Movie producer Hal Roach, who teamed Laurel with Hardy and turned a talented yet unaffected group of child actors into “Our Gang” during a career that spanned silent one-reelers and television situation comedies, died Monday at his Bel-Air home.
His 100th birthday in January, celebrated at the Motion Picture and Television Home in Woodland Hills, produced what proved a final outpouring of sentiment and public attention to the film industry’s oldest pioneer.
He had been in relatively good health despite his age, said Richard Bann, his biographer. He developed pneumonia about a week ago, Bann added.
A self-made man who worked his way up from a $5-a-day cowboy extra to millionaire head of his own studio, Roach was renowned as the producer of some of Hollywood’s finest short comedies.
At various times during the 1920s, the comedy roster at Hal Roach Studios in Culver City included Harold Lloyd, Will Rogers, Charley Chase, Harry Langdon, Mabel Normand, Snub Pollard, Zasu Pitts, Thelma Todd, Patsy Kelly and Irvin S. Cobb.
But it was Roach’s creation of Our Gang and the teaming of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy that gave the small, independent studio its biggest successes and created an enduring comedy legacy.
Those creative strokes also earned Roach two Academy Awards for best short subjects: Laurel and Hardy’s “The Music Box” in 1932 and Our Gang’s “Bored of Education” in 1936.
Once described by a former employee as being “one of the most rugged individuals in the business,” Roach was robust and vigorous. Even into his late 90s he continued to swim twice a day in the pool at his home, and meet with his cronies for lunch and cards at the Bel-Air Country Club.
“Through most of his 90s, he drove a car, he smoked, he drank, he dated, he went hunting. He did everything that any man can do--and with a vengeance,” said long-time friend Bann, co-author of “The Little Rascals: The Life and Times of Our Gang.”
Old age did not really began to slow him until he turned 100 this year, Bann said. “It was as if he had achieved his goal of getting to be 100 and now there wasn’t anything left.”
He was the last surviving founder of the Motion Picture Relief Fund. His 100th birthday was celebrated fittingly at the fund’s home and with a parade in Culver City.
One of his last public appearances was last summer in Las Vegas at a convention of the Sons of the Desert, the international Laurel and Hardy appreciation society. Roach headed straight for the roulette table after checking into his room.
Roach’s vigor and forward-looking nature were constants of his life and career.
Born in Elmira, N.Y., Roach left home at 17 and spent three years on the road. An athletic young man with a barrel chest and a broad Irish face, he worked variously as a mule skinner and prospector in Alaska and as a truck driver in Seattle.
It was while working for a construction outfit in the Mojave Desert in 1912 that the 20-year-old Roach paid a fateful visit to Los Angeles.
He discovered that movie extras worked only from 8 to 4--when the sun was shining--and received car fare and lunch. They also earned $5 a day, which, Roach later recalled, “was a whole lot of money in those days.”
An expert horseman, Roach became a cowboy extra for Universal, one of the many fledgling companies springing up around Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, at that time so rural that a sign on the back of a streetcar warned passengers, “Don’t shoot rabbits from the rear platform.”
Roach’s lack of experience did not prevent him from rising quickly through the ranks to assistant director and director. Indeed, in that primitive era of hand-cranked movie cameras and open-air sets, Roach once said, “Nobody knew much about what they were doing.”
In 1914, using an inheritance of several hundred dollars, Roach formed the Rolin Film Co., which rented studio space in the old Bradbury mansion on Bunker Hill.
His first picture, a one-reel Western, featured his actor-friend Harold Lloyd, who became Roach’s first star. Beginning with the “Lonesome Luke” comedy series, and later donning horn-rimmed glasses, Lloyd went on to become one of the top comedians of the silent era.
From simple one-reel comedies, many of which Roach wrote on the way to locations in and around Los Angeles, he progressed to producing two-reelers with stronger story lines and character development.
In 1919, Roach and company moved to new quarters on Washington Boulevard in Culver City. A publicist later dubbed the 14-acre studio “the Lot of Fun.”
The idea for the perennially popular Our Gang series was born by accident. It is a story that Roach seemed never tired of telling, as he did for a group of high school students in 1981:
One day in 1922, Roach recalled, he was enduring an audition of a heavily made-up young daughter of a “friend of a friend.”
“She did her dance, she spoke her piece and sang her song,” he said. “All I could think of was a trained animal. So I gave her the regular answer: ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’ ”
After the little girl left his office, Roach walked to the window, which overlooked a lumberyard across the street. A handful of children were playing with wood scraps, he recalled, and two of the children were having a “life and death” argument over one of the scraps.
When the amused Roach looked at his watch, he realized he had been at the window 15 minutes. “I said, ‘Why am I watching them? They’re just regular kids doing things regular kids do.’ ”
Then it dawned on him that audiences might be just as fascinated watching regular kids doing regular things on the screen. He assembled a group of child actors for a movie to test his theory.
Originally, he said, they were to be called the Hal Roach Rascals. But because the first picture, “Our Gang,” gained so much publicity, Our Gang remained as the name of the long-running series.
