alfalfa’s nose and the lock of hair that stood up on his head? Rounding out the popular Our Gang favorites were Spanky, Buckwheat, Stymie, and of course Petey, the dog. Get ready to dive into TV history and take a then-and-now look at the original Little Rascals.
Their legend continued on the big screen in the 1994 Universal release, The Little Rascals. It was a feature film loosely based on interpretations of classic Our Gang shorts. Directed by Penelope Spheeris, the celebrity cameos — led by the Olsen twins, Whoopi Goldberg, Mel Brooks, Reba McEntire, Daryl Hannah, Raven-Symoné, and Donald Trump — really stole the show.
If you’ve ever wondered what happened personally and professionally to the actors from The Little Rascals, the wait is over. Here are The (original) Little Rascals then and now.
1. Billie ‘Buckwheat’ Thomas
William Thomas Jr. was born on March 12, 1931, in Los Angeles. Thomas first appeared in the 1934 Our Gang shorts as a background player. The “Buckwheat” character was originally a female, portrayed by Matthew “Stymie” Beard’s younger sister, Carlena.
But the Buckwheat character slowly morphed into a boy. Thomas initially played Buckwheat — speech impediment and all — as a girl dressed as the stereotypical African-American “pickaninny.” He wore bowed pigtails, a large hand-me-down sweater, and oversized boots. That portrayal would be deemed quite controversial in the years to come.
After he left the film shorts, Thomas enlisted in the U.S. Army when he was just 23 years old. He was honorably discharged from active duty, receiving a National Defense Service Medal and a Good Conduct Medal. Although Thomas was somewhat in demand for film and stage roles, he opted for a behind-the-scenes job as a film lab technician with Technicolor.
In a 1980 interview, he explained, “After the Army, I wasn’t really interested in the hassle of performing. Even the big stars had to chase around and audition; it seemed like a rat race to me, with no security.” Of being part of The Little Rascals, he added, “I enjoyed it. We had a lot of fun together. Just like a family. We went to school together, played together, laughed together. It was great.”
He died of a heart attack in his Los Angeles apartment on Oct. 10, 1980, 46 years to the day after his mother brought him to audition at Hal Roach Studios.
2. George ‘Spanky’ McFarland
George Robert Phillips McFarland was born October 2, 1928, in Dallas. Before he joined Our Gang, McFarland modeled children’s clothing for a Dallas department store. He also was famously seen on Dallas highway billboards and in print advertisements for Wonder Bread.
McFarland’s Aunt Dottie responded to an ad from Hal Roach Studios requesting photographs of “cute kids,” and he was cast as Spanky. The nickname is said to have come from his mother, who urged him not to misbehave in Roach’s office. He had a habit of grabbing things and, in doing so, his mother warned, “Spanky, mustn’t touch!” In later years, he was affectionately called “Spank.”
In the series, Spanky was known as the president of the “He-Man Women Hater’s Club.” At 24, McFarland left showbiz and joined the United States Air Force. Like William Thomas, he couldn’t get out from under the Spanky stereotype and worked odd jobs at a soft drink plant, a hamburger stand, and a popsicle factory. He became an avid speaker about his days as a part of The Little Rascals.
“I had a ball,” he has said in regards to playing Spanky. “I have no regrets. Even though it was a job, we had a pretty good time making those comedies. As a kid I had most everything I wanted and we had a good life. When it was over, it was over. I wouldn’t take a million dollars for the experience, and I wouldn’t take a penny to do it again.”
His final television performance was in 1993, playing himself in the opening of the Cheers episode “Woody Gets An Election.” He died shortly thereafter, in June of that year, of a heart attack. He was 64. He was posthumously honored with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame in January 1994.
3. Matthew ‘Stymie’ Beard
Matthew Beard Jr. was born on January 1, 1925, in Los Angeles. Beard was cast as a baby in many films before signing a five-year contract to play “Stymie” in Our Gang. The character was originally named “Hercules” until Our Gang director Robert McGowan renamed him Stymie, as he was always “stymied” by little Beard’s curious wanderings around the studio.
His trademark was a bald head, crowned by an oversized derby hat. The hat was gifted to him by comedian Stan Laurel, who had also worked under Our Gang creator Hal Roach in shorts and filmed in which he teamed up with Oliver Hardy (hence Laurel & Hardy). He reflected, “I took to him from the start. Lots of times our sets would be next to Laurel & Hardy’s on the same stage. They would watch us shoot and we would watch them shoot. I was a curious kid, and I got a charge out of Stan Lauren, and he knew it. I used to follow him around the lot, he’d buy me ice cream and one day he said, ‘Well, give this kid a derby.’ That’s why it never fit me; it belonged to Stan Laurel.”
