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George Spanky McFarland Was Never the Same After Our Gang Ended

If you were a fan of the Our Gang series of short films, or the series it morphed into, The Little Rascals, then you are surely familiar with George “Spanky” McFarland. And even if you aren’t old enough to have watched the famous group pof young rapscallions on screen, you’ve likely at least heard about Alfalfa, Spanky, Buckwheat, and the rest. They were a huge part of American pop culture in the 1930’s and ‘40s, and have had many resurgences in the last century as well. And perhaps the most famous Little Rascal was George “Spanky” McFarland. But there are many fun facts about George that many fans might not even know about, starting with the fact that he didn’t appear in the Our Gang shorts until years after they started. Or that he outlived the entire gang, because he never fell victim to substance abuse, a plague that has affected so many former child stars. In this video, we’re taking a look at the life and career of George “Spanky” McFarland, and how, despite being a hugely famous child star, he never managed to find continued success after the show ended. So join Facts Verse, as we present: George “Spanky” McFarland was Never the Same After Our Gang Ended.

How Spanky got his start

George McFarland was born in Dallas, Texas in 1928, as one of four kids. His parents, Robert Emmett McFarland and Virginia Phillips, actually called him Sonny when he was a baby. The name Spanky didn’t come until later, which we’ll touch on in a minute. His father worked as a manager at the Sam Dysterbach Clothing Company in Dallas, and arranged for George to be a child model for the store. This was the start of a fairly successful run as a child model in the area. Not only was he seen around town advertising his father’s company, but he also landed a gig as a model for Wonder Bread. So he was seen on billboards and print ads locally for that brand as well.

George’s Aunt, seeing the success that young George was already achieving, decided to give his career a push. She sent his modeling photos to Hal Roach, who was the man behind the Our Gang series of shorts. While it was perhaps a long shot, George’s Aunt clearly knew he has a certain look and charm that would be captivating on screen. And she was right. When Hal Roach saw the photos, he brought George in to do a screen test to potentially join Our Gang. Test audiences loved the footage so much that he was cast into the next film they were shooting. And the rest is history.

His time with the rascals

Because he was the new kid on the series, and didn’t have any acting experience, Spanky was held to a fairly limited capacity in the beginning. Hal Roach wanted to test the waters a bit, providing Spanky with ample screen time, yet very few lines. But Spanky managed to steal scenes nonetheless, and quickly became a fan favorite. His cherubic face and crooked Tam-o-shanter hat were utterly adorable and memorable, and Spanky soon began to outshine his older and more seasoned costars.

Roach decided to use Spanky’s actual screen test and release it as a short itself, called “Spanky” in 1932. He was actually the first and only of the gang to get onscreen billing, and this happened again in two more films in 1932: The Pooch and Choo-Choo. Over the next few years he and the gang, which includes memorable characters like Porky, Buckwheat, Stymie, Scotty, Tommy, Dickie, and Alfalfa, starred in many short films, and were a hit with audiences who were looking for wholesome entertainment to offset the misery of the Great Depression. And Roach tried to keep the child actors protected by making sure they had their required three hours of schooling each day, and by withholding fan mail. He wanted the young actors to forget the fact that they were famous and that they were acting at all. That way they could just focus on being kids and playing their roles, unencumbered by ego and fame.

In addition to the Our Gang shorts, Spanky was featured in several full length features, including Miss Fane’s Baby is Stolen, Day of Reckoning, and General Spanky.

The origin of the nickname

While it was never quite clear where the nickname “Spanky” came from, it was originally assumed it had something to do with the action of spanking a child. This was obviously a more common thing in the early 20th century. It was said that George’s mother would keep him from grabbing things around the house by saying “Spankee, Spankee, mustn’t touch.” And then the nickname just stuck. But George later disputed that story. In interviews as an adult, he maintain that the nickname had nothing to do with physical spanking. According to George, the term “spanky child” was a common phrase used to describe children who were precocious. So the nickname was actually a complimentary one, and had nothing to do with his mother warning him not to grab things around the house.

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Spanky’s bout with whooping cough

Spanky was such a hit with audiences, he was sought out by other studios to work in their productions. One example was in 1933, when he worked for Paramount in Fane’s Baby is Stolen. But he had picked up a nasty case of whooping cough. He accidentally gave it to one of Paramount’s up and coming child stars, Baby LeRoy. Not only did both Baby LeRoy and Spanky have to miss some work because of the illness itself, but Spanky was given a punishment afterwards. The Board of Education decided that Spanky’s parents had acted irresponsibly and allowed him to go to set, despite knowing he was sick. As such, they suspended his work permit for 90 days. This meant that there were only six films in the Our Gang series during their 1933-1934 seasons, when they had originally intended to release eight.

Life right after The Little Rascals

Like many child stars over the years, George wasn’t able to find continued success after his time as a Little Rascal ended. His final filed with the gang was 1942’s “Unexpected Riches.” He was 14 at the time. And while he appeared in bit parts in a couple of feature length movies in the two years following that, his career essentially stalled out.

So he decided to return to Texas and finish up school. After graduating from high school, George enlisted in the Air Force. He served briefly, but was forced to leave on a hardship discharge. When he got back from his time in the military, he tried his hand at the entertainment biz once again. But this time it was as the host of a daily TV show aimed at kids. It was called “The Spanky Show” and it ran for five years on a CBS affiliate in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But following that, George worked a variety of jobs, including time as a wine vendor and a popsicle maker. He then had a long stint as a salesman for Ford-Philco Corporation. He worked his way up the ladder there, and later on, actually developed the “Nostalgia Channel” which showcased TV shows from earlier eras.

When he retired from Ford-Philco, he began to embrace his time as Spanky even more. He would regularly appear on the convention circuit, and promoted the rerelease of Our Gang shorts in various new formats. He even put up a one-man show, “An Evening with Spanky” that he toured with around the country. Rather than feel bitter about the fact he never found success beyond Spanky, he embraced this period in his life. The Little Rascals had had a resurgence in the 1950’s, thanks to a new generation of children seeing reruns on television and learning about the crew for the first time. He traveled around, often wearing his signature beanie and joining his former costars on talk shows to discuss the Our Gang shorts. He even was able to debunk the claims of a few Spanky imposters, who were out there claiming they were actually a grown up George.

George as an adult

As recognizable as Spanky had been as a child, the adult version was very rarely recognized outside of official events and reunions. George characterized himself as a loner, though he was often described by others as being personable and enjoyable to be around. And he certinaly had his share of fans who had grown up watching old episode of Our Gang and the Little Rascals. One notable example of this was when he presented a special Oscar to Hal Roach in 1984. At the gala following the ceremony, he was introduced to Michael Jackson, who admitted to being a huge fan of Spanky and of the series, having watched them as a child. And perhaps George’s most notable appearances as an adult was when he appears in an episode of the classic sitcom, Cheers, in 1993. He played himself, and was hilarious acting opposite John Ratzenberger. George called the cameo one of this favorite moments of this career.

Despite never having a continued showbiz career beyond the Little Rascals, George did manage to avoid the substance abuse curse that plagued many other child stars, including many of his Rascals costars. He died in 1993, shortly after his cameo on Cheers, after suffering a massive heart attack at his home in Texas.

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