The secret to Our Gang’s appeal, which endures thanks to television, was no mystery to Roach: “Those kids,” he said, “were exceptionally fine actors.”
Their ranks included Ernie (Sunshine Sammy) Morrison, Allen (Farina) Hoskins, Mary Kornman, Mickey Daniels, Joe Cobb, Jackie Cooper and, later, George (Spanky) McFarland, Carl (Alfalfa) Switzer, Billie (Buckwheat) Thomas, Darla Hood, Matthew (Stymie) Beard and, of course, Pete the Pup.
In 1926, another movie tradition was born when contract players Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy appeared for the first time in the same movie.
“The other people (on the lot) thought that they complemented each other,” Roach recalled in interviews years later. “So we gave them a little more in a second picture and then (director) Leo McCarey made ‘Putting Pants on Philip,’ which is considered their first team comedy.”
Roach theorized that one of the reasons they were so successful was because most comedy teams consisted of a comedian with a straight man.
“But with Laurel and Hardy you had two comedians without a straight man,” he said. “Therefore, you did a gag that was funny, you cut to Laurel and you got a laugh with his reaction. Then you cut to Hardy and you got another laugh with his reaction. So on a gag that a normal comedian would only get one laugh you got three laughs for the same thing.”
Roach believed the basic formula for comedy was simple.
“It’s portraying things a child does,” he once said. “But it takes a great artist to do it--like Stan Laurel crying or scratching his head, or Oliver Hardy playing with his tie. They were adults playing children. The reverse was the Our Gang series with children playing grown-ups.”
Roach, who kept a hand in all phases of the studio’s operation, was also an amateur pilot and an avid sportsman, with a particular passion for polo. When Will Rogers worked at the studio, he and Roach would often skip lunch and play polo on a nearby field.
In 1934, Roach was one of the three leading founders of Santa Anita Park, and he served as the first president of the Los Angeles Turf Club, which operates the track.
In the 1930s, when the demand for short subjects began to wane with the advent of feature double bills, Roach turned to production of feature-length movies, including the sophisticated “Topper” series, “One Million B.C.” and, most notably, the screen version of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.”
In 1942, Roach, then 50 and a major in the Army Signal Corps Reserve, was ordered to report for duty in the corps’ photographic division. He was stationed in England and saw action in the Normandy invasion.
Roach’s studio also went to war. Rented to the government, it became headquarters for the Air Corps’ first Motion Picture Unit. Ft. Roach, as it was dubbed, is where Lt. Ronald Reagan spent the war narrating training and propaganda films.
“Today the Hollywood community mourns the loss of one of its earliest pioneers,” Reagan said in a statement issued Monday. “At 100 years old, Hal Roach made us all feel young. Hal was one of the founding fathers of the motion picture industry, the original . . . producer, director, writer and studio boss.
“He will be deeply missed, but we are filled with many warm and fond memories of a true Hollywood giant who will live on in our hearts forever.”
After the war, Roach became the first major Hollywood producer to switch completely to TV production. By 1951, after three years, Hal Roach Studios was producing 1,500 hours of TV films a year.
Among the many early series produced by Roach or filmed at his studio were “The Life of Riley,” “Amos and Andy,” “My Little Margie,” “Racket Squad,” “Trouble With Father” and “Topper.”
In 1955, Roach sold the studio to his son, Hal Roach Jr. It became part of an industrial combine that collapsed, and in 1959, the studio declared bankruptcy. When the studio emerged from those proceedings, all that was left was its extensive film library.
The studio was sold in 1962, and a year later all the props, equipment and furnishings were sold at public auction and the studio was razed.
“I have no feeling of regret,” Roach said at the time. “The passing of the studio has no effect on me--it’s just brick and mortar.”
But pausing, Roach added, “I do regret the passing of the studio as a place for the filming of comedies.”
In 1980, Culver City honored Roach with a mini-park in his honor. A plaque marks “the site of the Hal Roach Studios, Laugh Factory of the World, 1919-1963.”
Following the dedication ceremony, several hundred members of the Sons of the Desert paraded through the streets of Culver City, which had served as the backdrop for so many Roach comedies.
But while the “Lot of Fun” is only a memory, the comedy legacy it produced lives on.
In the late 1960s, when Laurel and Hardy were undergoing one of their periodic revivals, Roach offered this insight into the team’s undiminished popularity:
“It’s because there’s a lack of their kind of comedy,” he said. “People appreciate them more now because they haven’t got any competition. Nobody’s doing what they did.”
“It seems to me,” Roach added, “that for the last four or five years people have been laughing at things that aren’t funny just because they’re trying to laugh.”
Roach’s first wife, actress Margaret Nichols, died in 1940; their daughter, Margaret, died in 1964, and their son, Hal Roach Jr., died in 1972.
Roach’s second wife, Lucille, died in 1981. They had four daughters, one of whom, Elizabeth, died in 1946 when she was 8 months old. His surviving daughters are Maria Watkins, Jeanne Roach and Bridget Anderson. He had eight grandchildren.
Funeral services are pending.