After Beard left the series at the tender age of 10, he went on to score some minor roles in such feature films as Captain Blood (1935) and The Return of Frank James (1940) with fellow child star and Our Gang alum Jackie Cooper. By the time he was in high school, he had retired from acting.
Unfortunately, Beard eventually became addicted to heroin. He was able to turn his life around, though, and after rehabilitating, he appeared as a guest star on Sanford and Son and The Jeffersons, and had a recurring role on Good Times as “Monty.” In 1978, he appeared in The Buddy Holly Story as a member of the backstage crew at the Apollo Theatre, wearing his trademark bowler hat. Beard maintained his sobriety, giving lectures on drug-abuse awareness.
He had a stroke on Jan. 3, 1981, sustained head injuries from falling down a flight of stairs, and succumbed to pneumonia five days later. He was 56. He was buried with the famous derby hat he wore all his life, back from his Stymie days.
4. Billy ‘Froggy’ Laughlin
William Robert Laughlin was born on July 5, 1932, in San Gabriel, California. Laughlin rose to fame at the age of 8, joining Our Gang in 1940. Laughlin’s character Froggy was known for his strange, guttural voice, which sounded like a frog’s croak — thus a nickname was born. Laughlin did the voice himself. When Our Gang stopped production in 1944, Laughlin appeared in Johnny Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1944), then left show business to enjoy his teenage years.
While out delivering newspapers on the back of his friend’s scooter — near his home in La Puente, California — Laughlin was fatally struck by a speeding truck. He died on Aug. 31, 1948. The scooter was given to Laughlin by his parents only two weeks prior to the accident. He was only 16, the youngest to die of any of the Our Gang actors.
5. The Little Rascals – Eugene ‘Porky’ Lee
Eugene Lee was born on Oct. 25, 1933, in Fort Worth, Texas. The Lee family traveled from Texas to Culver City, California. Hal Roach noted how much the 18-month-old toddler looked like Our Gang star Spanky McFarland, also from Texas. As a result, Lee — nicknamed “Porky” by the studio — joined the cast as Spanky’s little brother. Five-year-old Lee had a growth spurt in early 1939, outgrowing 10-year-old McFarland. He was replaced by Mickey Gubitosi, better known as Robert Blake.
Lee retired and became an alternative school educator at Broomfield High School in Colorado. To escape his acting career, he changed his name to Gordon Lee after his favorite Our Gang director, Gordon Douglas.
As he related to film historian Leonard Maltin, it was tough adjusting to life once he was no longer a part of Our Gang. “The MGM limousine stops coming to your house,” he recounted, “and you wonder why the world has ceased loving you so suddenly at age seven.” In school he was teased by other students, causing him to note, “Kids can be mean. So I learned to disown Porky. Even as an adult, I told none of my friends. My wife knew of my background, otherwise I was happy to conceal the ‘Porky’ tag until the last few years.”
On Oct. 16, 2005, at the age of 71, he lost his battle with lung and brain cancer.
6. Mickey ‘Mickey’ Gubitosi
Michael James Gubitosi, aka Robert Blake, was born on Sept. 18, 1933, in Nutley, New Jersey. Blake’s parents began a song-and-dance act in 1936 with his three siblings, billed as “The Three Little Hillbillies.” The family moved to Los Angeles in 1938, where the kids began working as movie extras.
Blake got his break at 9 years old when he began playing Mickey in Our Gang, after replacing Porky. He later became Spanky’s best friend and graduated to the leader of the group. He also appeared as a child actor in the Red Ryder film franchise. In many of his other roles as an adult, he was cast as a Native American or Latino character, despite being an Italian from New Jersey. After a stint in the Army, Blake returned to acting, making a name for himself in the television series Baretta as an undercover police officer.
However, in 2005, Blake became much more famous for his personal life when he was tried and acquitted of the 2001 murder of his second wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley. She notoriously dated Christian Brando, Marlon’s son, while she was with Blake. On Nov. 18, 2005, he was found liable in a California civil court for her wrongful death. Blake, now 85, has maintained a low profile since his acquittal, filing for bankruptcy with debts of $3 million for unpaid legal fees and taxes.
7. Mickey ‘Mickey/Algebra’ Daniels
Mickey Daniels was one of the most Rascals to appear most frequently in Hal Roach’s original Our Gang shorts, with between 70 and 80 appearances spanning 1932 to 1935. According to IMDB, Daniels was living pretty large during his time on the show, making $37 per week when he started and up to $175 per week when he left (or more than $2,500 in today’s dollars).
