By the time he retired—the first time—at the wizened age of ten, he had made, by his own count, eighty-four films in seven years. That was in 1938. More than seventy-five years later the cherubic little rascal remains a pop culture icon to generations.
George Robert Phillips McFarland, known to generations of movie and TV viewers as “Spanky,” the kid with the chubby cheeks, oversized tam, and “okey-dokey” catchphrase, was born in Dallas in 1928. By age three he was modeling children’s clothing for a local department store and also appeared in ads for Wonder Bread. In 1975 McFarland told Star-Telegram entertainment columnist Elston Brooks that his aunt, Mrs. Dorothy Fry of Fort Worth, in 1931 had sent Spanky’s photo to film producer Hal Roach. A talent scout for Hal Roach Studios saw McFarland, all thirty pounds of him, modeling in Dallas and encouraged Spanky’s family to take him to Hollywood for a screen test. In 1931 McFarland became the youngest actor in Hollywood history to sign a five-year contract.
Hal Roach had begun the Our Gang series as silent comedy shorts in 1922. The shorts became talkies in 1929—when Spanky was one year old.
From the beginning of his career the Dallas Morning News gave McFarland plenty of ink. Clip is from December 9, 1931.
Spanky’s first appearance in an Our Gang comedy was in “Free Eats,” which was released in February 1932 when Spanky was forty months old. The comedy short premiered in Spanky’s hometown on February 19 at the Melba Theater. Clip is from the February 18 Dallas Morning News.
A frame from “Free Eats.”
Watch a colorized clip of “Free Eats” at YouTube:
As for the nickname “Spanky,” McFarland told Elston Brooks: “My first director hung that nickname on me. He said I looked ‘spankable.’”
After Spanky’s first appearance as a member of the Our Gang troupe in the short “Free Eats,” Spanky was a star, as indicated by the title of his second short—”Spanky”:
The Morning News reported on April 22, 1932 that Spanky—thirty-three inches tall, thirty pounds heavy, and forty-two months old—would make a personal appearance at the Palace Theater.
“What Mr. Roach tried to do,” McFarland recalled in 1977, “was cultivate a kid from every walk of life—give everyone in the audience someone to identify with. We had a fat kid, a black kid, a pretty girl, a tough guy, etc. I think, looking back, that is what gave the comedies their universal appeal. The Our Gang pictures helped pioneer the motion picture comedies. I’m proud to have been a part of that. To have worked with people like Laurel and Hardy [he was influenced by both actors], Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford, Henry Fonda—I can’t even remember them all now—was something that I probably did not appreciate as much then as I do now.
“We were constantly supervised. . . . There was a rule that at least one of each kid’s parents had to be on the set at all times. Our routine was pretty set. We had a school at the studio and went to work on the set every day.
“This was my life: get up in the morning, go to the studio and during the day get somewhere in the neighborhood of three hours of schooling, not necessarily at the same time; take an hour for lunch, and that leaves five hours of shooting for film.
“We did the one-reelers in five days and the two-reelers in about ten,” McFarland told Elston Brooks in 1975.
“I was probably five or six years old before I realized that all kids weren’t in movies,” McFarland recalled in 1988.
(Eugene Gordon Lee, who appeared in forty-four Our Gang shorts as Porky, was born in Fort Worth.)
Title card for “Rushin’ Ballet” (1937). (Photo from Wikipedia.)
Spanky in 1938. (Photo from Wikipedia.)
McFarland and Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, who was shot to death in 1959.
A grizzled veteran of Hollywood at age ten, McFarland retired in 1938. But his retirement was brief. After Hal Roach sold the Our Gang series to MGM, MGM hired McFarland to continue in the series as Spanky.
Robert Blake (as Mickey Gubitosi) and McFarland in “Waldo’s Last Stand” (1940).
McFarland’s final appearance in the series was in “Unexpected Riches” in 1942 at age fourteen. MGM ended the series in 1944.
McFarland made a few feature films after 1942 but retired from movies for good in 1944 at the ripe old age of sixteen.
By the time he was sixteen and had outgrown child roles, his salary also had grown: from $50 a week to $1,500 a week. Oh, and he had been kissed by Heddy Lamarr.
In the 1980s McFarland talked to the Star-Telegram’s Michael H. Price about his difficult decision to retire a second time. “The old man [his father] wouldn’t let me quit. Here I was, wanting to quit being this chubby child star—as if I could ever stop being chubby—and lead as normal an adolescent life as I could, and here’s my dad, putting the guilt to me about how I’m the family’s cash cow. You see, he had quit his job to manage my acting career.”
McFarland said to Elston Brooks of his time in Hollywood: “I wouldn’t take a million dollars for the experience, or give a nickel to do it again.”
In addition to Our Gang shorts, McFarland made fourteen feature-length movies, including Kentucky Kernels (1935) with Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey and Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936) with Fred MacMurray and Henry Fonda. Clip is from the January 13, 1935 Dallas Morning News.
McFarland’s last film, when he was sixteen, was The Woman in the Window (1944) with Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett. McFarland played a Boy Scout. His name was not listed in the credits.
The 1940 census listed Spanky and family living on Morse Avenue in North Hollywood, Los Angeles. Living in the same block were an actor, an assistant cameraman, and an assistant to the vice president of a motion picture studio.
All grown up, McFarland posed with a poster for the Our Gang short “Framing Youth” (1937).
In 1946 McFarland enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Clip is from the July 3 Dallas Morning News.
McFarland later went into sales, working for a wine company, an appliance manufacturer, and a boot company.
In 1955 McFarland got back into show business. From 1955 to 1960 he also hosted a children’s TV show, The Spanky Show, in Tulsa. Clip is from the June 7, 1955 Dallas Morning News.
This column in the Victoria (Texas) Advocate in 1973 brought readers up to date on the cast members.
McFarland had lived in Keller since 1971. He enjoyed golf and also made personal appearances to raise money for Cook-Fort Worth Children’s Medical Center and Leukemia Society of America.
McFarland’s last TV appearance was on Cheers on April 22, 1993.
Nine weeks later, on June 30, the leader of the Little Rascals was dead. Spanky was sixty-four years old.
His family plans for George Robert Phillips McFarland eventually to be buried in Texas State Cemetery in Austin. Clip is from the July 1, 1993 Star-Telegram.
(Thanks and a tip of the tam to Michael H. Price for his assistance.)