Picks and Pans Review:
updated 07/19/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 07/19/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT
George Robert Phillips McFarland loved to recall his first major challenge as an actor. He was supposed to whack a caterpillar with a hammer as a prop man pulled the fake bug along on an invisible siring. As McFarland said years later, "The director kept saying, 'Hit it, Spanky. Hit it.' Finally I looked up and said, 'If he'll hold the damn thing still for a moment, I will!' I don't think they ever heard that kind of language from a 4-year-old before."
"Spanky" McFarland, the leader of an ever-changing ensemble of child actors who populated producer Hal Roach's slapstick) Our Gang two-reelers, was nothing if not spunky. He got his start as a child model in Dallas—and his nickname when he got too near some cameras and his mother scolded him, "Spanky, spanky, mustn't touch!" He joined the Gang in 1932 at age 3, and by 1944—when he retired at an uncherubic 16—he had starred in 95 adventures with Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, Darla Hood and Billy "Buckwheat" Thomas.
Baby boomers who discovered Spanky in the 1950s, when the comedies were repackaged on TV as The Little Rascals, mourned along with their parents the news that McFarland, 64, had died of a heart attack on June 30 in Fort Worth. There he and his second wife of 37 years, Doris, 63, had raised three children. "I started at the top and worked my way down," he often joked about his post-Gang career, which included jobs as a hamburger flipper, soda bottler and appliance sales manager.
Was he bitter about being cut out of all the residuals and much of the glory? At times, yes. But in recent years his fame resurged. The Cheers group gave him a guest cameo last season, his likeness appeared on a brand of children's boots, and he got a kick from the huge crowds that turned out for him on the lecture circuit. "There'd be this rousing applause when he was introduced," recalls his mother, now 88. "It moved him to tears. He was a very emotional man."
About the Gang, Spanky felt nothing but pride. In 1990 he indignantly blew the whistle on a Buckwheat impostor who had fooled 20/20. The real Buckwheat Thomas, who had died 10 years earlier, was among several alumni with whom McFarland had kept in touch. But Spanky's own gang—his family—came first. Three-year-old granddaughter Lanae's battle with leukemia moved him to participate in numerous fund-raisers to fight the disease. Her cancer in remission, Lanae is now 8. And spunky—just like her grandpa.