Unfortunately, Daniels’ career never took off after the shorts He reportedly married and divorced, and had one daughter, but died alone in a hotel room in 1970 while working as a taxi driver.
8. Petey the Dog
The original Petey was an American Pit Bull Terrier named Pal, the Wonder Dog. Pal got his start as Tige in the Buster Brown series in the 1920s. It was during this time that he acquired the circled eye. Maksymilian Faktorowicz, who founded Max Factor & Company in Los Angeles, drew the circle. When he was recruited to appear in the Our Gang comedies later that year, Hal Roach simply left it on, creating one of the most recognized dogs in film history.
In 1930, Pal was tragically poisoned and killed. His offspring inherited the role of Petey, though his eye circle mysteriously moved to the left side of his face.
After Lucenay (the dog’s owner) was fired from Our Gang, he retired to Atlantic City. He died on January 28, 1946. He was 16 – as old as Billy “Froggy” Laughlin — when he died. In the 1994 feature-film remake of The Little Rascals, Petey is an American Bulldog.
9. Darla Hood
Darla Hood was born on November 8, 1931, in Leedey, Oklahoma. Her mother introduced her to singing and dancing at an early age. For her third birthday they went to New York to seek fame and fortune in the arts. Joe Rivkin, a casting director for Hal Roach Studios, cast her in the role of Darla in the Our Gang shorts. Darla is mostly remembered for her coquettishness, as she often was the object of affection for Alfalfa, Butch, and Waldo.
After outgrowing Our Gang, Hood continued her education in high school, where she organized a vocal group called the Enchanters. Rivkin, who discovered her as a child, cast her in The Bat — her last film role — in 1959. It was her first and last adult role in a movie, and she played a secretary alongside Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead.
The Little Rascals never left her after all those years, with Darla enthusing, “I had a very happy childhood. It may sound like a strange life, but since it was my life for as long as I can remember, I loved it.”
While she was busy organizing the 1980 Little Rascals reunion for the Los Angeles chapter of the Sons of the Desert, she underwent an appendectomy. She didn’t make it and died suddenly of heart failure on June 13, 1979, at age 47.
10. Mary Ann Jackson
One of the most popular female characters in Our Gang during the 1930s, Jackson often played the older sister of Wheezer. She had a bobbed haircut and acted quite tomboyish. She started in the series in 1928, just as the silent era was ending, and left in 1931 at age 8.
In later years, she gave up acting and spent her time working in department stores and going out to parties with her sister. She had fond memories of her days being a little rascal and died of a heart attack in 2003.
11. Dorothy DeBorba
Dorothy DeBorba joined the cast of Our Gang in 1930 in “Pups is Pups.” She is best remembered for her elaborate hairstyles and bows on the series. Additionally, there’s her mischievous nature and her ability to mimic other characters’ lines in a humorous way, which gave her the nickname “Echo.”
She left the series in 1933 after making 24 pictures. Dorothy graduated high school and became a clerk. She had two children and later died of emphysema in 2010.
12. Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer
Carl Dean Switzer was born on Aug. 7, 1927, in Paris, Illinois. He and his brother, Harold, became famous in their hometown for their musical talents. In 1934, the Switzers traveled to California to visit family and, as fate would have it, went on a sightseeing tour to Hal Roach Studios, where the Our Gang shorts were filmed.
After the tour, 8-year-old Harold and 6-year-old Carl went for a meal at the Our Gang cafe and began an impromptu performance. Roach just happened to be there and was so impressed that he signed them both on the spot. Carl was dubbed “Alfalfa” and, over the course of the films, he became best friends with Spanky and, of course, was always pursuing Darla.
After leaving the series in 1940, he was the victim of typecasting and struggled to find roles. He appeared in bit parts and B movies as an adult, including the classic It’s a Wonderful Life(1946). During the making of what would be his final film, The Defiant Ones (1958), he told a newspaper, “I look just like I did when I was a kid. It’s hard for a child actor to start working again. I’ve never played a part over 19. I’m always a teenager and there haven’t been many jobs until recently. I’ll see how this turns out. If this doesn’t do it for me, nothing will.”
In the end, he left show business and became a dog breeder and hunting guide. In January 1959, Switzer met an untimely end as he was fatally shot during a fight over $50 and a hunting dog.
All of us at DYR sincerely hope you enjoyed this walk down memory lane to check out the original cast of The Little Rascals!