This week Universal Studios released “The Little Rascals,” a multimillion-dollar remake of the scruffy kid series that has charmed the world since its birth in 1922. This “Rascals” is remarkably faithful to the Hal Roach originals, right down to Alfalfa’s cowlick, Darla’s feminine mystique, Froggy’s croak and the circle around Petey’s eye. Even some of the original locations have been used, with filming in Burbank neighborhoods unchanged since the ‘20s and ‘30s.
Otay , as Buckwheat would say, then what’s missing?
According to some former cast members from the original “Our Gang” films, they are. (The series wasn’t retitled “The Little Rascals” until it first aired on television in the 1950s.) Universal, it seems, turned a chilly shoulder to the handful of surviving Our Gangers who warmed the hearts of so many.
“I feel we should have been included,” says Tommy Bond, who played Alfalfa’s nemesis, Butch, in 27 films. “I think we all felt a little hurt that we weren’t.”
Bond, now 68 and a retired television production executive living in Madeira, Calif., is currently touring for his newly published book of memoirs, “Darn Right It’s Butch,” and publicizing Cabin Fever Home Video’s release of 48 restored “Our Gang” episodes. Bond is also known for his role as Jimmy Olson in two late ‘40s Superman serials, before leaving acting for production.
“I talked to Bill Thomas Jr. (son of the late Bill (Buckwheat) Thomas), who’s a police officer in Los Angeles,” Bond says. “He contacted (the studio) and was invited down to visit the set, but he felt they didn’t want us involved. None of the original kids were. However, it’s their nickel, they can do what they want to do.”
The omission is doubly hurtful, the surviving cast members say, because the new film was directed by Penelope Spheeris, who made such a point in her last film, “The Beverly Hillbillies,” of including TV-show star Buddy Ebsen in the film.
“None of the original Rascals were included,” says Bob Satterfield, a former Grand Sheik of the Sons of the Desert, a group of Laurel and Hardy film buffs. “I’d say they were a little ticked off, especially since it’s a group that’s been so faithful to the memory of the original films.”
Because Hal Roach produced Laurel and Hardy as well as the Gang, the child actors were used in the comedy team’s films. As a result, Satterfield’s group maintains an extensive network of contacts with the surviving Gangsters. The list of Gang graduates includes the famous--actors Jackie Cooper and Robert Blake--and other players who long ago gave up show business. The best-known cast members, Carl (Alfalfa) Switzer, Darla Hood, William (Buckwheat) Thomas and George (Spanky) McFarland, have died. McFarland, a Texas businessman who had enjoyed a revival in celebrity for his childhood role as the plucky, chubby president of the He-Man Womun Haters Club, died of a heart attack in June, 1993, at age 65. Roach himself nearly outlived them all, succumbing in November, 1992, at the age of 100.
One survivor, Eugene Jackson, 77, was the original Pineapple from the silent Our Gang comedies (1924-26). Jackson lives in Compton, where he has a stage workshop, continues to get small roles in films and television and performs as a jazz musician. He replies with an emphatic “no” when asked if he’d been contacted by Universal to participate in the film.
“I tried to get in touch with them,” Jackson says with a note of indignity. “I called the studio, casting, whatever, told them who I was, offered to be a consultant or something, nothing happened. I called for months, when I first heard about it. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but there’s a lot of us still around . . . Butch, you know. They could have had us at least sitting around, or just walking by.
“It’s real cold,” he says of Universal’s attitude. “They have no respect for the old-timers. At least they could have recognized some of the living legends surviving from the first films.”
“To my knowledge only two (original cast members) are still living, Butch and the Woim (Sid Kibrick, a Beverly Hills-based contractor),” says Spheeris. “Spanky McFarland died just as we got under way. There had been some discussion about (using him).
“I did not use (Butch and the Woim) because I heard there was a lawsuit between one of them and one of the companies involved.”
King World, MGM and Universal own various rights to the Little Rascals. In 1990, Bond brought suit against King World and MGM for alleged unauthorized use of his image. Bond, the only non-contract player in the “Our Gang” films, contended he still owned the rights to his image. He settled out of court nearly four years ago with King World, which has ties to the current film, and still has a suit pending against MGM.
“I did get a lot of letters from relatives of actors that had been involved,” Spheeris adds. “We’d tell them they were welcome to come to visit the sets, but we couldn’t justify including relatives of actors in the movie.” Spheeris says she had cordial encounters with Buckwheat’s son when he visited the set, and the brother of the late Matthew (Stymie) Beard at a recent screening.
Spheeris says she regrets if she has offended anyone. If any of the surviving principles had contacted her, she says, “I would have done something. I do understand how they must have felt, having been so close to it. The last thing I want to do on making a movie on this subject is make anyone unhappy.”
Sadly, not all survivors are capable of participating. Joe Cobb, 77, the original chubby kid who starred in 86 silent “Our Gang” films and early talkies, lives in Los Angeles, but is in poor health. Cobb went into defense work as an assembler in 1942, and continued working for 30 years for the company that became Rockwell International. Regarding his portly stature as a child, which at under 5 feet tall he still retains, he says that “children in my day were either cornfed or milk-fed, and I was both.”
Some, frankly, have lost interest in what happened so long ago. Mel Jasgur, who played Junior and Slapsy from age 18 months to 3 years before permanently retiring from show business, bares no ill-will toward the new film’s makers. Says the 58-year-old owner of Encino’s Jack Rabbit Press, “I don’t really have any feelings one way or the other.”
“I joked to some of my friends they should have hired me to be a consultant,” says Darwood (Waldo) Kenneth Smith, “but it was just a joke.” Smith’s character was an unctuous rich boy competing with Alfalfa for Darla’s affection. Seeking a higher calling than Hollywood, Smith became a Seventh-day Adventist minister. Now living in Tujunga, he will retire in October when he turns 65.
"(The studio) didn’t contact me,” he says, displaying the easygoing attitude that was a hallmark of the Our Gang series. “It’s possible they didn’t know where we are. It would have been interesting to be involved, but it didn’t hurt my feelings or anything that we weren’t.”