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Hal Roach


Character: Writer and Producer
Birthday: January 14, 1892
Place of Birth: Elmira, New York
Date of Death: November 2, 1992
Place of Death: Los Angeles, California
First Short: Our Gang
Last Short: Hide And Shriek
Number of Shorts: 95
History: Hal Roach came from beginnings that could have been written by Hollywood. In his youth, he had met Samuel E. Clemens, the writer better known as Mark Twain. His grandfather owned a Virginia plantation adjoining one that belonged to former Confederate General Robert E. Lee. He became a adventurous drifter who worked as an Alaskan prospector and later as a mule skinner before he found an ad asking for experienced cowboys to serve as technical advisors at Universal Studios in Hollywood. In 1912, he began work as a movie extra and worked his way up to producer. He turned a small inheritance into a small production unit called Hal Roach Studios in 1914, making short comedies that made a major comedy star out of Harold Lloyd and spun off Lloyd's co-stars, Snub Pollard and Sunshine Sammy into stars of their own shorts. Stan Laurel also started building a great film career at the studios before becoming one half of the hugely successful and popular Laurel & Hardy film series.
Many of the top comedy stars got their start at Hal Roach Studios turning out the majority of the most successful comedy shorts of the time. In addition to shorts, the studio was producing serials and feature films, but in 1921, Roach was looking for a new project that was fresh and wholesome, a departure from the scandals and sordid rumors of Hollywood's top adult stars. Partly inspired by Jackie Coogan in Charlie Chaplin's 1921 hit, "The Kid," but mostly inspired by a group of kids he watched in a lumberyard outside his window, Hal Roach developed what would become Our Gang, the one peice of work for which he has most been connected. In production, he turned down over-rehearsed and over-indulged kids and instead hired real kids with real talent. (Shirley Temple once auditioned, but never made it past the casting director.) He cast Sunshine Sammy, the daughter of a studio photographer, the younger brother of Harold Lloyd's leading lady and a host of minor child actors to start out. The comedy was simple, the concept straight-forward. The humor was never forced. Hal Roach and his staff picked kids that didn't necesaarily have talent but had a certain look, whether they were black, fat or freckled. The concept was an instant, resounding success crafted carefully by a staff of talented writers, directors and a rotating cast of kid actors, some of whom became major stars in their own right beyond the Our Gang series. Though it started during the advent of silent films, it made a successful segue to "talkies," movies with sound. During the Thirties, though, comedy shorts were being dropped for longer feature films. General Spanky, an Our Gang feature film, was not a major success, but the series continued to last cut down to a one-reel format. In 1938, Hal Roach sold the entire series with staff and talent included to M-G-M and went to work with United Artists and feature films. Without his touch, the series drifted onward for six years and fifty-two more shorts, gradually deterioating into morality plays with none of the spirit or life of the Hal Roach years. The shorts were so bad, that M-G-M was forcing them to exhibitors as a package deal with newly-released feature films.
Due to the deal he had made with M-G-M, Hal Roach was legally bound from producing another "kid comedy," but in 1946, well after M-G-M had completely wrapped Our Gang, he gave up the right to purchase back the franchise to produce two kiddie comedy features called "Curly" and "Who Killed Doc Robbin?" around a new gathering of child actors. Despite the obvious Rascal parallels, neither was a big success. In the Fifties, the series found renewed success as a TV series as "The Little Rascals" to a a whole new generation of fans. By now, Roach had served a tour of duty, seen action in the Normandy invasion and had lost interest in making movies, wanting to return to shorts. In 1948, he was producing TV series such as "Amos and Andy," "The Lone Ranger," "Blondie," "Abbott And Costello" and "Topper" among others. He sold the studio to his son, Hal Roach Jr., in 1955, but it was soon struggling financially, declaring bankruptcy in 1959. Had it still had the rights to the recent renewed Our Gang revival, it might have continued.
Hal Roach retired comfortably afterward, out-lived many of his Rascal stars. In 1984, he was presented with an honorary Academy Award by Jackie Cooper, a former Rascal. He appeared years later to return the honor at a roast for Jackie at the Friars Club in Beverly Hills.

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